There weren’t many highlights for the Denver Nuggets last season. In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of a few. There was Ty Lawson bringing Kirk Hinrich to his knees with a fake crossover, Danilo Gallinari’s 47-point performance against the Dallas Mavericks and Jusuf Nurkic handing the ball to a sprawled-out Markieff Morris after plowing him over for an easy dunk.
Other than those few instances, it was a season that’ll be remembered primarily for the general discord and dysfunction that plagued the team for the majority of the year. But there was one other moment that happened in mid-November, before the season officially spiraled out of control, that fans should take note of.
The Nuggets were coming off six straight losses after winning their first game of the season, and headed into Indianapolis to face a hobbled Pacers team that had won only three games of their own.
The game wasn’t particularly close or enthralling. The Nuggets went on to win the game by 21 points, and would go on to win seven of their next nine games, leaving many to believe they could remain competitive throughout the season, but that’s another story entirely.
But for one Gary Harris, it marked the first time he’d ever suited up for an NBA game. What made it even more special was the fact that his debut would come in his return to his home state of Indiana.
With about 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Harris blew by Donald Sloan on the right wing, drove to the basket, where he was greeted by A.J. Price and Ian Mahinmi and threw down one of the most impressive dunks of the year over Mahinmi’s outstretched arms. It was truly something to behold, even if Harris’s mom may have missed it:
Why does a meaningless play, however impressive it may have been, that occurred in garbage time of an early-season game have any importance? Well, it conveyed a glimpse of what the Nuggets, and their fans, thought they were getting when they selected Harris with the 19th pick in last year’s draft.
Harris was almost universally heralded as one of the steals of that draft class, as many even had him being taken with a top 10 pick. Widely praised as one of the draft’s best 3-and-D guys, he was viewed as a solid and dependable, if not overly-exciting, player who could fill a very specific role in the league.
But over the course of his rookie season, while he certainly demonstrated a fierce aggressiveness on the defensive side of the ball, he seemed to have misplaced the “3” in his 3-and-D classification.
Harris, who played in 55 games and started six of them, shot a putrid 30 percent from the floor, an even worse 20 percent from behind the arc and had an effective field-goal percentage (eFG) of 35 percent. Some attributed his struggles to an inability to extend his shot to NBA range, and to a certain extent that’s probably true, but even from 16-23 feet he shot a pedestrian 32 percent, so clearly there’s something deeper going on with his jump shot.
At Michigan State, he never set the world on fire with his shooting, but he was more than respectable, and definitely kept the defense honest by forcing them to respect the fact that he could knock down open jumpers.
During his last season with the Spartans, he shot 43 percent from the floor, including 35 percent from three-point range (of which he attempted more than six per game), and had an effective field goal percentage of 52 percent. As I said, that’s not lights-out shooting, but it’s definitely enough to keep the defense on their toes.
The most important thing for any rookie coming into the league is playing time, and that’s something Harris didn’t get a lot of. It’s really difficult to get into any sort of rhythm when you only play in two-thirds of the total games and only average 13 minutes in the games you do see action. That’s a difficult task for any player, but even more so for a 20-year-old rookie.
Harris also seemed like he felt overwhelmed out there on the court, and he often appeared to rush his decisions, which often led to less than ideal results.
He admitted as much in a piece by Chris Dempsey in the Denver Post.
“You’re just thinking so fast,” Harris said. “You want to make something happen. You’re trying to do it all at one time instead of just relaxing and just playing.”
You can see in this video that when Harris plays under control and allows the game to come to him, he often stands out as one of the best and smoothest players on the court:
How Good Can He Be?
Harris will definitely be one of the most important pieces for the Nuggets this upcoming season. He’s almost guaranteed to get an exponential uptick in playing time as they’ve clearly shifted their focus towards developing their young core, for better or worse.
Michael Malone has also proven to be a defensive-minded coach, and he’ll almost certainly appreciate the energy and intensity Harris provides on that end of the court. I’d look for his minutes to increase to somewhere between 25-30 minutes per game next year, and we should see his comfort level increase in accordance with the increase in playing time.
One concern I have about Harris, besides his overwhelming shooting struggles, is that he’s really undersized for a shooting guard in today’s NBA. Other 3-and-D guys who have proven themselves in the NBA — i.e. Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Danny Green — all stand 6’6” or above. Harris is an underwhelming 6’4” and weighs around 210 pounds.
The most comparable player, in terms of size and skill set, is probably Wesley Matthews, which is an exciting thought for any Nuggets fan to be sure. But Matthews entered the league in 2009 and immediately established himself as a deadly shooter, unlike Harris. Matthews shot 48 percent from the floor, 38 percent from three-point range and recorded an impressive 54 percent effective field goal percentage during his rookie season.
Bradley Beal also comes to mind when trying to find comparisons for Harris from a physical perspective, but again Beal immediately established himself as one of the best shooters in the league as early as his rookie season. Harris, however, is already probably the better defender, so he has that to hang his hat on.
More realistic is the prospect of Harris becoming an Arron Afflalo type of player, especially if he can further develop his mid-range/post game. There are actually some pretty significant similarities between the two. Afflalo also struggled from the floor his rookie season, but has gone on to carve out a role as a starter in this league for the past five seasons, and if Harris can approach that success, I think most fans would take it.
Here’s a comparison between the four during their rookie seasons.
Despite his size, I still like Harris’s upside as an above-average to good NBA player, if for no other reason than he’ll always have a role as an excellent defender.You can see the similarities between Afflalo and Harris almost immediately.
Fans should prepare themselves for a fairly bumpy roller coaster ride this season, but I think we could very well see Harris develop into an important part of this young Nuggets core when all’s said and done.