It was a subtle smile. A flicker, really. Like one of those subliminal messages that bored projectionists used to splice into film reels back in the day. It was there for a second, and then it was gone, and Tobias Harris was back to being the measured, monotone pro.
This was a few days ago, in the wake of a 110-104 victory over the Raptors that both avenged the Sixers’ defeat in Toronto a couple of weeks earlier and served as the surest sign yet that they might yet become the team they’d been alleged to be. Somebody mentioned to Harris that a significant chunk of the 26 points that he’d poured in that night came on buckets that he created for himself off the dribble. It was an innocent observation, and an accurate one, but with a hint of incredulity that Harris felt compelled to address.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s pretty much been my whole career,” Harris said.
His tone did not rise to the level of defensiveness. In fact, as he continued his answer, there was a sense of commiseration in his voice. He talked about finding balance in his game, about figuring out his teammates, about assimilating himself with the other four guys on the floor. Truth be told, he seemed to be saying, I haven’t been the player who I think I am, and whatever you think you’ve seen in my first 63 games as a member of the Sixers, just wait. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Over the last month or so, we’ve seen plenty of signs that suggest time will prove him correct. In his last 14 games, Harris is averaging 21.4 points on 16.7 shots with an effective field goal percentage of .556. During that stretch, he leads the Sixers in points, field goal attempts, and plus-minus per game while ranking among the NBA’s top 26 in all three categories.
More important than the numbers are the situations in which Harris has begun to assert himself. Take the win over the Raptors on Sunday. With Joel Embiid still struggling to solve his Marc Gasol problem, the Sixers needed somebody on the perimeter to pick up some of the scoring slack. It was the exact sort of situation for which plenty of people predicted doom when Elton Brand sent Jimmy Butler’s talents to South Beach this summer. After all, it was Butler who shouldered the crunch-time scoring load throughout the Sixers’ seven-game loss to Toronto in the Eastern Conference semifinals and, barring the addition of a jump shot to Ben Simmons’ game, it was difficult to envision who in the Sixers’ offense would fill the void.
This time around, it was Harris who filled it. With Embiid blanketed by Gasol, Harris turned in one of his best performances of the season, scoring 26 points on 10-of-22 shooting, balancing a 4-for-8 performance from three-point range with a variety of midrange pull-ups and drives to the rim.
“I definitely knew they were going to come at Jo and come at Ben, so I knew there were going to be opportunities there for me,” Harris said. “You just have to take advantage of it.”
Those words serve as an instructive window into Harris’ psyche. And if all goes according to plan, and the Sixers’ current collection of immensely talented but maddeningly ill-fitting parts coalesces into a championship-caliber team, there’s a chance we look back and see that Harris was the guy who made it all work. Last year, the presence of Butler required him to take a more off-the-ball role, which he did without complaint. While his numbers suffered, he adapted his game to what was best for the team, rather than forcing the team to adapt to him.
This year, Harris is no longer a fish swimming against the flow. With each game, he looks increasingly comfortable in his role. In a 97-92 win over the Nuggets on Tuesday, he scored 20 points on 7-of-17 shooting and finished as the only Sixers starter with a positive plus-minus. There is a unique rhythm to his individual game. The more this starting five plays together, the more in sync he seems.
“I pride myself on playing in the flow of the game, and I’ve done a really good job of being able to do that and being able to really have guys on the team look for me in different spots and get me going,” Harris said. "Coach has done a really good job of having that rhythm come my way a little bit faster.”
It remains to be seen how that rhythm will play once the playoffs begin and the court starts to shrink. The Sixers’ best chance at a title still involves Embiid or Simmons taking another step forward in their offensive game. That being said, Harris’ recent performance is one of the more encouraging developments of this first quarter of a season. Perhaps we haven’t yet seen his fully actualized self. Harris clearly believes that we will.