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Denver Nuggets Year in Review: Gary Harris

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Gary Harris surprised virtually everyone this season when his game improved by leaps and bounds in comparison to his rookie campaign. While his defense has never been questioned, his offense blossomed behind a more consistent shooting stroke and a good dose of confidence.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

By Dan Lewis

After a challenging rookie season under Brian Shaw and Melvin Hunt, Gary Harris was tabbed to be the starting shooting guard for Michael Malone in his second season. The former Michigan State standout responded admirably to the challenge, leading the Nuggets in games started and minutes, a pillar of consistency in a season full of ups and downs.

Harris had a nice performance alongside Emmanuel Mudiay in Summer League, starting to work on building chemistry between the two players as early as possible. It soon became obvious what kind of production Harris would bring to the Nuggets as a starter, chipping in points from behind the 3-point line, on cuts to the rim, and playing solid defense on the perimeter.

Harris started the season tentatively, slowly feeling out his expanded role on the team. With Danilo Gallinari capable of shouldering the load on offense, Harris seemed hesitant at times to take open shots when the ball swung into his hands. A concussion sidelined Harris for a few games at the end of November, but he returned in December to chip in 12 points in 44 minutes in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Once Nikola Jokic was inserted into the starting lineup, Harris' scoring opportunities became more plentiful. With Jokic's passing ability from the elbows, a lightbulb went off for Harris, and he realized, "Hey, if I commit to a backdoor cut a few times a game, I'm going to score." Jokic was more than happy to oblige, and that connection began to show up a few times a game for beautiful layups and dunks.

The second half of the season, like many other Nuggets, was a great stretch for Harris. Gone were the jitters that defined the first half of the season for Harris, and he began to play with the confidence that a starting guard should play with. Harris finished with double digit points in 25 of the final 28 games to close the season, including 18 games in a row with double digit points.

There's no doubt that Harris proved he can play in the NBA this season. He's a menace on defense, using his quick hands to poke the ball free, and he's improving his perimeter shot. There are questions about whether he'll be the starter next year, but if he isn't, it won't be because he struggled in his second season. There will be continued improvement, thanks to Harris's work ethic and desire to be the best player he can be, and the future is bright for the quiet shooting guard from Indiana.

Important Stat

By Gordon Gross

.538

That's Gary's effective field-goal percentage (eFG%).  It's the 10th-highest mark a guard playing for the Nuggets has ever had (1000 minute minumum).  The top 10 has multiple seasons from Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and J.R. Smith, and is headed by Greg Buckner.  Not every guy on that list is a star, obviously, but Harris's ability to be efficient with his shooting from every distance (his two-point % is 5th in Denver history) was an obvious anomaly in Denver's poor-shooting repertoire.  He increased his eFG% from .353 last year to .538 this year.  There's a reason he got votes for Most Improved Player.

Room for improvement

By Adam Mares

Gary Harris shot 35.4% from beyond the arc this season, a solid number given that he was often the team's only threat from deep. Improving that number to closer around 40% would be huge but might be more about getting better looks than about improving his form, confidence, or consistency. So I'll go a different direction in terms of what he can improve on.

Playmaking. He can make himself a much more versatile offensive player if he adds more playmaking to his game. Being more of a threat off of the dribble is the most foundational skill that he is lacking in order to take his playmaking to another level and it'd be great to see him come back next season with more confidence and ability to play pick and roll or attack off of the dribble in isolation. It will only be used to season his game, not to overwhelm it, but having a second ball handler in DJ Augustin has proven to open up the offense quite a bit. Harris is a better all around player than DJ so if Harris can learn to be more of a playmaker, it will greatly improve the Nuggets offensive attack.

Highlight of the Year

By Zach Mikash

Gary's highlights generally consist of either him making a big play on defense or soaring to the rim for a big time throwdown. Against the Atlanta Hawks he combined both into one play and showed everyone just what kind of leaping ability he truly possesses.

Best Game of the Year

By Gordon Gross

This is tough, because there are several to choose from, but in the end I had to go with the win against the Warriors on January 13th.  Harris had 19 points, tied his season-high with 7 rebounds, defended Klay Thompson well, nailed free throws and generally looked the part of a main piece of this team going forward.  Harris made these types of choices difficult this year because he had a lot of similar top-end games without necessarily one true standout performance.  That's both beneficial and possibly an issue - if Gary is looking for permission to truly spend 30 minutes going off next year, then permission granted.

