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Free agency awaits guard Gary Harris, who enjoys time with Magic

Free agency awaits guard Gary Harris, who enjoys time with Magic

Gary Harris didn’t open the season as a starter for the Magic.

But by the final stretch of the year and into the NBA playoffs, the veteran guard became an important piece to Orlando‘s success when he was available to play.

Harris appeared in 54 games and made 27 starts, 21 of which came after the league’s All-Star break. Against the Cavs in the East’s first round, he started all 6 games he played, missing one due to a right hamstring strain.

He not only offered key poise in the postseason to one of the youngest teams in the NBA with 28 playoff games under his belt but also helped stretch the floor for a squad that lacked 3-point shooting and offered quality defense around the perimeter.

Harris shot 37.1% from beyond the arc in the regular season and averaged almost a full steal per game (0.9) starting alongside Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter Jr.

“For us to get back to the playoffs where a lot of guys get that first playoff experience, get a Game 7, play the game at the highest level, that’s what you want to do and that’s what we were able to do,” Harris recently said.

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The Magic guard is entering the summer as an unrestricted free agent after he signed a 2-year $26 million extension in 2022. Orlando initially acquired him from Denver in ’21 and re-signed him before fully guaranteeing his $13 million contract for ’23-24.

Extending Harris again would signal that the Magic believe in what Harris has to offer when he’s healthy.

At times, he’s been Orlando’s top 3-point threat (shot team-high 43.1% from 3 in ’22-23), meaning teams have to respect his presence on the floor even when his long-range shots aren’t falling.

But he missed a significant chunk of time due to injuries and isn’t getting any younger as he enters his 11th year in the league when he turns 30 in September.

Harris missed 28 games due to injury including five (Nov. 4-14) because of a strained right groin, 16 games (Dec. 27-29, Jan. 5-31) with a right calf strain, three (Feb. 14, 25, March 6) due to right calf injury maintenance, two (March 23-27) because of a right plantar fascia strain and two (March 30, April 10) due to right plantar fascia maintenance.

That led him to average his fewest points (6.9) during his fewest minutes played (24.0) since his rookie season (3.4 points in 13.1 minutes) in 2014-15.

Still, the Magic were 35-19 with Harris this year but 12-16 without him.

“I mean, injuries are a part of it,” he said. “I’ve dealt with plenty of injuries in my whole career. They suck, of course, but the training staff did a great job and helped me throughout the way, getting me back as fast as possible and for me even to come back and play in the Game 7.

“It’s just part of it and you can’t really think too much about it,” he added. “[I] just enjoy the time I had with the team this year.”

Harris spoke highly of the Magic during his end-of-season exit interview while reflecting on his four years with the franchise, but he’s not sure of his future.

“I’ve enjoyed my time here ever since I stepped into Orlando,” he said. “I love it. I’ve got nothing but great things to say about it.

“I don’t know what free agency holds,” he added. “[I will] just take it one day at a time but I love my time here. I love my teammates. I feel like we can build something very special, so we’ll just see where it goes.”

The day after the last game of the NBA Finals each team league-wide may begin negotiating with upcoming free agents who finished the just-completed season on its roster. That could be as early as June 15 (day after Game 4 of the Finals) or as late as June 24 (day after potential Game 7 of the Finals).

June 30 is when teams can begin negotiating with all other upcoming free agents (beginning at 6 p.m. ET) and July 6 is when teams may begin signing free agents to contracts (12:01 p.m. ET).

Harris views Orlando — both the organization and the city — as an attractive location for free agents, indicating he’s also enjoyed his time off the court beyond the day-to-day work on it.

“We’ve got a state-of-art facility. The weather’s great. We’ve got a great coaching staff,” he said. “It’s just a lot of positive things going on here in Orlando and there’s a season why there’s a little buzz around this team right now.”

That buzz, which comes from the franchise’s first postseason appearance in four years, could develop into something louder should the Magic find their way back to the playoffs.

And Harris could help them accomplish that goal if he remains with Orlando.

“We’ve played in some pretty big games and some pretty big moments, especially for some young guys in this league,” Harris said. “They’ve grown at an exponential rate and they’re only going to continue to grow, especially for this offseason.

“This is a working team,” he added. “You know guys are going to come back, they’re going to get better, they’re going to study film. … Guys want it and I don’t think anyone’s satisfied. That’s the best part about this team. That shows the sky can be the limit.”

Jason Beede can be reached at jbeede@orlandosentinel.com