76ers

The reason Tobias Harris didn't play for Team USA and his rise as a leader

The reason Tobias Harris didn't play for Team USA and his rise as a leader

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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The greatness and reclusiveness of Andrew Toney

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NBCSP

The greatness and reclusiveness of Andrew Toney

Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got all the headlines for the “Showtime” Lakers, but Michael Cooper was their defensive stalwart. An eight-time All-Defensive Team pick, he was to L.A. what Bobby Jones was to the Sixers.

Most opponents wanted no part of Cooper. Andrew Toney wasn’t most players.

On March 7, 1982, in a game that featured six Hall of Famers, Toney owned the Spectrum floor.

“I always remember them saying Michael Cooper was a defensive specialist,” former Sixer Earl Cureton told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff. “Andrew used to ask me, what was that. They say they got a guy that’s a stopper. And he went out on national TV and scored 46 on him one night. After the game he said, ‘Who’s the guy that’s supposed to be the defensive specialist? Who was he?’”

Toney was fearless. He didn’t sweat his opponents, even if they were All-Stars or Hall of Famers. He wasn’t afraid to give it to his teammates in practice or defy his head coach from time to time.

While we reflect back on the greatness of the last Sixers team to capture a championship, it’s impossible not to think about Toney and the complicated legacy and relationship he has with Philadelphia.

To hear those that saw Toney at the peak of his powers, he was almost a mythical figure — and was on a path to something special.

‘Andrew!’

The eighth overall pick in 1980 out of Louisiana-Lafayette, Toney joined a team that was loaded with talent and coming off a loss in the Finals to the Lakers.

He was about to share the practice floor with larger-than-life figures like Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins. That didn’t phase the rookie one bit.

“The initial day at practice over at Widener [University],” Erving said to Zumoff, “he literally came over half court — about four feet past the half court line — and he pulled up and shot a jump shot. Everybody in the gym was just like, ‘Woah.’ And [head coach] Billy [Cunningham] was saying, ‘Andrew!’ and we heard that all six years that we were together.”

That fearless approach may have caused his head coach to yell his name from time to time, but Cunningham gladly took the trade off because of how special Toney was on the court.

“I remember a game, we’re playing the Lakers during the season,” Cunningham said to Zumoff, “in the Spectrum, I think it’s overtime. I call a play to inbound the ball to Maurice Cheeks and then get the ball to Andrew. Andrew just kinda runs and grabs the ball. …

“I’m going, ‘Andrew!’ and he just kind of waves me off. He takes the ball, and two or three Lakers come at him and he shoots the ball over them, banks it in and there I am as the coach, saying, ‘What are you gonna do?’”

Unlike the understated Erving or Cheeks, Toney was brash. With the equal amounts of fear and respect he garnered, he seemed to have a right to be.

‘He definitely had a Hall of Fame career’

The 1982-83 Sixers were loaded. They featured four Hall of Famers — Erving, Moses Malone, Cheeks and Jones. They were led by a Hall of Fame player and coach in Cunningham.

But ask anyone around that time and they have to bring up the name Andrew Toney. “The Boston Strangler” was a two-time All-Star in his own right. 

“Hall of Fame. There’s no question about it,” Cunningham said.

“He definitely had a Hall of Fame career,” Erving said.

“He’d have been a Hall of Famer. Hands down,” Cureton said.

Charles Barkley on more than one occasion has said Toney is the best player he ever played with. Larry Bird said Toney “was one of the best guys I ever played against.

Unfortunately, during the 1984-85 season, Toney began experiencing pain in his feet. This led to conflict with then-Sixers owner Harold Katz, who questioned whether Toney was actually hurt. The team had just awarded Toney with a lucrative contract after his second straight All-Star season in 1983-84.

After an ugly public dispute, it was found that Toney had stress fractures in the navicular bones in both his feet. He played just 87 games his last three seasons.

And just like that, a career that seemed destined to end with Hall of Fame enshrinement ended not long after his 30th birthday.

“I remember Andrew telling me after he [retired],” Cunningham said, “and he’s down in Atlanta and he went to a YMCA or some place to play a little pick-up basketball, and he couldn’t walk after trying to play. He was in such pain with his feet.”

If not for the injuries, there seems to be a consensus from those that watched Toney closely that he’d be right there with his enshrined teammates from 1982-83.

“Andrew dominated,” Cureton said. “If no injuries or nothing happened to him, he was going to be a Hall of Famer. Look where everybody [from that team] is at. Bobby’s in the Hall of Fame, Moses in the Hall of Fame, Doc in the Hall of Fame, Maurice just went into the Hall of Fame. Andrew Toney, rightfully, should be right there with them.”

