After struggling with injuries in a weak first half of the season, Maurice Harkless has looked sharper and healthier in the two games following the All-Star break.
The Portland Trail Blazers are the midst of a fantastic season. They currently own a record of 36-23 and sit at fourth place in the Western Conference. Players like Jake Layman and Jusuf Nurkic have taken their games to new levels, and newcomers such as Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter have not disappointed. However, the disappointing play of Maurice Harkless has been an interesting footnote in an otherwise positive season.
Harkless struggled with a knee injury and only appeared in 10 games during the first two months of the season. With Harkless out, Jake Layman was inserted into the starting lineup and the Blazers were very successful with him on the floor. When Harkless returned in November, the chemistry that the starting lineup had built over October and early November evaporated and Harkless seemed lost at times on the floor. He only shot 27.8% from the field and failed to make a single three across his 5 November appearances.
Nevertheless, Harkless returned to form in December scoring 8.2 points per game and shooting an efficient 40.7% from three. However, that success was short lived and Harkless only shot 25% from three in January. Reports of his lingering knee injury also began to resurface. The shooting woes continued into early February with Harkless only shooting 26.7% from deep.
Even though Harkless has struggled, the criticism has surrounded Terry Stotts more than Harkless himself. The Blazers were fantastic early in the season with Jake Layman in the starting lineup, and Layman has only continued to emerge as a valuable piece of the team. He has been extremely efficient shooting the basketball and plays with an infectious energy. Layman even scored 20 points against the Pelicans in a single quarter in mid-January.
After the Blazers victory over the Nets on February 22, Evan Turner had the following to say about Layman when speaking to Bryan Kalbrosky of Hoops Hype:
"“He is a good shooter. Once he gets going, Jake is definitely our secret weapon. When you first get into the league, people will let you beat them, But now, if you let Jake get hot, that could be another 20 points. You are trying to figure out if he is going to miss and he doesn’t miss very often. You really have to put him on the scouting report.”"
So, the fact that Stotts has chosen to start Harkless over Layman time and time again has been baffling to say the least. Prior to the season, you could argue that Harkless is a better defender than Layman, but Layman has actually posted a higher defensive rating this season and always seems to come up with key plays on the defensive end. As a result, Harkless been put under pressure, and the statistics and eye test both hint that he may have not been healthy for the majority of this season. His numbers were down in October, November, and January when injury reports surrounded him, but he was better than ever in December.
The All-Star break may have given Harkless the rest he needed. In the two following games, he has played with more physicality and has looked comfortable within the system. He posted 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists against the Nets, then scored 13 points on 6-9 shooting against the Sixers.
Following Saturday’s game, Harkless told Casey Holdahl of the Trail Blazers official site that he was feeling the best that he has felt this year.
Hopefully, Harkless can stay healthy and play at the level he did last season. The Blazers rotation is already very deep, and a healthy Moe Harkless can make it even better.