Utah guard Donovan Mitchell had scored 17 points in Sunday’s fourth quarter when, with 1 minute 53 seconds remaining and the Jazz trailing the Clippers by eight, he dribbled up court with the intent of again taking matters into his own hands.
He drove inside the three-point line, using his body as a shield to protect his right-handed dribble from the defense of 6-foot-8 Maurice Harkless on his left. Yet Harkless reached his 7-2 wingspan across Mitchell’s body and cleanly poked the ball away. As it bounced to Clippers center Montrezl Harrell, Utah’s chance of a comeback slipped away.
The victory-clinching steal was illustrative of the appeal of Harkless, who had entered the game just 15 seconds earlier. That type of instant impact has been indicative of his time with the Clippers, and serves as a reminder of his massive potential.
Harkless “has one of the ideal NBA bodies from his height, strength, how he moves, athleticism,” said Ed Davis, a former teammate in Portland who now plays for the Jazz. “I like Moe’s game, man.”
So do the Clippers, who acquired Harkless in a July 1 trade — along with a first-round draft pick used four days later to acquire Paul George from Oklahoma City. Harkless has averaged 5.6 points on 54.8% shooting through seven games and also a career-best 1.6 steals.
Coach Doc Rivers calls Harkless a “Swiss Army knife” because of his ability to guard four positions. The 6-3 Mitchell torched the Clippers for 36 points, but committed as many turnovers as he did points — two — during the eight possessions in which he was guarded by Harkless.
Six games earlier, Harkless, looking like the world’s tallest NFL cornerback, was deflecting entry passes intended for 6-10 Lakers star Anthony Davis.
If Harkless’ length was a selling point to the Clippers — as was his contract, which expires after this season — so is the length of time he has spent in the NBA. Only 26, the New York native is in the eighth season of a career where he has averaged 7.3 points on 47% shooting, 3.7 rebounds and one steal.
Like the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers before them, the Clippers are hoping Harkless can combine the in-his-prime athleticism with veteran-level experience to maximize his considerable gifts. Last season, Harkless ranked among the league’s best on-ball defenders against the pick-and-roll.
“He’s been in the league so long you tend to treat him like an older veteran where he’s only 26,” Rivers said. “When he doesn’t do something that you think he should do you’re surprised sometimes, and when you watch him work and understand that he’s still trying to become a better player himself, you get that.
“But it definitely helps to have a guy that young with that much experience and playoff experience, too.”
Harkless was working out at Loyola Marymount on July 1 when he received a call from Neil Olshey, Portland’s president of basketball operations, informing him he’d been traded to Miami. After his workout, there was another call, this time from his agent, who told him to hold off on imagining his fit with the Heat. Another team was involved in the trade.
A third call arrived hours later: He was a Clipper. Harkless wasn’t surprised. He’d seen Portland trade forward Evan Turner one week earlier and another teammate, Al-Farouq Aminu, leave in free agency the previous day. Still, he thought he had more time left to build on a Western Conference finals appearance that marked the franchise’s deepest playoff run in 19 years.
“I thought I was going to be back,” said Harkless, who averaged 7.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and made 49% of his field-goal attempts with the Trail Blazers. “I think we had a good year, a really good year, and we actually could have done better than we did, so I didn’t think they were going to break the team up.”
Rivers didn’t go far for a scouting report on Harkless. His son-in-law, Seth Curry, played with Harkless in Portland, “so I got a lot of information about Moe that I will be using, good and bad,” Rivers said.
In Portland, as in Orlando where he started his career at 19, Harkless struggled with the consistency of his shot and could withdraw amid struggles. But Davis called him a beloved teammate, remembering a paintball competition Harkless once organized and the European vacation Harkless went on with Turner last summer. Harkless similarly made a strong impression on the Clippers by organizing an outing to a Rams home game against New Orleans on Sept. 15.
While other players posed for pictures on the field at the Coliseum, Harkless never made it out of the group’s suite as he checked on his teammates and their families.
“The guy likes everybody,” guard Landry Shamet said.
Said guard Lou Williams: “It was dope for him to do that.”
Sometimes new additions defer to more established players, but Harkless wanted teammates to know he was all-in from the start. For a Clippers team with great expectations, he knows history is there for the making.
“I look at change as opportunity, I don’t look at it as a bad thing,” Harkless said. “We have a chance to build and an opportunity to compete for a deep playoff run and hopefully a championship.”