Tobias Harris Surged in January. What Was Behind His Resurgence and Is It Sustainable?

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

Things have been clicking for Tobias Harris over the past month or so of basketball. He is playing with aggression and confidence, stepping into his shots and doing a great job of getting to his spots on the floor. However, things were not always like that this season.

Nothing really went right for Harris over the first couple months of the season. He contracted COVID-19 in early November and it took him a while to fully recover, struggling through some of the effects even after he got back out on the court. He was struggling to produce and make quick decisions out on the floor as he battled through the lasting effects of COVID-19 as well as some other minor injuries.

Harris struggled a lot in December, having one of his worst months of production since he became a member of the Sixers. He averaged only 16.8 points while shooting 41.6 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from three-point range. His decision making was poor, often passing up on open threes to instead take a contested mid-range shot, and he was completely out of sync.

Harris needed to get back to playing with the confidence and aggression that led to his near All-Star season last year, one in which he averaged 19.5 points while shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from beyond the arc. Most of all, he just needed his shots to start falling. In the month of December, he made just 31.6 percent of his shots with the closest defender being 6-plus feet away (deemed to be a wide open shot by NBA.com/stats).

His start to the month of January was not much better. He received loud boos from the Philadelphia faithful in a Jan. 3 game against the Houston Rockets. The Sixers won that game, but his struggles continued, scoring 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting and also missing all three of his attempts from deep.

Things began to turn around for Harris after the Houston game, and he would go on to have a good month of January in which he started playing more aggressively and was quick and confident in his decisions with the ball in his hands.

He really turned up his level of performance over the past seven games, averaging 23.1 points (56.1 percent from the field and 52.4 percent from three-point range), 7.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. He scored 30-plus points twice in that stretch, including 31 in a huge win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday.

Harris, in the month of January, shot 45.5 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, a huge sign of his resurgence when combined with his increased willingness lately to not overthink things and just pull the trigger on open threes.

One of his best games this season came against the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 25. He scored a season-high 33 points on 13-of-19 shooting from the field and a perfect 3-of-3 from deep. He spoke after the game about the importance of making quick decisions and playing with confidence.

"Sometimes, you do get caught up with it. Just thinking a little bit, but as I continue to find my flow and rhythm, just using those things to my advantage," Harris said. "Quick attacks, see where I can beat the defense, seeing where I can create some mismatches out there with different players. Just getting to my spots, but once I’m in all those actions, I’m able to get downhill and as a team, once we’re flowing and going, it’s easy to find those looks."

The Sixers' offense is clearly centered around All-Star Joel Embiid, which involves the offense slowing down as they play around him in the post. When Harris was being slow in his decision making with the ball, it often caused the entire offense to come to a halt. As head coach Doc Rivers said after the win over the Pelicans, the offense can not function with two ball stoppers.

"It slows down the offense, for sure. When he’s playing quick, that’s what the offense is designed for him to do," Rivers said. "We always give him space to attack quick. When he holds it, it brings us all to a halt. Who’s the one ball stopper we want to have? Joel, right? When you have two, then your offense gets slow."

Harris' resurgence throughout the past few weeks has helped the Sixers offense speed up a bit and opened up some different options. When he plays with confidence out on the perimeter, everything else opens up in his offensive arsenal, allowing him to attack the basket like he did in the win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

He has gotten back to playing like a solid second or third scoring option for the Sixers. However, he has to play like this consistently to come even remotely close to making it worth the $35-plus million he is getting paid per year. A lot of the underlying issues with Harris remain, including him not being willing to let it loose from three-point range (he is averaging only 3.6 attempts per game from beyond the arc this season). His recent play should be sustainable as long as he continues to play with the same confidence and aggression he has proven to be capable of both over the last couple weeks and throughout the prior season for the Sixers.