When Kenny Atkinson sat down with Joe Harris in the summer of 2016, one thing stood out to the Nets coach.
Harris was coming off an interrupted second season in the NBA. Drafted early in the second round by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, he’d played in just five games in year two, and in the space of a week in January 2016, he’d undergone season-ending surgery, been traded to the Orlando Magic and then waived.
With his NBA future hanging in the balance, he came in to do a workout and meet with Atkinson and the Nets.
“What I loved, he took ownership,” said Atkinson. “He wasn’t like, ‘Oh, Cleveland didn’t give me an opportunity.’ He was all, ‘It was me.’ That convinced me that this is a guy we want. Just his character to say that. Ninety-nine percent of guys would put it off on their circumstances. He said, ‘I didn’t play well enough.’ No excuses. That’s what tipped it off. Since he’s been with us, it’s amazing his commitment to what we’re doing.”
It’s the kind of accountability that you might have found being taught in Joe Harris Sr.’s gym back in Chelan, Washington over the last 30 years.
For three decades Joe Harris Sr. preached defense and teamwork, including four seasons with his only son, who led Chelan High to a 50-8 record over his junior and senior seasons while twice being named state player of the year in his class.
“My dad is a pretty intense coach,” said Harris. “Kind of a no-nonsense sort of guy. Very disciplined program. He had been there for a long time and had a lot of success. He ran a tight ship. Everybody understood that. A lot of his core philosophy was based off guys and their demeanors, being good teammates. He didn’t like it when guys lost their composure or were bad teammates. Those were the main staples.”
In small-town Chelan — population around 4,000 — Harris didn’t limit himself to hoops, mixing in some football, baseball, track and wrestling. With three sisters who also played high school or college athletics, there was no shortage of activity in the Harris household.
“We had a hoop in the front yard, but when your dad’s the coach and he has the keys to the gym it’s pretty easy to have access to the gym, so we were fortunate that way,” said Harris. “If it was a Saturday afternoon and not a lot was going on we could always just run down the gym, open it up and mess around down there.”
The Chelan High gym was a second home for Harris growing up. He was the kid hanging around every practice from the time he was four or five years old, working the scoreboard, fetching towels and filling up water jugs. By the time he was in middle school, he was taking the court with his father’s team in open gyms on Saturday afternoons or during the offseason.
The kid behind the bench ended up as Washington Mr. Basketball and the Gatorade Washington Player of the Year and a major conference Division I recruit, while he and Joe Sr. comfortably navigated what can sometimes be a tricky balance between father and son or coach and player.
“I think we built up a pretty good relationship where we never really took any of this stuff home,” said Harris. “My dad now, or even since I’ve been in college, is never one to be critical or give any pointers or anything like that. He just wants to enjoy being a fan. He likes sitting back and watching. It was a lot of the same thing growing up. When he was my coach he was my coach. When we left the gym it was a father-son type of deal. He never was really one to nitpick something that happened in practice or a game. He was pretty good at leaving it on the court.”
Harris built up a strong connection with Washington State coach Tony Bennett — who had coincidentally played for his own father in college — and followed Bennett across the country when he left Washington State for Virginia. Harris started all but seven games he played in over his four seasons with the Cavaliers, leading Virginia to a sweep of the ACC regular season and tournament titles and then to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament as a senior in 2014.
With the Nets, Harris was brought in to add some shooting to the spread-the-floor offense that Atkinson was planning to install. He’d shot 40 percent from 3-point range in college and in his first season with the Nets knocked down 38.5 percent of his attempts from deep while making 11 starts in 52 appearances.
Before the 2017-18 season began, he expressed an ambition to lift that percentage up over 40 percent, into the area where the NBA’s truly elite 3-point shooters live.
“It’s more of a mental thing than anything else I think,” said Harris. “Just being able to have that confidence, whatever is giving you the confidence to shoot the ball. That’s what it boils down to. For me, I feel like technically I’ve worked so much on my shot that it’s just about the confidence and letting it go. Not thinking about it, not overanalyzing and just having the confidence that it’s going to go in when I let it go.”
Atkinson’s priorities for Harris this season were a little bit different. Cutting down on the turnovers was at the top of the list. Harris averaged 1.1 turnovers in just 22 minutes a game last season, and so far this year he’s cut that number by more than half.
Harris’ turnovers last season often came on drives to the rim. Taking care of the ball better is just one of the ways he’s punishing teams that rush out to run him off the 3-point line. After making just 54 percent of his shots within five feet of the rim last season, he was finishing at a 75-percent rate over the first month and shooting 64 percent overall on 2-point field goal attempts.
Atkinson loves the way Harris keeps his game clean and simple, and the way he competes on defense. But a shooter’s mentality is always at the heart of Harris’ game.
“Even if I’ve missed five or six in a row, I’m going to take the next one with just as much confidence that I can make it,” said Harris. “And that’s how it should be. For me, my role on this team is to take shots, help space the floor for the guys that we have, our ballhandlers and facilitators. And we have a lot of good playmakers, so the more space they can have, the better it is for us as a team. I’m not going to be doing this team a service if I don’t shoot the ball. Even if I miss the shots, it’s still bringing the defense to me and showing that I’m a threat.”