Charles Barkley put it out there recently, and Tobias Harris wholeheartedly agreed with the declaration.
Sir Charles of TNT and the Hall of Fame said the 26-year-old Los Angeles Clippers forward is the most underrated player in the NBA.
“Any time you get a compliment from one of those guys, especially a guy of that stature, it’s a great compliment,” said Harris, who once upon a time was New York’s Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American at Half Hollow Hills West High School.
“It shows a lot of hard work that’s paying off. To be able to just go out and play my game every single night and help our team has been big.”
At the rate he’s going, Harris won’t be underrated much longer. The versatile 6-9 power forward is off to a great start in a pivotal year for his career. He’s averaging career highs in scoring (20.7 points per game) and rebounding (8.7) for what had been an underrated Clippers team. Los Angeles (10-5) has won four straight after rallying to beat the Nets, 127-119, on Saturday night at Barclays Center.
Harris showed off his feathery touch, shooting 11-for-17 from the floor and 2-for-4 from three-point range, on the way to scoring 27 points. He also had eight rebounds and three assists.
“He’s been great,” coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s been terrific. He’s doing more than scoring. That’s what we wanted him to do. We needed Tobias to come back and do more things for us. Be a better rebounder. He’s done that.
“What I’m the most happiest [about is] he’s really been a great playmaker. He had five assists [in the previous] game. He’s doing it every night. That’s something he hasn’t done before and he’s doing it. So it’s been really good for us.”
The eighth-year pro is in line for a big raise after this season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He turned down an $80-million extension from the Clippers last summer, so this is the last year of his four-year, $64-million contract. They can offer him a five-year, $188-million deal next summer. Other teams can offer as much as a four-year, $145.5-million deal.
“I knew that this was going to be a big year for me just to go into and prove not only to other people but just prove to myself that I put in a lot of work and it’s time to see the benefits of that work and see how much better I can get as a player,” Harris said.
But how about bringing his game home and playing for the Knicks or the Nets?
Harris is boxing out thoughts of other teams right now.
“I’m just focusing on the team I put a jersey on every single night for,” he said. “ . . . I think it wouldn’t be fair if I had my mind somewhere else at this time. I’m just focusing on helping this team and see how far we can go as a unit this year.”
Actually, his mind is filled with happy thoughts over playing in L.A. right now. He arrived in January from Detroit in the trade that sent Blake Griffin to the Pistons.
“I love L.A.,” Harris said. “It’s been a great situation for me to come into. Obviously, they traded a really good player in the trade. It was a good situation to just come in and play. I’ve been embracing it. The city is real cool. I like it. It’s been a great spot so far.”
The feeling is mutual.
“He’s just a great kid,” Rivers said. “You want a Tobias Harris . . . You want him on your team. You want him in your locker room. You want him around all your guys. You want him around the veterans. You want him around the young guys. His work ethic. What he stands for. He’s just a solid guy. And he’s great to have. He’s great to yell at because he just smiles. He doesn’t say much back, which is cool.”
Harris grew up in Wheatley Heights and Dix Hills. After leading Hills West to a state title as a senior in 2010, he played at Tennessee as a freshman, then was chosen 19th overall in the 2011 draft by Charlotte. His draft rights were dealt that night to Milwaukee. He was traded to Orlando in February 2013 and to Detroit in February 2016.
He showed off his growing game against the Nets, with a few family members on hand to watch along with a group of Long Island kids he mentors.
“That’s one thing about Tobias, he just keeps getting better,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Not dramatic growth in one year, just incremental and improving every year. He’s improved his catch-and-shoot game. He’s obviously one of these fours that can do a lot of things. He’s a pick-and-roll player . . . which causes teams problems.”
Harris knows he still isn’t a finished product.
“There’s a lot more left,” he said. “When I evaluate my game, I always see different things I can get better at. I put in a lot of work in the offseason to reach those type of goals.”