Is Tobias Harris taking a leap?
In the opening minutes of the Pistons’ first game, I joked that maybe I’d overlooked Tobias Harris as a Most Improved Player candidate. The kinda perpetually-underwhelming forward hit six of seven shots in the first nine minutes of the game, scoring 17 of Detroit’s 25 points.
It was a fire start, but also not something totally out of character for Harris, who’s been a streaky scorer for a long time in the NBA. He usually comes back to earth.
Now we’re five games into the season, and… he’s still burning up there. The most improved thing might not be a joke after all.
Harris had his second 30-point game in three outings last night, a 122–101 win for Detroit over Minnesota. Small sample cautions always apply at this point in the season, but so far he’s scoring over 23 and a half points a game, making an absurd 46.9 percent of his nearly six and a half three-point attempts per contest and even sporting a career-high 55.0 two-point percentage.
He’s actually sixth overall in three-pointers made so far.
His advanced numbers, among them a 22.3 PER and a .213 win shares/48 mark, suggest he’s on course at 25 years old for something of a leap season.
Is Harris, long an interesting talent, finally becoming an impact player?
Four or five years ago in Orlando Harris was a little flashier, more of a slasher/dunker who wanted to put the ball on the floor and get his shot near the rim. To wit: through 2016 he had taken 32.6 percent of his shots from inside three feet. That’s comparable to LeBron for most of his career (he started playing more heavily inside a couple seasons back), who through 2015 took 33.9 percent of his shots inside three feet. The difference? LeBron made his at a rate of 72.6 percent, Harris just 65.8. That’s massive.
The issue is he doesn’t really have the size or strength to be elite down low. He came into the league a little undersized for a traditional power forward (6–8), and though he’s explosive he wasn’t the kind of natural bully scorer people once expected a four to be, nor could be handle the ball well enough to fit into the create-your-own-shot small forward mold.
He was a bit of a tweener, which used to be the worst kind of NBA purgatory.
But the league has quickly shifted in the past few seasons, in a way that suits Harris. Now he looks like he can be the kind of stretch hybrid 3–5 that the league’s best teams are employing. A (far) less defensively dominant, better shooting Draymond Green.
Check out his shot charts the past three seasons, as he’s moved farther from the rim he’s managed to become a more efficient scorer. It’s counterintuitive, but as he’s growing into his shot he’s forcing fewer drives, runners and inside looks generally (though he will still do that).
In 2015–16, he took 55.5 percent of his shots inside the key. That fell to 44.9 last season and is at 44.5 so far this year. You can also see how he’s turned more of the court red — I suspect he’ll warm up that broader section of the key as this season progresses, one of the happy side effects of his improving shot is defenders have to be more aggressive closing out, which makes it easier to beat them off the dribble and leads to easier attempts in the lane.
The key though will be the three-point shot. It’s quick, compact, and repeatable enough that the improvement might be real. He won’t shoot 47 percent all season of course, but if he can consolidate his gains in the high 30s or even push 40, it adds a whole lot of value.
But it’s too soon to completely say it’s not more than just a hot streak. He used to be a little bit slower to start in his shot, slower winding up and releasing, which gave it a little more of an elongated arc. He can be smoother now, quicker to cock the ball and sharper on release, kind of evocative of Melo. But his shooting arm is too many times a bit rigid following through and he still pretty frequently shoots it with that high arc.
Truthfully there’s not a ton of difference to spot between now and, say, his form back in 2012, and it might be as simple as him having a better feel nowadays. Or it in fact might just be a blip entirely. He shot 34.7 percent from three last season, which was an improvement on 33.5 in 2016, but his career best was the season before in Orlando, when he shot 36.4 percent.
Based solely on the eye test, I’m more inclined to think there indeed are real and significant gains here.
His defense is another interesting point. He’s never really been much to take note of on that end of the floor, and he’s still not going to wow anyone, but he’s made subtle improvements. He switches well between 3 and 4, hedging into the middle to help clog the lane but agile enough not to totally blow his perimeter assignments. He bodies well inside, and can pass for a small-ball 5 if he has someone to cover for the fact he just doesn’t have the length to alter shots. (In limited action the Pistons have been great defensively on the floor when he pairs with Jon Leuer or Henry Ellenson.)
His positioning and instincts aren’t great but he covers ground well. Against Minnesota he took assignments on Taj Gibson and Andrew Wiggins, giving you a sense of his versatility.
Last year he was rated just a slight negative by ESPN’s defensive plus-minus and a slight positive by BasketballReference’s defensive box plus-minus. It would seem he can manage neutral here.
Harris has been in the league nearly the length of this entire decade, long enough to seemingly stall out in Orlando, arrive in Detroit with some hope of still taking a leap and become just about forgotten by the time this summer rolled around.
But he’s only 25. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves in basketball, especially with players who step into the league and make an impact at 19, 20, 21, as Harris did.
But many, many players don’t realize their full potential until about 25 or 26. Heck, Steph Curry is one.
Five games simply isn’t enough to say if anything we’ve seen yet is concrete or not, but there are some early signs that there really is a most-improved foundation there with Tobias Harris.