Tobias Harris Is the NBA's Swiss Army Knife

He’s the rare journeyman who has found success everywhere he goes. Now, the star forward is ready to be what the Sixers need him to be, armed with the skills he's picked up along the way.
photo of Master TesfatsionMaster TesfatsionFeatured Columnist IApril 12, 2019

Tobias Harris had a gut feeling he would be traded. He didn't have any information a week before the Feb. 7 trade deadline to suggest the Los Angeles Clippers would ship him out, but after he'd been traded four times before, a move felt imminent.

"I just felt the vibe," Harris says. "It's weird to describe, but it's all about the situation, time, place and dynamic. I saw where we were as a team, and I just felt something was happening behind the scenes. And the deal happened."

He felt so strongly about his intuition that he told forward Mike Scott and later teammates Avery Bradley and Tyrone Wallace his thoughts at dinner after a loss to the Raptors. "A trade is going to happen, and I wouldn't be surprised if I'm in it," Harris said. They didn't believe anything would happen.

Two days later, fresh off hitting a game-winner against the Hornets, Harris was watching Netflix when he got the call. Doc Rivers informed him he had been traded to the 76ers.

The experience wasn't new to Harris, now on his fifth team in eight seasons. When the Bucks traded him to the Magic in February 2013, he was working out and saw the news flash on the gym's television before he received the call. He was taking a nap when the Magic sent him to the Pistons in February 2016. He woke up to missed calls and texts. Harris was in his Detroit home watching film on the next opponent, the Cavaliers, when Stan Van Gundy informed him he was headed to the Clippers in January 2018.

Harris has been a significant trade asset due to his work ethic, yearly improvement and reputation as the consummate teammate. But rarely has he been considered a core piece, which has discouraged him in his quest to find a stable situation.

"I go about my game in a different way—a way where I just handle my business," Harris says. 

"People sleep on me for sure."

He's found the perfect fit in Philadelphia, among an organization and fanbase that has quickly embraced his unselfish, Swiss Army knife brand of basketball. Though he will become an unrestricted free agent this summer, Harris will play a significant role in Philadelphia's title hopes this postseason alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler.

Maybe even beyond.

"I hope that he's a Philadelphia 76er for a long time," Sixers coach Brett Brown says.

Early in his career, Harris learned patience. The Bobcats selected him with the 19th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft but then traded him to the Milwaukee Bucks. He started just 23 games and averaged less than 12 minutes per contest in his first year-plus.

When he was traded to the Orlando Magic in a deal involving now-Sixers teammate JJ Redick, Harris took on a larger role. His team was inexperienced, but the group was given the opportunity to play through mistakes. The latitude gave Harris confidence, which he took with him wherever he went.

When he was sent to Detroit, he learned how to become more of a team player. There were moments when he came off the bench, but he never viewed it as a demotion. He embraced his role, finishing as the team's leading scorer in 2016-17 despite starting just 48 games.

"People sleep on me for sure."
—Tobias Harris

"I loved having him," Pistons center Andre Drummond says. "I'm definitely still watching him to this day. He's having a helluva year and should've been an All-Star. He was one of the better teammates I had. Philly is really lucky to have him."

Harris enjoyed his time with the Clippers, who were the biggest surprise in the Western Conference after they traded Blake Griffin in the deal to acquire him, but his stint with the organization taught him about the business of basketball. When he turned down an $80 million extension last summer to bet on himself this year, he hoped he could set himself up for a bigger contract this offseason.

The Clippers, however, had other plans—rebuild with draft picks and cap space—and they decided Harris, with his heftier future price tag thanks to a career-high 20.9 points per game, didn't fit in their big picture.

"That's business. That's not personal," Harris says. "I wouldn't say teams were giving up on me. It's just understanding the business. When you come into a situation, and they say, 'Oh, we know he's a good player and he's going to get better,' then they get surprised by how much better you get, they'll be like, 'Oh wait, I didn't know you were going to get that much better.' For me, I take that as a compliment. This is what I work for every single day."

Harris isn't flashy. In the era of social media notoriety, where athletes are frequently chasing the viral highlight to grow their following, his play is rarely aggregated by major social media accounts. It's partly why Harris believes he's often overlooked.

He doesn't play basketball to chase clout. He doesn't feel the need to put on a show because his game speaks for itself. Instead, he remains calm during his big-play moments, as if success is the expectation. Harris' little sister, Tori, disagrees with his approach. She often tells him to build a persona—like how Lance Stephenson strums his air guitar, or how Embiid displays notorious showmanship—so he can receive more public recognition for his ability.

