Harkless Excelling in Return to New York

A year after leaving St. John’s as a one-and-done, Moe Harkless is back in New York and hoping for a big week.

The former Johnnies star had career-highs in points (16) and minutes (34) on Monday night when his Orlando Magic lost to the Nets in Brooklyn, 97-77.

Harkless will return to Madison Square Garden –site of many of his college games — Wednesday when the Magic (14-30) visit the Knicks (27-15).

“I’ve been through games where I haven’t played at all, some I’ve played 10 minutes, some I’ve started and last night I played 34 minutes,” Harkless said Tuesday during a visit to St. John’s.

“It’s real inconsistent. You always have to be ready because you never know when a guy is going to get hurt. You have to be ready to play whenever.”

For the season, Harkless is averaging 4.1 points and 3.3 rebounds in 16.2 minutes on a rebuilding Magic team.

Had he stayed at St. John’s, this team could be a threat to make a run in March with a core of himself, D’Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene, JaKarr Sampson, Sir’Dominic Pointer, Jamal Branch and Chris Obekpa.

But after earning Big East Rookie of the Year honors, he left St. John’s after one season and was the No. 15 pick of the Philadelphia 76ers and was then dealt to Orlando in August in the Dwight Howard deal.

“I was surprised,” he said of the trade. “I didn’t get angry or anything like that. I feel there is a lot more opportunity in Orlando. It’s a better situation there and things are working out.”

Harkless lives in a condo that overlooks Orlando and is located about five minutes from the arena, which allows him to work out as often as possible.

“He did that so he can be in the gym as much as possible,” said his mentor, Nate Blue. “It’s really helped his maturation process.”

Maturation is important for young guys coming out of college early.

The way things are now set up, players like Harkless pretty much have to leave if they are guaranteed to be first-round picks, especially if they will go in the lottery or the first half of the first round.

They simply can’t turn down the money, even if it means not all of those players are ready for the NBA.

“What happens if the kid doesn’t come out and blows his knee or gets into a car accident? ” one NBA scout recently told me.

“Now he’ll never get the money. Our system is whacked. A number of them will be lottery picks and they’re too young…People forget the NBA means ‘No Babies Allowed.” When these kids come in, they’re babies. It takes them three years.”

This year alone, 26 of the 60 players drafted last June have been assigned to the NBA D-League at one stage or another. Harkless has so far escaped that fate.

“You always look back and think ‘what if I had come back or waited another year,” but I think I made the right decision,” Harkless said. “I’m in a good position right now. With hard work I can keep getting better and definitely have a good career.”

Harkless says he tries to keep tabs on St. John’s as much as possible. The Johnnies are currently riding a four-game winning streak and could extend it to five on Wednesday against DePaul.

“I watch pretty much every game that I can,” Harkless said. “I watch on my iPad or on TV. I’ve seen pretty much every game. They are getting better. Sometimes I sit there and face palm [out of frustration], but they have gotten better every game. They’ve won four straight and guys keep playing better. The best days for them are yet to come.”

Harrison, a sophomore guard, is the second-leading scorer in the Big East at 19.8 points per game, and has taken over as the main go-to guy in Harkless’ absence.

“He’s done a great job of being a leader,” Harkless said. “He’s doing a great job scoring and doing everything the team needs. I expected that from him though. I’m real proud of him.”

Meantime, the 6-8 Sampson has won five Big East Rookie of the Week honors and could potentially follow Harkless to the league after one year.

“He definitely has the tools to play on the next level,” Harkless said. “He just needs to keep working and developing. He’s still a little raw, but I definitely think he’ll be able to play at the next level. I don’t know how soon.”

Follow Adam Zagoria on Twitter

And like ZAGS on Facebook