The Orlando Magic intended to run a pick-and-roll. They trailed the Oklahoma City Thunder by one point with a little less than a minute to go Monday afternoon in a summer-league game, and the Magic needed to generate an open shot.

But Maurice Harkless saw an opportunity, and he took it before the play developed. Starting with the ball just inside the halfcourt stripe, Harkless needed just eight strides to drive past defender Jeremy Lamb and elevate toward the rim for a right-handed tomahawk dunk. Harkless drew a foul at the rim, and although he didn't complete the slam, he went to the free-throw line and sank both shots.

The Magic officials sitting courtside loved what they saw. The play signaled an increased assertiveness from Harkless, who, at 20 years old, is one of the key figures in Orlando's rebuilding project. If Harkless carries his aggressiveness into the upcoming season, it would be a significant plus for the franchise.

"It comes with experience," Harkless said. "I'm not a rookie anymore. Out here, I'm kind of a leader on this team, and I've got to act like it and play like it."

Harkless' forcefulness helped salvage an otherwise disappointing exhibition for the Magic, who lost 79-78 after they led by as many as 10 points midway through the fourth quarter.

Harkless, a small forward, finished with 14 points, five rebounds and three steals.

But perhaps most impressive of all were the 12 foul shots he took. During his rookie season, he never attempted more than nine free throws in a game.

Harkless entered the offseason intent on adding muscle to his sinewy 6-foot-8 frame. He now weighs about 220 pounds, up from 210 pounds at the start of last season, and he looks more muscular in his arms and in his chest. That added bulk has made him more confident when he attacks the rim.

"He just looks like a different player to me: very aggressive to the rim, looking for his shot when he has it," said Magic lead assistant coach James Borrego, who is coaching the franchise's summer-league team.

"He anchors us. He and Kyle O'Quinn really anchor our defense by talking and just being aggressive. So we've seen a lot of improvement from him."

The Magic acquired Harkless last August from the Philadelphia 76ers in the 12-player four-team trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers.

In mid-August, Harkless underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia, and he missed all of training camp and the entire preseason. When he made his NBA debut Nov. 7, he looked tentative and, understandably, more than a bit lost on the court.

By late January, he started to look comfortable, and an injury to teammate Arron Afflalo forced him to take a more assertive role. Harkless picked up more playing time after the team traded J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks just before the NBA trade deadline in February.

Harkless has looked more aggressive since then, especially on the defensive end of the court, where Magic officials think he can become an elite player.

"Whether or not shots are falling," Harkless said, "I always want to make my presence felt on the defensive end."

In the closing seconds Monday, Harkless may have been a bit too aggressive as he defended against Lamb with Orlando ahead 78-77. Lamb drove into the lane, stopped on a dime and took a step-back jumper as Harkless overran him. Lamb hit the shot.

Still, the Magic would rather see Harkless be overaggressive than tentative.

From what he has shown so far this summer, tentativeness won't be a problem in the year ahead.

jbrobbins@tribune.com. Read his blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/magicblog and follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaBRobbins.