More than a shooter, Joe Harris gives Brooklyn Nets some drive

For the record, Joe Harris was a quarterback.

The clarification comes here because Nets coach Kenny Atkinson has an affinity for likening Brooklyn’s 6-foot-6 swingman to a tight end, a guy you wouldn’t mind asking to do a little dirty work.

“I played football growing up so I used to lift quite a bit when I was in high school,” said Harris. “And then I got to Virginia I was lucky, good strength and conditioning program and coach there. Put on some weight, and I always have been right around, 220 range is what I play around. So I’m actually quite a bit heavier than I look.”

Appearances can be deceiving. And expectations, if they’re based on that, are there to be exceeded.

That’s the story of Joe Harris, who has authored a remarkable turnaround to his NBA career over the last two years, at least partly by becoming a different player than anybody expected him to be.

He’s turned himself into – by some measures – the Nets’ most efficient offensive player. Harris leads the Nets in effective field goal percentage, which weights the added value of a 3-pointer in its equation. In true shooting percentage, which factors for free throw shooting as well, Harris is second behind Jarrett Allen.

“He’s not just a shooter,” said Atkinson. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

Harris was a shooter all right, having knocked down 40 percent of his 3-pointers over four years at Virginia. But this time two years ago, he was an unemployed shooter. His second NBA season in Cleveland was a washout, interrupted by injury and ended by a trade to Orlando, which subsequently cut him.

Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks was in the process of turning over his roster, having taken over the team in February of 2016. One of Marks’ first hires was assistant GM Trajan Langdon, who had been in Cleveland’s front office since the previous fall. When the Nets started putting together lists of players they wanted to invite in for a look, they added Harris.

“Trajan knew the player because he was around him all the time,” said Atkinson. “That really helped.”

It was an open gym workout, a casting call, last-chance saloon. Atkinson liked what he saw from Harris. He liked what he heard even more. Harris carried everything that happened in Cleveland. Didn’t blame injuries or circumstances or anything.

“His character stood out to me,” said Atkinson. “This guy is authentic. No excuses. Just looking for another shot.”

The Nets gave it to him, and Harris delivered roughly along what his profile would have suggested at that point. He shot 38.5 percent on 4.3 3-point attempts per game, a pretty high volume for a guy playing 21 minutes a game off the bench. He took 65 percent of his shots from behind the arc.

Harris believed he had more in him, that he could get his 3-point percentage up over 40 percent. That was all well and good, but when the Nets coaches met with him after the season, they wanted to talk about something else. They wanted Brooklyn’s best 3-point shooter to get better at making 2-pointers.

“I think it was definitely an emphasis this offseason,” said Harris. “We all have our specific coaches that we work with individually and mine is Jordan Ott. They sat down with us at the end of last year and went over analytically where they thought you could be better, where you could be more efficient, what they thought you could work a little bit on.

“Obviously my role is shooter, trying to take my numbers to another level from that perspective. But when you do shoot the ball at a high level, you’re going to be able to have opportunities for drives because those guys are going to be running you off the line. So we worked on that a lot, situationally, being able to put the ball on the deck when somebody runs you off the line and either finish or try to make a play for somebody else.”

They went to work over the summer with coaches contesting Harris’ shots with long blue extensions mimicking a 7-foot-10 wingspan, knocking him around in the paint, and stressing decision-making, keeping things under control. Harris refined a pet move, ducking under the rim for a reverse layup to protect his shot.

The result has changed Harris’ reputation throughout the league. Harris is a more active driver, and a more effective one.

He’s still taking 62.5 percent of his shots on catch-and-shoot type opportunities without a dribble. But last year, that number was 70.6 percent. And whether it’s one dribble or a half-dozen or more, Harris is shooting 62.7 percent when he puts the ball on the deck, a huge jump from last season’s 46.9 percent.

In the restricted area, Harris is shooting 66.7 percent, and inside five feet, he’s shooting 62.6 percent. Last season both numbers were just under 55 percent. His turnovers are consistent with last season – 1.1 per game – and that’s something Atkinson still wants him to improve on. But Harris has kept that number even while playing more minutes and attacking the rim more often.

“This is part of development,” said Atkinson. “I do think we give guys freedom. I think if we just put him in a box just as a shooter, I’m not sure this would have flourished like that. We give him chances to make mistakes. Development is freedom. They’re kind of attached.”

Harris has actually emerged as one of the more efficient drivers in the league, particularly out of the pick-and-roll, whether he’s getting all the way to the rim or passing off. And his 59.2 percent field goal percentage on drives is No. 2 in the league among players with at least 4.0 per game, behind LeBron James.

None of this should totally overshadow the primary reason Harris is here – to make 3-point shots. His percentage is up to 41.1 percent as part of an overall field goal percentage of 48.6, a six-point jump from last season so far.

On Saturday night in Miami, Harris broke Mirza Teletovic’s single-season team record for most 3-pointers off the bench. He had been tied at 115 going into the game.

In 41 games since New Year’s Day, Harris is shooting 45.5 percent from 3-point range. That includes a blistering 54.5 percent run over his last five, a stretch that includes his 30-point outing against Cleveland on March 25. Harris shot 6-for-7 from 3-point range and 11-for-14 overall against his old team.

“It still goes game by game,” said Harris. “Some games you’re going to be able to get rolling, you’re going to get in a good rhythm, you’re going to be able to get open looks. Other games, sometimes the rhythm’s not there and you’ve got to get off it a little bit. Here as of late it’s been a good rhythm and as a shooter that’s what it’s all about. Trying to find a rhythm and when you have that, you have a lot of confidence.”