The Denver Nuggets have a handful of young players who are loaded with potential, and Gary Harris is one of them.
Since coming out of Michigan State in 2014, Harris had improved steadily over his first three campaigns with the Nuggets. As a sophomore, he averaged 12.3 points in 32.1 minutes a night, and it seems like he’ll be one of Denver’s long-term guards. Despite battling injuries, the 22-year-old improved yet again, posting 14.9 points on 50.2 percent shooting along with 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists. Harris’ success is all based on his ability to score, and he’s better at it now than he was in college.
He had the Nuggets’ second-highest offensive box plus/minus with plus-3.1, and there aren’t many holes in Harris’ game. He’s not a super explosive athlete, but his craftiness and ability to handle the ball mean he can manipulate defenders in a variety of ways while being patient enough to wait for his shot. At 6-4 with his skillset, Harris is more than capable of serving a combo guard role. (Weird anecdote, Basketball Reference estimated that 33 percent of his minutes this year came at small forward.)
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I’d put my money on Harris being Denver’s most versatile and efficient scorer, and his numbers boast a convincing argument. Among all of the NBA’s guards who attempted at 250 shots this year, Harris is eighth in true shooting percentage at 61.1 percent — James Harden, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Isaiah Thomas and Kyle Korver are the only ones ahead of him. Additionally, he’s third in overall field goal percentage (50.2), third in two-point percentage (55.8) and seventh in three-point percentage (42.0, which is good for ninth in the league). His three-level scoring ability is the separator, and that means big things.
The majority of Harris’ looks are in the paint or from three, with the shots from in between coming sporadically.
Because the Nuggets are so lethal from three (36.8, 11th in the league), the floor’s opened up for someone like Harris. He doesn’t have to create all of his buckets himself. With someone like Nikola Jokic, the guards can cut and stay moving. According to NBA.com, Harris took 280 shots inside of five feet. He converted on 62.9 percent of them, and 68.8 percent of those were assisted makes.
Getting points without the ball in his hand is a skill, and it’s a weapon that makes him even lethal. Defenders can’t ever fall asleep on Harris, and they’re glued to his hip because he’s a dead-eye marksman. If they help off him just a bit, it’s almost a guaranteed bucket, especially if he’s in the corner. I highlighted how he shot 42 percent overall from three, but Harris has tremendous range and can step out beyond 25 feet with no hiccups. In fact, he attempted more threes from the 25-29-foot range (130) than the 20-24 range (119). The percentages don’t deviate much, either — 40.0 and 45.4, respectively.
Because he’s so versatile, the Nuggets are much better with him on the floor. It’s almost like they’re running an entirely different offense. According to Basketball Reference, Denver is 7.6 points better per 100 possessions (117.1) — the ball moves more and the team gets better looks because of it. Denver’s assist percentage jumps to 64.8 percent (from 58.5) and their effective field goal clip sits at 55.5 percent, compared to 50.9 with Harris on the bench. It’s evident that Harris elevates the play of everyone around him indirectly, and the Nuggets three-highest differential 5-man lineups have Harris in them. In order, they’re plus-35, plus-32 and plus-30. Those three didn’t play a lot of minutes, but, because he’s earned a bigger role, the ones that saw the most time together featured Harris. Additionally, they also posted intriguingly-high differentials.
With all young players, Harris isn’t without his flaws. He didn’t become well-acquainted with the foul line and averaged just 2.4 attempts a night. A primary factor is his devotion to the three-ball. It’s not a bad thing that 40 percent of Harris’ looks come from downtown because he makes such a high clip. If he were below 38 or 37, then we’d have an issue. Just based on shot selection, it’s clear he’s not as aggressive as some of his contemporaries. It’s also possible that the officials aren’t giving all the calls they should. However, I don’t believe that holds much weight because Harris didn’t have a single game this year with more than six attempted free throws. If the attempts were all over the place, I’d look at it differently.
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Regardless, it’s something that could improve as he matures. If it does, and he’s able to create fouls on a regular basis, Denver potentially has a 20-point guy on their hands. If that doesn’t happen, they still have a reliable scorer.
Gary Harris has a legitimate chance to be 2017-18’s Most Improved Player. Almost all of the Nuggets key contributors are going to return and, while it’s possible that hinders Harris’ improvement, if he shows that he’s the go-to guy, his teammates will have no reluctance deferring to him if they need a bucket. The biggest thing, though, is staying healthy. Harris isn’t injury prone, but the last thing we’d want to see is him missing big chunks of action like he did this year.
Denver was right on the cusp of making the postseason this season. If Harris makes a huge jump and the team tightens up defensively, the Nuggets will have something incredibly promising put together for future seasons.
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