All that stands between Gary Harris and widespread national recognition that he is, in fact, one of the NBA’s best shooting guards, is probably a playoff appearance.
All of the other boxes are quickly being checked off.
And it wasn’t just his teammates, coach Michael Malone or the Nuggets front office personnel that have publicly expressed it. Coaches around the league made note of their respect for how Harris plays on both ends of the court.
Sacramento coach Dave Joerger, who has seen Harris up-close in the player’s four-year career in games against him, was the most effusive in his praise.
“I think he’s a superhuman guy,” Joerger said. “He has high character. I think he’s the kind of guy that you build a franchise around. He’s a quality dude, works hard and plays the way you’re supposed to play. I’ve always been a fan. I’m just very impressed.”
This season was the best defensive rating of Harris’ career (107.5), the most minutes per game of his career (34.4), the best net rating of his career (3.2) and the highest usage rate of his career (20.6 percent). No player averaged more minutes on the Nuggets team than Harris did.
Among NBA shooting guards, a position that is quietly experiencing a comeback, Harris ranked 11th in points per game, fourth in field goal percentage (48.5), 13th in 3-point percentage (39.6) and third in steals (122).
With a career-high average of 17.5 points, Harris had 23 games of 20 or more points. And those 20-point games meant a lot to the success level of the team. When Harris scored at least 20 points, the Nuggets were 15-8. When he scored 25 or more, the Nuggets were 7-2.
OFFENSE: Harris had to work through one big adjustment opposing defenses made against him this season – not allowing the straight line cuts to the basket off of dribble handoff action with Nikola Jokic, or any kind of backdoor cutting action. Harris’ cuts were 5.9 percent of all of his offense this season. That was down from 12.2 percent in 2016-17, which is a huge drop. He averaged 1.394 points per possession in cuts last season – and that actually rose this season to 1.422 points per possession. But Harris, in 67 games, only got 45 field goal attempts total from cuts. He had 77 field goal attempts from cuts last season in 10 FEWER games played. So, you understand how intent opponents were on stopping those easy buckets.
Harris countered with additional playmaking and improved off-ball movement on the perimeter. Offensively, Harris ran 1.26 miles on offense, according to NBA Stats, which was second on the team only to Jamal Murray (1.33), who played 14 more games than Harris did. So much of that was movement to get himself open, handling the ball coming off dribble hand-off and screen-roll action, getting to a corner early for a potential quick catch-and-shoot opportunity at the beginning of the shot clock, or floating along the 3-point line to as the ball was whipped around the court to find an open area in the defense. Harris had to be more active to get himself open, and he was.
And this was the season where Harris became a big-time shot-maker in clutch situations, most notably hitting a memorable game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Oklahoma City on Feb. 1.
His accuracy from the field made him arguably the most reliable offensive player the Nuggets had. Harris’s next frontier? Cracking the 20-point mark for a season. He averaged 20.4 points in January, shooting sizzling percentages of 50.7 percent from the field, 41.4 percent from the 3-point line, and 88.6 percent from the free throw line. Also, adding to his rebounding totals.
DEFENSE: Harris entered the NBA known for his ability to shut opposing perimeter players down on defense. In 2017-18, he took huge steps getting right back to that personality on the court.
And he was good, especially in clutch situations. He had six steals in clutch time, which helped the Nuggets take a lead, tie a game or preserve a lead.
Overall, he was improved in chasing opposing perimeter threats to force tough shots – and subpar games – out of them. In off-screen, hand-off and spot-up actions, opponents shot no better than 38 percent against Harris. In off-screen and hand-offs – two of the hardest plays to cover – opponents shot just 31.6 and 30.2 percent, respectively.
A late knee injury removed Harris from the lineup for 11 of the final 13 games of the season, a major blow to the Nuggets as they fought to qualify for the playoffs. He’ll get the knee back to 100 percent in the offseason, and be counted on once again for major production and leadership next season.
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.