Nobody wanted to talk to Aaron Harrison, not really. He had been shooting long jumpers on a court at the Philadelphia 76ers’ practice facility Thursday, during the first day of the team’s summer camp workout. It wasn’t the main court, though. It wasn’t where the established guys were. The established guys — Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, Nik Stauskas, even Markelle Fultz, who hasn’t played an NBA regular-season game yet — shot on another court, the one next to where Harrison flicked three-pointers from the top of the key.
Soon, it was time for Fultz to talk to the media. He was the No. 1 pick in the draft, and it was his first true practice with the Sixers, so he had to talk, and the circle of cameras and recorders and outstretched hands pressed in on him, and he talked about being unselfish and getting a feel for the NBA and wearing special foam sneakers that are particularly trendy and cool in the Washington, D.C., area, where he grew up. That’s what you get on the first day of practice with the No. 1 pick — generic questions and answers that reveal trivial details that the No. 1 pick is happy to share because they might accentuate his brand.
By now, Harrison had finished shooting and had been waiting in a lounge while Fultz spoke, and when it was his turn to talk, no one asked him about unselfishness or sneakers. There was an uncomfortable, quiet pause before anyone asked him anything, and then no one asked him about much of anything except Markelle Fultz — for instance, in your limited time with Markelle Fultz, what have you seen from Markelle Fultz? And it was all still awkward and uncomfortable.
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It’s not just that no one was all that interested in asking Harrison anything. It’s that Harrison is a basketball player who used to matter, when he was a terrific player at the University of Kentucky, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, the maker of two clutch three-pointers against Michigan and Wisconsin to send the biggest of the big-time NCAA basketball programs to the 2014 national championship game, and now he’s on the fringe of the NBA, undrafted after two seasons of college ball, trying to latch on as the 11th or 12th man on a roster. He’s on the fringe, really, of mattering.
The NBA summer league has become a source of irrational excitement in Philadelphia in recent years, as it has afforded Sixers fans and followers their first opportunities to see the team’s high and highly touted draft picks: Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons, now Fultz. As Fultz debuted in the Utah Summer League on Monday night against the Celtics, the interest in and buzz around the game, by all available indications, surpassed that of the Phillies’ 4-0 victory over the Pirates. Think about that: Aaron Nola, the Phillies’ first-round pick in 2015, in the midst of an excellent stretch of starts that have shown he might yet be the staff ace, pitched seven shutout innings, and it was a secondary story to a Sixers quasi-exhibition game. That’s the dynamic we’re getting with the Sixers now, and with Fultz.
What you don’t get, when you’re the No. 1 pick in the draft or when you’re wrapped up in the thrill of the player Fultz might become, is the other side of the summer league, the choice that Harrison will probably have to make. He’ll hope that his play during summer league will be enough to earn him an invite to an NBA team’s training camp. But assuming he doesn’t end up on an NBA roster, he’ll have to weigh two options: signing with a team in the NBA’s developmental league, now called the G League, or heading to Europe to play professionally there.
Those options present him with something of a damned-if-he-does-or-doesn’t situation: If he plays in the developmental league — which he did last season, averaging 17.0 points and shooting 48 percent from three-point range in 31 games for the Delaware 87ers — he will have a better chance of being signed by an NBA team, just because of his proximity. The tradeoff is, his annual salary in the G League will be less than $30,000. If he opts to play in Europe, he could earn six figures easily, perhaps more. But because he would be a continent away, an NBA team wouldn’t be as likely to scout him enough to sign him.
It’s a choice that Harrison doesn’t want to make and, he said, that he hasn’t considered making yet. He played against Stauskas and Okafor in college, with Embiid in some all-star games when they were teenagers. He sees himself as an NBA player. “I think I’ll get a look someplace,” he said, though probably not with the Sixers, not once Furkan Korkmaz decided to play in the NBA this season and the Sixers reached an agreement with J.J. Redick on a one-year, $23 million contract. Korkmaz and Redick are shooting guards, and the Sixers have invested more money and resources in them than they have in Harrison. It’s the way of things.
“It’s very challenging,” said Harrison, who has played in 26 NBA games, all with the Charlotte Hornets. “You have to approach it every day as trying to get better. It’s a tough process. You’ve got to be mentally tough and go out there and fight every day. Here, you can go 10 possessions without shooting the ball. You’ve got to find your niche, figure out what you do, what the team wants you to do, and do it as well as you can.
“I do look back at my past and just know I can be that guy.”
So, Monday night at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, the Celtics beat the Sixers, 89-88. Fultz scored 17 points, pulling off a few breathtaking spin moves to the basket, making a spectacular weak-side blocked shot on Kadeem Allen. It led all the newscasts and websites around here. Kevin Durant tweeted about it.
And Harrison had 12 points and four steals. Maybe, he has to hope, someone noticed that, too.