Tobias Harris and the battle for minutes

Harris attacks the Timberwolves in what had been his last double digit game before Wednesday night. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Milwaukee Bucks were riddled with injuries as they stepped on the court to face the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday. Larry Sanders had caught some sort of illness. Ekpe Udoh was nursing a sore wrist he’d fallen onto Sunday. Mike Dunleavy’s leg couldn’t make a few crucial movements without too much soreness and Beno Udrih’s ankle was still too swollen for him to go. Adjustments had to be made.

Samuel Dalembert rejoined the starting lineup and Luc Mbah a Moute shifted down from his typical role at the three into the starting power forward slot. Where there are injuries and shifts though, there are opportunities.

One opportunity awaited Tobias Harris.

Having only played seconds under 10 minutes in the month of December, the Bucks sophomore forward found himself back in the rotation, if only for a night. And some of the same problems that have plagued Harris were on display again. 17 minutes, seven points, two rebounds, none on the defensive side, both on the same play.

“Tobias can score the ball,” Coach Scott Skiles said before Wednesday’s game. “It can’t be as simple as that. If you took each guy on what he could do, every team would look like a championship team. Each guy in the league is very very good. It’s a matter of being out there on the floor and playing within the team and being where you’re supposed to be. He’s a young player still. He’s learning.”

What Skiles seems to be looking for, is an ability to make plays off the ball. He seems to want Harris to start finding himself in the right place at the right time a little more often. Last night we saw Mbah a Moute repeatedly running the floor or cutting into open space. He was finding opportunities for himself within what Milwaukee was doing offensively. Even when Mbah a Moute has been at the three this year he’s very aggressively attacked the offensive glass or posted up smaller players. Mbah a Moute has grabbed 11.1 percent of available offensive rebounds when he’s played. Harris? 4.6%. And Harris doesn’t really make up for it on the other side either. He’s grabbed a decidedly average 14.7 percent of defensive rebounds.

Skiles noted before last night’s game that he can’t have Harris on the court for 13 consecutive minutes and fail to see him grab a defensive rebound. It just can’t happen at the small forward position. Coincidentally, Harris went without a defensive rebound against the Kings … in 13 minutes.

“The three position is a critical rebounding position, no doubt about it,” Skiles said. “Normally the bigs sort of cancel each other out in a game and if you can get an advantage at that spot, on either end … it’s a tough spot, you’re expecting a lot out of that spot. You’re expecting a guy to score a little bit, maybe even shoot threes. Maybe post up a little bit. Defend his spot, rebound, I mean, that’s what the top guys do.”

The question at this point is: What does Harris do? We know Dunleavy can hit some shots while facilitating the offense a bit. We know Mbah a Moute and Marquis Daniels can defend. Those are the proven commodities at the small forward spot in Milwaukee. Harris scored with ease and frequency in summer league and his per 36 averages indicate he could score given more possessions in the regular season (15.4 points per 36 minutes). But Harris has got to find a way to contribute somehwere else if he’s going to get regular small forward minutes under Skiles. He and the staff have to work together to mold him into a player that can contribute more than a few attacks at the rim every night.

And Skiles seems to realize this.

“One thing I don’t think people give enough thought to is, people say, ‘That guy should play. That guy should play. That young guy should play,’ Skiles said. “Then all of a sudden, a guy will have a breakout year and people will say, ‘SEE! He should have been playing!’ What about, maybe he’s having a breakout year because he didn’t get to play and maybe he learned some lessons? Not impossible. That’s occurred.”

“A lot of these guys have been the number one options in their lives. Then you get on an NBA team and everybody’s been that. Not everybody, there are guys that are strictly defenders, but most of these guys have been good offensive players. I’m sure there’s an adjustment there. We’re very high on him. We think ultimately, he’s going to be a very, very good player.”

But right now, he probably isn’t that. At least there’s been little evidence to indicate that he’s that this season. After a strong 18 point, six rebound opening night, Harris has scored in double figures just five times, topping out at 11 twice. He also hasn’t eclipsed those six rebounds since. Some of that has had to do with his minutes, which haven’t topped 30 since that first game, but we’ve seen that Skiles traditionally plays players who are doing the things he wants to see. It’s possible that he should ride with Harris as a form of instilling confidence in his young player, but that hasn’t been his way so long as he’s been in Milwaukee.

And if we hardly expect that to change now, surely Harris realizes the same. At this point, it’s on him to take advantage of the opportunities he’s given and make plays when he’s out there. Otherwise, he won’t find himself out there very often.


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  1. Harris is only 20 years old. Can’t even buy a case of beer. He has plenty of maturing to do physically and mentally. I personally really like Skiles approach with young players. I think Larry Sanders success is owed to Skiles patient approach. Skiles Develops an accountability and a hunger for minutes in young players instead of handing them the keys right away. Maybe for Brandon it was ok because he has exceptional talent and decent bball IQ, but even in his case there is some lack of fundamentals/teamwork that maybe could be remedied through some growing pains on the bench and competition with veteran players.

    Its amazing to look at the ages of some of our players.
    LRMAM 26
    Ilyasova 25
    Sanders 24
    Henson 21
    Harris 20
    Udoh 25
    Jennings 23
    Ellis 27

    Maybe this isn’t exceptionally young for an NBA team overall but every player listed is pretty solid and capable of starting. Given that an NBA player typically peaks at age 27-30, I’d say the bucks have a pretty promising future. Personally I hope that Skiles and Hammond decide to stick around to finish what they’ve started. Even if its a failure Im curious to see it unfold with maybe an added piece or two to the mix.

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