The year was 2017. THEY were once again sleeping on the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Blazers ended up with 48 wins and the third seed in the brutal Western Conference, shutting down critics and keyboard warriors alike. Until…
Jrue Holiday happened.
The Blazers went on to drop the series in 0-4 fashion, but the bad news was just beginning. The offseason was just as bleh as the first round of the playoffs.
Now we’re just weeks away with more questions than answers as it pertains to the 2018-19 edition of Rip City Season. Jared Wright and Bryant Knox of Oregon Sports News are back with their in-depth Portland Trail Blazers 2018-19 Season Previews for each player.
Today, we take a look at Maurice Harkless, one of the Blazers’ most inconsistent players…but also one of the few guys left on the roster with the tools, skills and ceiling to make a legitimate jump by the end of the new campaign.
The 2017-18 season was emblematic of the player Harkless has become. There were highs, there were lows, there were very-lows.
For starters, health was an issue. Harkless missed nearly a third of the season over four different stretches, including the final run ahead of the playoffs. But the bigger problem was that even when he was available, you never knew which version was going to show up.
Were you going to get the three-and-D specialist literally every team across the league needs? Or would you get the disengaged wing who would take possessions off on defense?
To Harkless’ credit, the latter had a lot to do with his being relegated to a “stand in the corner and wait for Dame or CJ to kick it to you—if they kick it to you” role. But you don’t earn looks by taking off possessions.
Take Mo’s two postseason showings as a small sample pointing to a larger issue. Game 2: 27 minutes, 5-of-5 from the field (1 three-pointer), 11 points, Plus/Minus +10. Game 3: 26 minutes, 2-of-8 FG, 1-of-5 3PT, Plus/Minus -16.
The season also came with self-realization, which can’t ever hurt. At one point in the year, Harkless saw himself moping on the sidelines in film review and made a concerted effort to improve his attitude both when on and off the court.
That has to be the first step toward improvement when you spent an entire season representing both Jekyll and Hyde. Skills can be refined, but the ever-underrated mental aspect of the game can’t be ignored.
What He Brings To The Table
Harkless, at a very long 6’9”, 220 pounds, brings some serious versatility to the hardwood. No, he’s not going to stuff a stat sheet like LeBron James or become an all-world scorer who can impact a game on defense like Kevin Durant. But he can attack the rim, shoot from deep, defend both guards and forwards and become a huge slashing threat against sleepy defenders.
But Harkless offers something else that very few Blazers have: a high, reachable ceiling.
Harkless isn’t going to become an All-Star this season (or likely at any point in his career), but we also forget that this kid ended the 2017-18 season at 24 years old. Despite entering his seventh campaign, Harkless is just 25. The fact that he’s inconsistent isn’t a good thing—but it also offers promise, opposed to certain other players on the roster who are downright bad just about every time they see the court.
How can Harkless tap into this? For starters, Terry Stotts needs to do what all great coaches do: Get him enough touches to make him happy without taking away from the overall offensive game plan.
If Stotts can do that—get Harkless involved in the occasional isolation or pick-and-roll set, get him open looks off curls, allow him to post up smaller bodies—you’ll see a confidence in Harkless that we’ve yet to see up to this point.
The St. John’s product needs to earn his looks, and that starts with the mental refresher he’s seemingly focused on since watching himself on film. Then it’s about not getting your head down, staying healthy and continuing to earn more and more looks from your coach, stars and yes, your fan base as well.
NBA players have egos. Some of them larger than other. And while we’re not saying Harkless is in need of a bigger hat, letting some success go to his head would be hugely beneficial to a team in need of a third scoring option and a wing presence—both of which Harkless has the ability to become.
What To Expect In 2018-19
On the court, expect Harkless to continue becoming the two-way wing player the Blazers need. Whether or not he reaches another level is obviously to be determined, but the three-and-D parts of his game are where he can continue to excel and make a name for himself.
If those things happen, there’s no reason to think Harkless will lose his starting spot at the 3. The only thing that should change that is another injury-plagued year, a surprise decision from Stotts to go big (in which Aminu would likely play small forward and Zach Collins stars at power forward or a non-incumbent 4 is brought in) or a mid-season trade.
Speaking of a mid-season trade…off the court, expect to hear Harkless’ name in trade rumors. He may not have an expiring deal, but he’s a year away from falling into that category, and quite frankly, he’s on a team-friendly deal despite his inconsistent production.
At $10.3 million this upcoming season and just over $11 million in 2019-20, there are plenty of teams that would be willing to take a flyer on someone who may just need a fresh start. After all, that’s what Portland took a chance on when it traded for him back in 2015. You’d just better believe it’ll cost any interested teams more than a future second-round pick (what Portland gave up) to snag him this time around if he does in fact hit the market.
Check out the other players in our Portland Trail Blazers Player Preview Series: