Is Tobias Harris the Most Improved Player in the NBA?


The Detroit Pistons aren't a laughingstock anymore. For the first time since Chauncey Billups was cashing game-winners more than a decade ago, the Pistons have real playoff expectations. But whenever they're brought up by talking heads and podcasters, it's Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond, and Stan Van Gundy that take up all the spotlight. Detroit's best kept secret? Tobias Harris. With Jackson out with chronic knee issues, and Drummond sitting on Monday against OKC with an ankle sprain, Harris continued his scalding hot start to the season. With the stage focused solely on him (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris have made some memorable cameos), Harris has flourished. If he continues to progress at this rate, he should be a serious contender to win Most Improved Player, and maybe earn a spot on the Eastern All-Star squad. Let's break down what improvements he's made since being traded from Orlando.

 

1. Better shooter

When Harris played for the Magic, the knock on him was simple; "he's a one-dimensional scorer that doesn't get to the line, and can only shoot from the corners." He still doesn't get to the line, averaging only 3.1 attempts per game from the stripe, pretty low considering his love for straight-line drives, but he's become a much better outside shooter (36.1% from distance on 3.3 attempts per game).

Look closely at both clips, and you'll notice a mechanical correction. Notice how in the Orlando clip, at the peak of his shot, his right shoulder tilts skyward as he releases and his lower shoulder reverses, sagging towards the ground. Harris' left foot lands slightly before his right as he falls toward the ground off-balance. I'm not a shot doctor, but every great shooter has level shoulders and a balanced landing. With the right shoulder pushing over the left, the ball aims to the left of the target and the shooter must readjust by overcorrection with their wrist and fingers. Now watch the second Harris clip, from Detroit's game against OKC. He catches it with loaded knees, ready to shoot, and his shoulders are level all the way up and all the way down. Both feet hit the ground at the same time. He also doesn't lift as high off the ground, which many shooters believe allows for a more consistent release regardless of fatigue levels. Harris claimed to have worked on catching and shooting all summer, but tons of wings say that every year, and come back with the same broken jumper (*I'm so, so sorry MKG fans*). Harris is making improvements, and it has completely opened up his game.

2. Better vision

We don't need to dwell on this. Harris was a race-horse with blinders on in Orlando (and Milwaukee before that). He would catch and drive until his coach called his number. And he knew it.

From Zach Lowe's Grantland (R.I.P.) piece "The Good, the Bad, and the Tobias" a year ago:

Tobias Harris knows the bad things people say about him, and he knows why some teams that considered chasing him in free agency backed off.

"It's always, 'Oh, why doesn't he pass more?'" Harris says, acknowledging he assisted on fewer than 10 percent of Orlando's buckets while on the floor -- one of the lowest assist rates in the league for a high-usage player.

He's a career 1.5 assist per game player, and although he's still averaging only 1.7 APG this year, Harris is finally proving that he's capable of making basic reads.

I know, that's a 5-on-4 after Jerami Grant inexplicably gets a headstart for a cherry-pick even though it's a 50-50 loose ball at best, and Harris simply finds the open man off of a broken play, but holy crap, Harris found the open man (!). It's an easy dime, for sure, but he would not even have looked for it in Orlando.

HarrisOrl

There's Harris, making the opposite decision in a pretty similar scenario (he catches on the right wing, and his big moves toward the rim while his defender is lost at the top of the key). Even with Harris' improved jumpshot, I doubt he takes this shot nowadays. Van Gundy would chew him out if he ignored a Drummond rim-roll in favor of a 36% chance at three points.

3. Better interior defender

This is probably the most shocking development of Harris' career. Props to him and SVG for figuring out a role he can contribute in on defense.

He's averaging .8 blocks per game, a career high, and .9 steals per game, a tick under his career high. While those stats aren't impressive, Harris is shockingly in the right place at the right time more often than not in Detroit. Early in the second quarter against OKC on Monday, the ball swung down to OKC's Steven Adams on the left block, and Harris immediately made the right rotation, put his body right in between Adams and the rim, stuck his hands straight up in the air, and altered the shot (sorry, I couldn't find the gif). If Harris made that play in Orlando, team doctors might have tested him for some super-nootropic like the drug Bradley Cooper takes in Limitless.

Will Harris' numbers fall back down to Earth when Reggie Jackson returns? Of course. But he's making significant jumps in his play, and his game is rounding itself out in ways that most GMs were betting against when he was in a contract year on the Magic. Keep an eye out for Harris, as SVG is beginning to rely on him heavily on offense, and trust him on defense.

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