Tobias Harris interview: Sixers star details his ascent, improved team chemistry

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Harris details his and Sixers' ascent, keeps 1 small secret originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Even when fans were absent from Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers went through their elaborate and joyful pregame routine. 

The Sixers run out onto the court and Danny Green slams a ball into the ground. There’s a moment where Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris duel in the post as their teammates put up jumpers around them. Everyone dances along to Trinidad James' "All Gold Everything." Shake Milton acts like a quarterback, rolls out of the pocket and tosses a pass to Dwight Howard. The Sixers form a mini-mosh pit a minute or so before tip-off.

In short, there’s a lot happening. How did it all come together? 

“If I had to tell you, I would have to kill you,” Harris said Thursday in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. “And I don’t want to do that, so I can’t explain those details. It’s cardinal rules on the team.”

Harris was, however, willing to discuss other topics. 

With Memorial Day weekend approaching, he posted Thursday on social media about USAA’s “Poppy in Memory” campaign to honor fallen veterans. 

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Lieutenant Colonel John Mulzac, Harris’ late grandfather, was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black aviators in the United States military. 

“He inspired me since I was a young kid,” Harris said. “Even just his words of going out and trying to achieve whatever you put your mind to, working each and every day, that really gave me a lot of motivation. Just his love as a grandfather was the biggest motivation to me. That definitely inspired me to where I’m at to this day.”

Harris these days is certainly in a nice spot.

The Sixers hold a 2-0 first-round series lead over the Wizards and he’s scored 56 points on 57.1 percent shooting thus far. Beyond a second-quarter injury scare in Game 2 where he appeared to tweak his ankle, everything seems to be proceeding according to plan.

At 28 years old, he’s improved as the Sixers envisioned when they signed him to a five-year, $180 million free-agent contract in 2019. His clutch scoring, extended flirtation with a 50-40-90 shooting season and strong start to the playoffs after the Sixers’ failure in the NBA’s bubble last season have all received ample attention, and for good reason. 

Harris’ passing has perhaps been an overlooked area of growth, though. Per Cleaning the Glass, his 0.72 assist-to-usage ratio was the highest of his career. When an in-rhythm mid-range jumper or straight line to the rim isn’t available, he’s looked more attuned to his other options. 

“Just quicker decisions,” Harris said. “That was the biggest thing. And I also think being put in those type of situations, I know where I’m getting the ball, I know how teams are going to play, I know positions and personalities of other players and where they want the ball. 

“It’s just getting the timing, and the trust and patience, as well. All those things just kind of added up this year for me. That’s one of the things I always as a player was striving to be better at — in those situations, making the right plays.”

Joel Embiid expressed the opinion Wednesday night that Harris’ defense is “the underrated part of his game this year.”

Indeed, Harris set new career bests in defensive box plus-minus (0.5) and defensive win shares (3.1). It’s obvious he’s taken pride in being a well-rounded player. On the NBA’s second-rated defense, nobody would mistake him for a weak link.

“I just took a big, big leap with my lateral quickness,” he said. “That was something that I worked on all throughout this offseason that we had. That was an area that I wanted to progress in, just being stronger … and at the same time, being a guy that can switch onto these smaller guys over the course of a game. I’ve been able to do that and that’s helped our team be better defensively, and it’s helped me, as well.”

A fascinating intangible this year with the Sixers is everything that’s occurred behind the scenes under unusual circumstances. Despite playing the season during the COVID-19 pandemic and following the NBA’s related health and safety guidance, the team’s chemistry is clearly in a better place than a year ago. 

“Square pegs in round holes” now not being a frequent thought when watching the Sixers play surely has something to do with that. Harris also highlighted the team’s focus from an early stage. 

“I think everybody’s really locked in to the goal that’s at hand,” he said. “It starts where we get the season going; we start winning; we like the feel of winning, so it’s easier to keep driving for it. So I think that’s where it all begins. And then the work that we put in has been huge behind the scenes for our success. The COVID restrictions, it’s been tough. We do get to have our practice times and our team times on the road together and whatnot, so those all go into effect when trying to build that chemistry early on.”

Danny Green, a fellow Long Island native who Harris knew well before he became a Sixer, has been glad to call out any perceived problems this season in his Zoom sessions with reporters. Seven games into an eight-game late-season winning streak, he said the Sixers needed to “do a lot better” if they wanted to be a championship contender. 

Harris confirmed Green is just as blunt with his teammates. 

“Oh yeah,” Harris said with a laugh. “He for sure is. He’s an open book, man. He just says whatever’s on his mind. And he’s a funny guy.”

Harris has appreciated Howard’s veteran influence, too. On-court questions aside, the 35-year-old Howard has seemed to be in the right place at the right time. 

“He’s been great,” Harris said. “I think when you get a guy like Danny and a guy like Dwight, both having championship pedigree ... they’ve been there. They were in the bubble. Danny was there before, but a guy like Dwight, he just came in from the first day of training camp and put in an extreme amount of work.

“He’s been working with a lot of the young guys, these young bigs on the team. I think it just helps the whole vibe of the group. He’s a great teammate. He always has the most energy up on the bench, as well. I couldn’t ask for a better teammate. He’s been great at that.”

If Harris keeps playing good basketball, he’ll have many further opportunities to explain his and the Sixers’ ascent. The team already has two more playoff wins than last season, though expectations have shifted. The Sixers plan on winning the Eastern Conference, and Harris plans on being an integral piece in their run. 

That’s a subject he hasn't been secretive about. The Sixers’ layup-line routine is a different story.