Maurice Harkless still feels a bit out of place.
At 19 years old, he's one of the youngest players in the NBA. As recently as last year, he rooted for the New York Knicks to win the league title. He still looks up to Carmelo Anthony, whom he regards as one of the sport's top-five players.
"I don't even know how to explain it," he said. "It's like there's guys you looked up to growing up, and now you're on the court playing against them."
On Tuesday night, however, Harkless went from feeling awestruck to feeling like he belonged.
He scored 10 points, collected seven rebounds and blocked four shots — three of them against Anthony.
"It's just a start for him," coach Jacque Vaughn said. "He'll continue to get better. No added pressure. I just want him to play basketball and keep things simple."
Harkless, a 6-foot-8 small forward, has spent the past month and a half playing catch-up.
Already lagging behind many of his fellow rookies because he only played one year of college basketball, Harkless underwent surgery over the summer to repair a sports hernia. The procedure was successful, but it prevented him from working out with coaches and from playing during the preseason.
By the time he finally made his NBA debut — on Nov. 7 in Minneapolis — he was cognizant of his inexperience. When the ball came to him on offense, he typically passed it to a teammate at the first opportunity. When he was on defense, he concentrated on being in the right place.
"Before, I was thinking too much," he said.
"I was out there and I was thinking about everything, trying not to make mistakes, and that's what was causing me to make mistakes. I just went out there with a clear mind [against New York] and just decided I was just going to go out there and play as hard as I can."
Magic fans have latched onto Harkless as the epitome of the team's rebuilding effort. In June, he was drafted 15th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, and when the Magic decided to trade Dwight Howard, team officials insisted on acquiring Harkless in the deal.
His draft position and his absence during the preseason may have created outsized expectations.
But Harkless' abilities were apparent against the Knicks — on a putback off his own miss, on an explosive dunk and on a sequence late in the third quarter in which he blocked two of Anthony's shots in the span of a couple of seconds.
"His confidence will grow," Vaughn said. "I want him to make mistakes by playing, by being aggressive and having aggressive mistakes."
Harkless grew up in the Jamaica section of Queens, N.Y., and he always rooted for the Knicks.
On draft night, Anthony called him to wish him well and advise him to keep an even keel during the inevitable ups-and-downs as a rookie.
So, it meant something to Harkless to defend well against Anthony.
"It's a confidence thing," Harkless said. "Before, I was playing a little timid. Last night definitely helped me build my confidence back up. Coming back off an injury it's even harder, so I'm basically trying to build every day."
Tuesday was the most important day so far.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times