This is the first part in a series where a Denver Stiffs writer identifies one skill that they would like to see that a player worked on over the summer. To begin the series, we’re starting with one of the starters, Gary Harris.
With Labor Day in the rearview mirror, training camp is only a few weeks away. It will be the fourth training camp in a Nugget jersey for Gary Harris, who will enter camp as the longest-tenured member of the team following offseason trades of Darrell Arthur and Kenneth Faried.
Harris has developed into a reliable starter in his four years in the league, starting his career as a player that could struggled in limited minutes off the bench but has grown into a player that is putting up fringe All-Star worthy production.
Harris signed an extension last season that will go into effect this year, making him one of the highest paid players on the roster. While the contract is certainly deserved, it’s time for Harris to help translate his on-court production into a playoff appearance for the team.
Harris is one of the top 3&D guards in the league, with a 57 percent effective field goal percentage last season. He has the tools to shoot over 40 percent on his 3-point attempts, with a healthy volume.
Harris is one of the best cutters on the team, and finished in the eightieth percentile in the league on that playtype. He’s an underrated athlete, and he’s built up the strength needed to finish above the rim in transition.
But getting points from the 3-point line and on wide open finishes — courtesy of Nikola Jokic’s vision and passing ability — isn’t and shouldn’t be enough for Harris. Which leads to the skill I’m hoping he’s worked on in the offseason.
The Nuggets don’t run a traditional offense, with Jokic initiating a majority of the offense from the high post. That doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from guards and wings creating plays off the dribble however — some of their best plays come when they use Jokic as the roll man, putting him in a 4x3 situation as he waddles towards the rim like a baby that just put on sneakers for the first time.
According to NBA Stats, Harris was used as the ballhandler in a pick and roll 2.3 times per game — behind Will Barton, Jamal Murray, and Devin Harris per game. That stat is more evident when you look at his free throw rate. According to Basketball Reference, for players that appeared in over 41 games and played more than 20 minutes per game, Harris ranked 67th out the 107 guards that qualified with a 17.8 percent rate.
The plain explanation — Harris needs to get to the free throw line more often. His free throw rate is about equal to other guards that are not efficient scorers: Lance Stephenson, Rodney Hood, and Kris Dunn (unexpectedly, CJ McCollum).
Harris doesn’t need to be James Harden or Russell Westbrook, baiting opponents into committing fouls or exploding through them. If his optimal role on the team is akin to JJ Redick, an elite shooter running off screens, he can still add more drives to his game and get to the free throw line more often. It will add another capable playmaker that can drive into the paint and disrupt the offense. The addition of Barton to the starting lineup should make the Nuggets offense even more difficult to guard, and if Harris could also be a threat to drive and score, it makes them even better.
Harris being able to improve as a ballhandler means that he’ll be able to play more minutes alongside Isaiah Thomas where Thomas is the off-ball scoring threat. While Thomas is one of the best in the league at attacking off the dribble, he’s also a capable decoy. When he played on the Celtics, he would be used to draw the defense’s attention off-ball while his teammates ran plays. If Harris is able to attack like the Celtics used Marcus Smart, they can take advantage of their offseason free agency signing.
Being able to pick up some plays as the primary ballhandler could also make things a little easier for Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, and Torrey Craig when they get minutes as well, allowing them to stay off ball. That opens up more defensive lineups for Coach Malone - something that he’ll need in end-game situations.