Roundtable

What was more impressive to you this season: Gary's offense, or his defense?

Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): His offense.  I knew he was a pretty good defender (still not sure he's great, and the basic metrics definitely don't show it yet) but his offense and approach were so woeful last year that I wasn't sure he'd be able to put it together the way that he has. I liked watching the steals and the defensive effort (which he brought from opening game against Houston all the way through the season) but being able to be a scoring force for this team was the more surprising bonus for me.

Adam Mares (@Adam_Mares): His offense was most surprising and maybe even better, at least according to the advanced stats. But to me his defense was the most impressive part of his game. I'm probably relying on the eye test a bit too much here but Harris has the quickest hands I've ever seen. He gets his hand on the ball almost anytime his opponent tries to put it on the floor. He has all of the instincts and reaction speed to become an elite defender and he's even fun to watch play defense.

Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): His defense. His offensive game improved as the season went along, but he still has room to grow as a playmaker and shotmaker. But defensively, he's such a nuisance for opposing guards on the perimeter. Like Adam mentioned, he really does a good job getting loose balls and disrupting offense. Now, if the guards were able to post Harris up, that's a different story, but he'll have a few months to review videotape, hit the gym, and improve in that area of his game.

Harris made a huge improvement between last season and this season. Do you think he'll make a similar leap in year three?

Gross: I don't think Harris has to make a similar performance leap to last year.  He has to get in the mindset that he needs to be consistent over the 82-game schedule and that he needs to aggressively pursue his own shot.  Gary had a bad habit of disappearing for halves, or passing up shots because he forgot he was the best shooter on the floor at the time somehow.  Harris knows he can play in this league now - but learning to impose your will instead of just go with the flow is a different lesson entirely.  I think he can learn that next year, but I expect it to take another year or two.

Mares: It's hard to imagine he'll make that big of a leap but I do think he'll improve once again. His shot can get a bit quicker and he can continue to gain confidence in it. It'd be great for him to creep up and above 40% from deep. The area I'd love to see him improve the most is in his ball handling. If he can become a better dribble drive player, he'll take the Nuggets offense to another level.

Lewis: If we're talking percentages, it'll be hard for him to improve there. It's like The Biggest Loser - if you have a lot to lose, yeah, the improvements are drastic, but it's more challenging for some people to lose five to ten pounds. Harris only attempted 130 free throws this season, which is a really low number for a shooting guard. He settled for jump shots too often, or passed the ball to a teammate if the defense didn't give him a clear route to the rim. That's one of the reasons I think the Nuggets will try to find a shooting guard in the draft, to find a player with more length that can score over size in the paint. I imagine it's quite difficult for Harris, at his size, to do that efficiently.

Can Gary Harris be a starting shooting guard on a championship team?

Gross: Are Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka also on this championship team?  Because then yes.  If Gary has to be a main cog, then no, I don't think so.  Gary's still very young and could obviously grow into a more dominant player than he is now, but I don't think he'll be dominant enough to ever lead a team himself, and I don't think he can be part of a Big Three either.  He's not Ray Allen.  Gary Harris can be a starter on a championship team at SG as long as he is there to fill a role as a 3-and-D guy who can slash to the basket.  He can be a Jason Terry on your championship roster - as long you have Hall-of-Famer, Hall-of-Famer, DPOY and do-it-all-switchblade as your other starters.  That's not to say he wouldn't have an impact (Terry obviously did) but Terry did not carry that team to the Finals.  He just helped seal the deal - which is something Harris could do too.

Mares: It pains me to say this but probably not and the reason has nothing to do with his skill but rather his height. He can be a starter in many games and if all of the other pieces are perfect fits alongside him, namely length and playmakers at point guard and small forward. But the most likely spot for him is as a terrific shooter, cutter, and on ball defender off of the bench playing 20+ mpg. This isn't a knock on him at all. The NBA is becoming a deeper and deeper league where the best teams rely on a deep and versatile bench.

Lewis: No, not unless the other four players are above-average players. He could be a Mario Chalmers-type guard on a team of superstars, but his lack of size makes it hard for him to contribute in enough areas. Off the bench, Harris can help propel a second unit in a playoff run. But I think that the Nuggets will need to find a player that is able to do more things physically than Harris is. It's hard to get taller at his age, believe me, I've tried, and no amount of thinking about it has made a difference so far.