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In “The Spotlight Series,” I’ll be looking at a player or two (depending on the team) from each team in the league that, in my opinion, doesn’t get attention at all from casual fans, or doesn’t get enough praise for what he brings to the table.

While the NBA community continues to hype the future of young(ish) teams like the Utah Jazz (rightfully so), the Milwaukee Bucks (I get it), and the Minnesota Timberwolves (miiight want to slow down…), the Denver Nuggets seem to fall through the cracks. Despite injuries plaguing the roster, the Nuggets finished 33-49 last season — not the best mark, of course, but it was the 10th “best” record in the West, or four games better than the Timberwolves.

The Nuggets are quietly loaded with young talent, headlined by Nikola Jokic and Emmanuel Mudiay. There’s also Kenneth Faried, who’s somehow only 26.  Bruising brute Jusuf Nurkic, who followed up a solid rookie campaign (13.9 points and 12.4 rebounds per 36 minutes) by missing 50 games last season, is set to return strong (literally) this season.  Heck, the Nuggets also just drafted combo guard Jamal Murray, who projects as an elite shooter at the next level.

There’s a serious youth movement brewing in Denver with….(mile) high potential:

 

Another player who’s slipped through the cracks a bit is current starting shooting guard Gary Harris, who has the potential to become one of the NBA’s best young two-way shooting guards.

THE NUMBERS

Harris was one of the most intriguing prospects coming out of Michigan State, averaging 14.9 points (44 percent from the field, 37.6 percent from three), 3.3 rebounds, two assists, and 1.6 steals during his two-year stint there before heading to Denver (via draft night trade with Chicago).

Harris didn’t have much of a role in his rookie year in 2014-15, only appearing in 55 games while averaging 3.4 points (30.4 percent from the field, 20.4 percent from three) in 13.1 minutes. He made six starts but wasn’t much better, averaging 7.5 points (35.7 percent from the field, 26.1 percent from three).

Last season, Harris started in all 76 games that he appeared in, and showed signs of becoming the two-way player he was in college. His minutes shot up to 32.3, and his production followed suit across the board.

  • 2014-15: 3.4 points, 1.2 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.1 blocks, 30.4% FG, 20.4% 3PT, 74.5% FT, 4.9 PER, 39.5 TS%, -0.046 win shares per 48
  • 2015-16: 12.3 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.9% FT, 35.4% 3PT, 82% FT, 12.7 PER, 56.6 TS%, 0.079 win shares per 48

Harris produced 4.0 win shares last season; that was the 5th highest mark among players in his draft class, ranking right behind Andrew Wiggins (4.1), and ahead of guys like Jabari Parker (3.6), Nerlens Noel (3.0), Marcus Smart (2.9), and Zach LaVine (2.6).

Defensively, Harris’ numbers paint a much uglier picture than the reality. Despite his tenacity as an on-ball defender, his physical limitations — he’s a 6’4 SG with a 6’6.75 wingspan — puts him at a disadvantage against bigger 2s.

Last season, opponents shot 49.4 percent from the field and 42.7 percent from three with Harris as the nearest defender pre-All Star break. After the break, those numbers dipped to 45.1 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from deep — still higher-than-optimal numbers, but an obvious sign of improvement that Matt Moore of CBS Sports pointed out:

Taller guards were able to light Harris up from 3-point range, so halfway through the season he started attacking their catch and the motion they would use to bring the ball up, without fouling, to disrupt them and force them to reset the ball to someone else. Little things like that are what internal improvement are all about. Harris is primed to gain the most attention this year as he hopefully continues on the path he’s already been on but perhaps hasn’t been sufficiently noticed for.

THE EVIDENCE

Harris is an active body that loves doing work in the open floor. His athleticism and finishing ability makes him a threat in transition or early offense situations:

 

Via Synergy, Harris ranked in the 76.4 percentile in transition, ahead of noted finishers like Russell Westbrook (58.2), James Harden (41.5), Paul George (49.6), Zach LaVine (75.4), Goran Dragic (41.3), and Andrew Wiggins (66.3).

Harris is also difficult to track in the half-court thanks to his ability to find seams in the defense when playing off-ball. Whether a play is designed for him or not, you can almost always find him moving:

 

One of the plays Denver liked to run for Harris last year was an ATO (after timeout play) that had Harris loop around two screens for a lob:

 

Last season, Harris ranked in the 61.3 percentile as a cutter, 58.1 percentile when coming off screens, and, when he was standing still, ranked in the 59.4 percentile on spot-ups via Synergy.

Harris showcased a little more juice in his off-the-dribble game in year two. He was able to get to his spots more consistently and, with improved strength and body control, finish at the basket.

He attacked in one-on-one situations from the perimeter:

 

Harris also attacked well in pick-and-roll — ranking in the 56.4 percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler via Synergy — changing speeds fairly well and either getting into the lane or setting up his jumper:

 

Harris shot a woeful 25.7 percent on drives and 40 percent overall inside of six feet during his rookie season. He drastically improved both numbers last season, shooting 44.1 percent on drives and 57.5 percent inside of six feet.

Defensively, Harris is still a work in progress.

On the bright side, Harris is aggressive, has quick hands, and can play the passing lanes relatively well. If your handle is loose, Harris will rob you blind:

 

Errant passes can and will be picked:

 

On the other end of the spectrum, the few physical limitations Harris has gets exposed defensively, especially when his gambles don’t pay off.

Harris is undersized at the 2, and has trouble navigating through screens and closing out against bigger players at his position:

 

Then there are plays like this where Harris rotates correctly, closes out, but simply doesn’t affect the shooter:

 

Last season, Harris ranked in the bottom third of the league defending off-screen plays (32.7 percentile), pick-and-roll ball handlers (20.1 percentile) and spot-up shooters (32.1 percentile) via Synergy.

The instincts and the energy seem to be there for Harris. He’s only 22, though, so there’s still time for him to fill out his frame and improve.

Overall, Harris has plenty of upside and should gel nicely with the rest of Denver’s young core. It’ll be interesting to see, barring injury, how big of a leap Harris makes this year, and if it’s comparable to the one he made from year one to year two.

The Spotlight Series: Nuggets Edition – Gary Harris

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