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After an injury plagued season, Gary Harris is struggling to finish at the rim

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Deep dive on Gary Harris attacking the basket

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Gary Harris is having a tough year.

In December, Harris injured his right hip and was forced to miss the next two weeks. He returned to the lineup in late December but exited again in early January due to a hamstring injury. He returned once again a few weeks later but never looked quite right, often limping toward the bench during timeouts and hobbling around the court during dead balls. In total, Harris has appeared in just 55 games so far this season and will finish having played fewer minutes than he did in either of his previous three seasons.

After sitting out a three-week stretch that included the all-star break, Harris returned to the lineup on February 22nd and has appeared in every game since. However, it’s clear from both the film and from his shot profile that the injury is affecting an important part of his game: finishing at the rim. Harris shot 71.8% on shots within 3-feet of the basket last season, according to basketball reference. This season, that number has fallen to just 61%. There’s a similar dip in his efficiency on shots just outside of the restricted area, typically the spot on the court where a player shoots floaters and runners.

basketball-reference.com

In previous years, Harris has been unstoppable driving to his right. The Nuggets run a lot of dribble handoffs (DHOs) for Harris to receive the pass out of the left corner where he can gather some momentum driving toward the paint. Some of his biggest career highlights have come from actions like the ones below. His big hands and strong frame allow him to power through most defenders en route to a one-handed dunk or a strong finish through contact.

This season, Harris has struggled to turn that corner with the same momentum. When he does turn the corner successfully, far too often he finishes the drive below the rim.

The clip below is especially concerning. Bojan Bogdanovic is a notoriously poor shot blocker. This season, he is the first player 6’8” or taller to play at least 2500 minutes and record just one blocked shot. But what’s more concerning than the fact that Bogdanovic was able to challenge him is the way Harris gathers to attack the basket.

Notice as the video slows down how Harris steps with his right foot before gathering with his left. Most right handed shooters are naturally left footed jumpers. Jumping off of two feet provides more power but less lift. In previous season, Harris has been able to elevate off of his left foot and rise above the rim. Here, he appears to favor his right leg, a sign that he doesn’t trust his left.

Harris has always had a great right-to-left eurostep but even this move is made less effective by the lack of lift and burst.

The injuries have also affected Harris’s transition game. Last season, Harris ranked in the 83rd percentile in transition offense, according to Synergy. This season, he’s fallen all the way down to the 19th percentile. Once again, many of his finishes happen below the rim.

The lower body injuries could also be affecting his three-point shot. He is shooting just 34.3% from behind the arc this season, the worst mark since his rookie year and 5% below his previous two seasons. This season’s numbers are propped up by a red-hot month of March in which Harris shot 48.1% over 15 games. He’s just 2 of 12 through four games in April but if Harris can get back closer to 40% throughout the playoffs, Denver will be a much more formidable offense, even if the lift at the rim doesn’t return until next season.

When healthy, Gary Harris is the second-best and most impactful player on the Denver Nuggets’ roster. From 2016-18 he was the most reliable and consistent Nuggets player. Injuries have robbed him of that title this year but now that he has appeared in 22 straight games, there’s hope that he can find a rhythm and adjust to his new and hopefully temporary limitations heading into the playoffs. He might not be able to finish above the rim like he has in season’s past so an adjustment on his dribble drives might be in order, but if he can knock down his outside shots and contain opposing teams’ best perimeter players, he’ll still be one of the most important x-factors in a playoff series.