The Clippers standout scorer talks about how his game has evolved and the team’s early season success.
After Tobias Harris arrived in Los Angeles as part of the Blake Griffin trade, the Clippers asked him over the summer to work on a couple of things: Creating fouls and creating for others.
Harris was the centerpiece in a deal that also included contributors Avery Bradley and Boban Marjanovic and a first-round pick that became promising rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. After playing his final 32 games in LA last season, Harris got to work. There was an extensive film study of his new teammates and opposing defenses, revamped drills and an ever-evolving mindset.
Despite being in the league for eight years and playing for four different teams, Harris is still only 26 years old. He’s entering his prime and enjoying the best season of his career as the Clippers are perhaps the surprise team of the NBA.
For the first time, Harris is averaging more than 20 points per game (21.7 in 21 games) and is posting career highs in minutes, field goals made and attempted and rebounds. His usage rate is right where it’s been over the last several seasons, but his true shooting percentage has never been better. Harris has ramped up his efficiency and is becoming a go-to scorer for Doc Rivers’ team.
This was evident during a late November game in Sacramento. The Clippers were on the second night of a back to back, sandwiched between a home game against Phoenix and an early-morning flight to Dallas. Harris opened the game with a quick seven points: A deep 3-pointer, a nifty turnaround jumper from 13-feet out and a driving layup in the first five minutes. He finished the game with 28 points on 17 shots, six rebounds and four assists. On this egalitarian team, Harris was the one who stepped up this particular night.
“Before the game, we don’t know who it’s going to be,” Rivers said. “We have candidates and the audition is during the game, and then we go to that guy.”
Harris has been one of those guys more often than not this season. In a contract year, he’s playing the best basketball of his career and will have a big decision to make this upcoming summer, just as the Clippers have big dreams of landing a star free agent.
Harris told The Step Back before his 28-point game in Sacramento that he’s aware of all of this, but he’s focused on finishing the season as strong as he’s started it. He also talked about the process of being traded, how his game has grown as the NBA evolves, and his mindset to get his teammates involved.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Step Back: Coach [Rivers] mentioned that you and the team decided to work on drawing fouls and passing over the summer. How specifically do you work on those things?
Tobias Harris: First just watching film. Then, the passing part, more just creating plays through different situations. Pick-and-rolls and evaluating the way defenses are playing and being able to create more attention in different areas. So we run a lot of drags and pick-and-rolls. But you got to be good at being a pick-and-roll player first to affect the defense and then you can make those passes. So just a lot on that. Ball handling was key. Making sure the mid-range shot is locked down, and then just finishing better at the basket. So those are like the three things that go into making those things happen.
I saw on the floor you were working on coming off screens, taking one or two dribbles and shooting from the mid-range area. Is that an extension of the work you did over the summer?
Yeah. You know around the league, they say, it’s not one of the friendly shots now. Guys say mid-range jumpers aren’t that good, but those are guys that are shooting 35-40 percent from midrange. But if you’re making it at a clip of 50-55 percent then that’s a dang good shot.
(Harris is shooting slightly better than 48 percent on mid-range shots this season.)
Especially if they’re kind of giving it to you.
Yeah. And then the defense opens up a couple of times after that to get to the rim, and it opens it up for the big, too.
Then you’re able to make passes out of those situations, too, because if defenses are dropping their bigs back you can see the floor better, right?
Yeah, it gives you more court vision for sure. And then it helps when you come off and you see the action and you kick it out and guys can make shots. We have good shooters on this team and that opens it up even more.
Where do you think you are now as a pick-and-roll player compared to when you first came into the league [in 2011]?
I really wasn’t a pick-and-roll player when I came in and that was part of the game where—the game is different from when I first came in. The guards did the pick-and-roll. You didn’t see a lot of 3s and 4s running the pick-and-roll back then. Back then, and we were just talking about this the other day, you seemed kind of weird if you moved 3s to the 4 position, you know what I mean? Where now it’s every team. But, yeah, I had to develop that kind of game because that’s how the ball gets in your hands more.
Do you call yourself more of a 4 now? Because you were a 3 coming out.
No, well I was always a 3. I mean last year I played pretty much all 4. This year I’m playing all 3. Some people think I’m playing 4, but really I’m playing all 3 this year. With Gallo out there, Gallo plays 4, and then I play 3.
To go back to the pick and roll and creating, there’s a lot of guys on this team who can do that. Is that a reason for your early-season success? That you have so many guys who can get other guys involved and not just get their own shots?
Yeah, and then there’s guys who fit the role of creating and creating space and creating plays. You have Trez (Montrezl Harrell) that’s rolling, and we have different kinds of bigs, where Trez is the kind who rolls fast to the basket and can score. Marc (Marcin Gortat) is the guy who sets really good screens and gets guys open, and Boban’s another one who screens and he can score it down there, too. So we have a different set of bigs. Also different guards who can defend, Avery, Pat (Patrick Beverley), shooters, Mike [Scott], Lue [Williams], I mean you can just go around the room.
There’s a lot of guys in this room right now who have been on a lot of different teams. Does that give the team an edge?
That’s just a narrative that’s created. My edge comes from myself. I love the game of basketball and I embrace it every time I’m on the floor to try to get myself better. Being traded is part of the game, it happens. I’m just loving the situation that I’m in and I’m blessed to play this game and fortunate enough to play it at a high level.
You and Boban are doing those videos together. I heard that Boban had to convince you to do them.
(Laughing) Yeah a little bit, yeah, yeah.
You guys came over together. What was that conversation like when you first realized you were going to LA?
It was an exciting conversation. The trade had already happened. I’ve been traded before but he hadn’t been traded so when we were talking I was letting him know everything that was happening. Like, ‘We’ve been traded, we’re not going to play tomorrow.’ (Laughing) I remember because we were playing the Cavs the next day, and I was like ‘We’re going to LA, we’re leaving tomorrow morning.’ Like little things like that. Conversations like ‘Look, this is a new situation, and we got to come into this situation and show up to that first practice and show everybody what you can do.’
You’ve been traded a lot but this summer you’ll have your own decision to make. I won’t ask you about your plans for the summer, but it must be nice to know the decision this time is in your hands.
Yeah, that’s obviously a good feeling, but all of those things will work itself out. What’s meant to happen will happen, but at the end of the day, I’m present in the moment I’m in and excited to help us win. We’ve gotten off to a good start and we got to keep that flowing.