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July 12, 2019

Tobias Harris is ready to seize a bigger role with new-look Sixers

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There are not many players who have had a start to their career quite like Sixers forward Tobias Harris. He entered the league as a "tweener" before that was embraced as a good thing by the league, and despite improving his game each and every year, Harris was in constant search of a permanent home. Even in the midst of a career year last season, the Clippers traded him to Philadelphia for a collection of assets and cap flexibility, setting up their chase of Kawhi Leonard.

So the idea of stability and putting down roots has more appeal to Harris than the average player. But he did not remain here in Philadelphia simply because it was an option to stay put. Harris is here to pursue championships.

As Harris explained to PhillyVoice following the conclusion of a group press conference on Friday, the Sixers made it abundantly clear they wanted him to be around for the long-term. That started with Joel Embiid, who was in his his ear prior to free agency opening, reminding him how close they had come to knocking off Toronto, the league's eventual champions.

"He was just basically telling me, 'Man, we got to run this thing back,'" Harris told PhillyVoice on Friday. "We came so close, he wasn’t healthy and whatnot, and he said he’s excited to come back and really come into his own, get himself healthy, get himself right and ready to go so we can hopefully win a championship. For me, that was huge to hear, just to hear from him to say look, I want you back with me here."

Philadelphia's pitch did not stop there. In their meeting to open free agency, Harris said he was "blown away" by the vision laid out by Brett Brown, from the spots he wants him to be on the floor to where he believes he can excel and improve, and what the team plans to do to help Harris reach his peak as a player. The message was clear all throughout the process — you are a top priority, and while Harris says he wanted to stay here all along, he called it the "icing on the cake" that made his decision easy.

"We've always had good dialogue," Harris told PhillyVoice of his relationship with Brown. "Last year, it was kind of tight for all of us coming in. Different personalities, just different attitudes, too. It was kind of hard for us to gel all that in 22 games."

There is far less uncertainty now. Embiid led the charge to keep Harris here and remains the franchise cornerstone. The franchise is working toward an agreement to keep Ben Simmons in Philadelphia for the foreseeable future. Al Horford is committed for the next four years, and even Josh Richardson has another two seasons before he has to make a decision on a contract option. 

Things can change fast in the NBA, but these guys are now all working toward one long-term goal — to bring multiple titles to the city of Philadelphia.

Harris will be at the forefront of that push, and that starts away from the bright lights. When you invest $180 million on a player in free agency, you are investing in a person as much as you are a player. Is this a guy who is willing to put in the extra work to be great? Will he sacrifice touches for the betterment of the team, and will he do it without causing problems in the locker room? 

The Sixers believe Harris will do that and then some. So do his teammates. New Sixers wing Josh Richardson, who briefly crossed paths with Harris at Tennessee during the NBA lockout of 2011, said Harris took a 17-year-old Richardson out to dinner when he arrived on campus, explaining the ins and outs of life on campus and what it would take for him to get where he needed to go. Eight years later, they've been reunited.

"It's going to be easy I think to continue that growth," Richardson said of his development as a player, "because you see how Tobias, you see how this whole team, this whole roster, is full of guys that have progressed a lot over their careers. I think it’ll be fun to be able to almost compete, to almost like, see who can be in the gym the most, see who can beat who, or see how much better we can get over these seasons."

Harris has had to prove himself over and over again since entering the league, first as an NBA player, later to new cities and fanbases, and now as a guy who will be expected to help lead a championship-caliber team. He will be one of their primary scoring threats each and every night, assuming the pressure of a big-money player in a tough market with high hopes for their basketball team. It is a bigger challenge than he has ever faced before.

His numbers were down in Philadelphia last season, with his three-point shooting, in particular, dropping off of a cliff. Though he was one of the few players who avoided missing stretches of games last season, Harris cited his health as a contributing factor to his struggles down the stretch last year.

"Coming from the role I had in L.A. to here, I just wanted to adapt to help us win, not to be complaining about discomfort or whatnot...put everything aside, I'm just about winning," Harris told reporters Friday. "When I got here I didn't shoot as well from the three, it was a combination of different looks, a combination also of little things on the health side, but those are all things that will be cleaned up and ready to go by the start of the new training camp."

"I'm working, I'm getting myself ready, getting myself in the best of shape, keeping myself healthy, and those things contribute to all of that."

With Jimmy Butler sipping Mai Tai's in Miami, it is up to the players who remain to prove they can step into the closing role he filled for the team in most of their big moments last season. Belief will only take you so far, but Harris and the Sixers are both betting he can get there.

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