CAMDEN, N.J. — Tobias Harris has always been known as a scorer. Whether it was during his lone season at Tennessee or when he first started to see the floor in the NBA with the Magic, Harris could always go get a bucket.
As his career has gone on, he’s continued to ascend. He was a borderline All-Star last season with the Clippers before being traded to the Sixers. Part of that ascension has been a precipitous jump in three-point shooting (40.5 percent over the last two seasons).
What hasn’t necessarily been his calling card is defense. Meanwhile, the Sixers’ starting five features two legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, one of the best post defenders in the league in Al Horford, and Josh Richardson, who’s regularly recognized for his two-way play.
The idea that he could be the “weak link” defensively doesn’t sit well with Harris. That’s why he spent his offseason improving a perceived weakness.
As a player, I want to be a better two-way player — for myself, for the team and for us as a group,” Harris said at media day Monday. “So that's something I definitely took a lot of time in the summer to enhance my game on and it's something that's going to open up a lot of doors for our group as a collective unit and for myself also — just take that added level being able to be considered a two-way guy.
Focusing on his defense wasn’t the reason Harris had to decline an opportunity to play for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup this summer. Harris mentioned that he’d been dealing with a foot injury that needed more time to heal after the playoffs ended. He also wasn’t used to the rigors of an NBA playoff run.
But at 27 and entering his ninth NBA season — only Horford has played more on the Sixers — Harris is somewhat of an elder statesman on the team. That’s part of the reason he’s stepped into a leadership role. The other part of it is that it’s just his way. He has an unquestioned work ethic, which has allowed his NBA rise to continue.
He’s aided the career of Richardson. When Richardson was starting his college career as an unheralded recruit, Harris was prepping for the NBA draft after his one-and-done season with the Vols. Harris took Richardson out to dinner and the two formed a bond that’s lasted since.
Richardson referenced this encounter during his introductory press conference back in July. Years later, the two are together again with the Sixers.
“He was the first person to call me actually when I got traded,” Richardson said “Just being able to come collaborate with him here is very exciting to me. He’s grown into one of the better wings in the league and I think we could do a lot of damage going forward.”
Another young player was happy to see Harris return to the Sixers. Ben Simmons, whose improvement is paramount to everything the Sixers hope to accomplish, lauded Harris for impacting him in the short time they’ve been together.
"It's great. I love Tobias,” Simmons said. “He's been a positive influence on me. And he's hungry. He's hungry to win and I think we're all at a certain stage where we know we can do something here that will live on forever."
It won’t be easy for Harris to make a leap defensively. His primary position will likely be the three after playing the four for the Sixers last season. It’s not that foreign to Harris, who played on the wing with the Clippers and has spent time on the perimeter throughout his career. But it will still be a transition.
During his annual luncheon last week, Brett Brown referenced a conversation he had with Harris. Unprompted, Harris told his head coach that he was going to be better defensively. It was another reflection of Harris’ natural leadership qualities. He holds himself accountable.
While he admitted that he has a 50-40-90 season on his list of goals, his ultimate individual goal isn’t an individual one at all.
Individual goal for me this season is be the best player that I could be for this team and help win us a championship,” Harris said. “You know, I think every season I go into, obviously there's things that I in the summer work on my game, but for this group and this team that we have is to help us be the best team, to help us be able to grow into a team that can win a championship. For me, that's my biggest individual goal. That's going to take a whole bunch of hard work to do but that's where my mindset is. That's why I'm just so excited for this upcoming season.
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