"Every time he has a good play, it won't be on a popular Instagram account like House of Highlights," says Tori Harris, who is a sophomore guard at James Madison. (Disclosure: House of Highlights is owned by Bleacher Report). "I'll send it to him and be like, 'This could've been on House of Highlights if you did like a staredown or a little dance.'"

Harris' response never changes.

"Nah, I'm good," he tells her.

Harris has gone viral in other, unexpected ways. During his pregame tunnel walks—the NBA's red carpet event that displays an athlete's fashion style—Harris was consistently spotted, not in an outlandish ensemble, but in reasonable outfits and carrying a book in his hand. It wasn't what his sister would have liked—"That's boring," Tori says—but Harris, an avid reader, was pleased.

Tobias Harris @tobias31

Pride is about my glory. Humility is about God’s glory. https://t.co/w4ISEcoyEB

"I feel great about it," Harris says about his social media notoriety. Recently, he has been reading Can't Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, by David Goggins, though his favorite book is The Tao of Wu, by rapper and producer RZA. "I want every young kid that sees me on Instagram to know that I'm continuing to educate myself and for them to know that books are a big part of my life."

The 26-year-old has an old soul. He doesn't ride around in the latest sports car. Instead, he pulls up to the Sixers' practice facility in a black 1999 Mercedes-Benz S600 sitting on 22-inch Lorenzo rims. He's often stopped by older people in the facility who are shocked to see the car in the players' parking lot.

"That's the flashiest thing I have because that thing is hot," Harris says. "It's not a Lambo, but if you had that whip back in the day, you was the man. If you know, you know."

Harris' confidence in who he is shows up most in how well he has adapted to the constant change in scenery. He's been so effective in his career because each situation has allowed him to develop in a different way, he says. For example, in Detroit, he accepted a challenge by coach Van Gundy to shoot more threes, which expanded his game. That he's played with so many different guys has helped Harris adjust on the fly.

"I consider myself a hooper," Harris says. "I tell people all the time: I can play anywhere and be effective. I just think the energy that I bring, I play in the flow of the game. I can impact the game in different ways. I really know how the game is played now."

Still, there has been some consistency. Boban Marjanovic, one half of the Bobi and Tobi Show, has been with Harris through both the Pistons and Clippers trades. Harris hasn't been able to shake the Serb, who developed a close friendship fit for a buddy cop movie.

"I think Tobias plays good when he's with me," the Sixers center jokes. "I want the people that signed him to know that."

Harris didn't go to Philadelphia with the mindset of feeling his way through the team. Rather, he wanted to leave an imprint: In his first 10 games with the Sixers, he scored 20 points or more eight times. He's second on the team with 18.2 points per game. (Joel Embiid is averaging 27.5 points per game) But his impact is felt beyond his ability to score. He has created numerous opportunities thanks to his hustle in transition. He moves well without the ball, particularly with Simmons at the point, and is timely in his cuts in the paint in half-court sets.

"Energy finds the ball," Brown says. "I don't call his number a bunch—and I will as this thing starts to heat up [toward the playoffs]—and he still finds a way to put his thumbprint on a scoresheet. He finds a way to create his own shots."

Drummond isn't surprised that Harris has already won the respect of the Sixers players and coaches.

"Wherever he goes, he'll fit in," he says. "He's a very hard worker—team guy first."

This is by far the most talented squad Harris has been on—something he is excited about. Philly has slid recently, but he is ready to make good on the opportunity in front of him. The organization knows he will be a crucial complement to the team's three stars.

"We're going to need him down the stretch as one of our best players," Scott says.

It remains uncertain exactly how far the Sixers will go—and their long-term future likely depends heavily on how they perform in the playoffs. A first-round exit could mean significant roster changes. Although the Sixers have openly said they would like to retain both Harris and Butler—who was also acquired through a midseason trade and is expected to be an unrestricted free agent this summer—it remains unclear whether the organization will dish out two max contracts this offseason.

"Time will tell," Harris says about his future.

One thing is for sure: He's built to thrive as more than a two-month rental in Philadelphia.

"I know my game, and I know how much work I put into it," Harris says. "That's why I like being here. The fans here have really embraced me as a person and player and the work that I've put in. That means a lot."