Giving Toney his due

These days, Toney lives down in Atlanta. Erving also lives in the area and the two play golf from time to time. Erving said Toney takes his golf game just as seriously as he once did his game on the court.

During the 1982-83 season, Erving was 32 years old and still looking for his first NBA championship after capturing two titles in the ABA. He wasn’t in his prime but was still a star. As the playoffs came around, Erving took on a lesser offensive role.

While Malone, who was the league’s MVP for a second straight season, was the focal point, Toney was just as important to the team’s offense.

“[In the Finals against L.A.], it was Moses inside, Andrew outside,” Erving said. “You look at the footage of those plays, we were probably calling as many plays for him as we did for Moses. ... You could never tell how many plays were called for him based on his statistics because he just created his own statistics. Coming down and trying to set something up you’re always looking for some type of advantage, and Andrew was the main guy in that regard.”

Though Toney had bravado — and the scoring ability to back it up — he was by no means a selfish player. He wanted to win.

And he proved that, often taking a backseat to other stars on the team and backing up Cheeks as the team’s point guard throughout their time together.

“He just had unlimited abilities,” Cunningham said. “Of all the players on that team, Andrew Toney sacrificed more than anyone. Winning was the most important thing to him so therefore he would do whatever was necessary.”

But what about his relationship with the organization?

Toney and Katz have made up after all these years. Toney was even at a game a few years ago when the Sixers were celebrating the anniversary of the 1982-83 team — though he didn’t speak to reporters or take part in a pregame ceremony.

“Andrew was a tremendous player,” former Sixer Clint Richardson told Zumoff, “and I’m just praying that at some point Andrew will get his recognition in the organization that he deserves. I’m not sure how it’s going to happen. 

“I’m trying to facilitate some things with him, but he definitely needs to be recognized as one of the top players in the Sixers organization. I think it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of the right time and the right connection with Andrew and him feeling comfortable. I think it’s gonna happen.”

Should No. 22 hang in the rafters at the Wells Fargo Center next to Nos. 2, 6, 10 and 24? Maybe then we’d get to see “The Boston Strangler” ring the bell before a key matchup against the Celtics.

If you ask those that watched him play, the answer would seem to be yes.

For those of us that didn’t, he still feels like a mythical character.

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2020 NBA draft profile: Cassius Winston might not be a special athlete, but he’s a tremendous playmaker

2020 NBA draft profile: Cassius Winston might not be a special athlete, but he’s a tremendous playmaker

Cassius Winston 

Position: PG 
Height: 6-1
Weight: 185 
School: Michigan State 

Cassius Winston can’t dunk and is unassuming physically, but he put together a tremendous college career. The 22-year-old has the most assists and highest assist percentage in Big Ten history. He shined in a ton of important games over the past four years, being named Big Ten Player of the Year as a junior and leading Michigan State to a Final Four appearance. 

Strengths 

If you give Winston the ball at the top of the key and a screen, odds are he’ll make something positive happen, either as a passer or a scorer. Go under the screen? Despite elevating into his jumper with a pigeon-toed stance, Winston shot 43 percent from three-point range in college. Hedge the screen? Winston is great at shifting pace, staying patient and manipulating the defense. He’ll draw the defender out, wait until he’s in a bad position and capitalize on it. Blitz him? He enjoys setting up his teammates and is a skilled passer who can quickly hit the roller, fire the ball cross court if the defense overcommits or simply give it up to the open man on the perimeter.

Though he’s undersized, Winston still finds plenty of ways to score around the rim. By playing off the defense’s rhythm and expectations, he’s effective in the paint with layups and floaters that use unconventional timing and angles. He also shot 84.5 percent from the foul line at Michigan State and averaged 18.7 points per game over the last two years. 

Weaknesses

Winston is definitely not Allen Iverson, a 6-foot guard who was a blur in the open floor and could sky above players he was shorter than. He’s much more of a special basketball player than a special athlete. That means the large majority of his basketball skills still must work in the NBA. He likely needs to remain an above-average outside shooter, a highly efficient pick-and-roll player and a confident playmaker when defended by bigger, quicker players.

Another reason it's so important for his offensive traits to translate is that he’ll probably be vulnerable on defense. Though Winston did finish with 1.2 steals per game this season and rates above many of his peers in defensive effort and intelligence, he doesn’t have the agility or size to bother most point guards. 

Fit 

The Sixers haven’t had a stable backup point guard situation this year. Drafting Winston might be one way to rectify that, or at least to add another name into the mix. 

If he’s available at pick No. 34 or No. 36, Winston is worth serious consideration. His game lines up well with what the Sixers need — sharp, intuitive playmaking along with an impressive track record as a three-point shooter. Winston’s defensive deficiencies would also be less problematic here than in most other possible destinations, since the Sixers are sixth in defensive rating and obviously a very large team. 

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