Maurice Harkless was drafted out of St. John’s by the 76ers. He spent three seasons in Orlando, four in Portland, then was traded to the Clippers in July.
Even after so many years away from home, the Queens native always believed he would get the opportunity to represent his city.
“We always talked about it. It was always the end game,” said Nate Blue, Harkless’ longtime family adviser and former youth coach. “Even though you’re playing for whatever city you’re playing for, you know you always have a dream of coming back one day and playing for the Knicks.
“It’s not even like a dream come true. It’s more like destiny, like it was always gonna happen.”
As part of the package acquired for Marcus Morris, Harkless will get the chance to call Madison Square Garden home for the first time since he left St. John’s in 2012, following his freshman season. Blue spoke with Harkless following the deal, relaying his excitement.
“He’s got a million people here that want to see him play,” Blue said.
Growing up in a tight-knit family in South Jamaica, with a single mother, Rosa, who worked two jobs, Harkless didn’t begin playing basketball until he was around 13, but quickly developed his game at Liberty Park, off 172nd Street. Harkless was a Knicks fan who also loved Kobe Bryant, and he recently switched his number from 8 to 11 with the Clippers.
Harkless went to Forest Hills High School until his senior year, when he transferred to South Kent (Conn.) School. As the centerpiece of Steve Lavin’s best recruiting class, the 6-foot-9 forward became the Big East Rookie of the Year and a rare one-and-done St. John’s star, the program’s only player since Omar Cook in 2001 to leave early for the NBA Draft.
Harkless was taken 15th overall by the 76ers in the 2012 draft, then traded less than two months later in a blockbuster, multi-team deal. Harkless started 59 games as a rookie with the Magic, but saw his playing time decrease each of the next two seasons. He was traded to the Trail Blazers in 2015, landed a four-year, $40 million deal one year later, and then posted a career-high 10 points and 4.4 rebounds.
Providing a versatile defensive presence, Harkless was a starter during Portland’s four straight postseason trips, but was shipped in a four-team deal to the Clippers in July. There, the 26-year-old started 38 of 50 games, averaging 5.5 points, four rebounds and one steal, while shooting 51 percent from the field and 37 percent on 3-pointers.
Despite leaving one of the league’s best teams, Blue said Harkless is looking forward to the challenge of turning around his childhood team.
“He wants to be a part of it and help them put something together,” Blue said. “He’s about winning. He’s not about himself. That’s a role a lot of people don’t want to play. Everyone can’t be Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. You gotta fit in. He brings an attitude. He plays hard and he expects to win.”
The surroundings in New York won’t be all that’s familiar.
Harkless played under acting Knicks president Scott Perry in Orlando, where he was teammates with close friend and now fellow Knick Elfrid Payton. Harkless also shares an agent, Bill Duffy, with RJ Barrett.
Though Harkless will be a free agent at the end of the season, Blue believes he won’t want to leave home again.
“It’s an audition,” Blue said. “He’s gonna take full advantage of it.”