Nuggets Friday Film Study: Gary Harris’ “First Team” level of defense

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Heading into Thursday’s game against the New York Knicks, the Denver Nuggets had the top-ranked defensive rating in the league, a development that was unexpected heading into the 2019-20 season and the key reason Denver has been able to win 14 of their first 19 games.

The Nuggets’ defense has been elite throughout the season despite their offense continuing to search for a rhythm. While Will Barton III and Paul Millsap deserve plenty of praise and credit for this continued improvement on that end of the floor, Gary Harris’ defense on the perimeter has disrupted opposing offenses throughout the first quarter of the season.

Harris has developed a reputation as a solid defender in recent seasons, but the 25-year-old guard has reached a new level to begin the 2019-20 campaign. Although Harris’ usage on offensive has fallen to 15.6 percent (the lowest of his career), Harris continues to produce for Denver through his impressive defense.

The former 19th-overall pick in the 2014 draft has used his quick hands, footwork and tenacity to cause turnovers and contest shots at a high level this season. As a result, Harris is posting career-highs in defensive box plus-minus (+1.2) and defensive rating (104), while Denver’s defense is 2.6 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the floor this season.

That on-court defensive improvement is mainly a result of Harris’ impact on opponent turnovers and offensive rebounding. When Harris has been on the court this season, opponent turnover percentage increases by 3.1 percent (which ranks in the 92nd percentile), while opponent offensive rebound percentage decreases by 6.2 percent (which is in the 97th percentile).

Furthermore, opponents are less effective in transition when Harris is on the floor this season, which has been the case in each of the past two seasons.

As a result, it is no surprise to see teams try and run Harris through multiple screens to get him switched off of their lead guards.

“He has great size for his position, he is strong, he is athletic, he has great hands, he has the instincts, his ability to stay low, chase over screens, fight through screens, blow screens up, and then he takes pride in it,” Barton III explained to T.J. McBride of Mile High Sports. “He knows we count on him to be our lock down defender and every night he does it.”

Let’s take a closer look at how Harris has made strides on the defensive end this season.

Quick hands generate turnovers

Harris’ steal numbers are only slightly better than last season (1.3 per game compared to 1.0 per game in the 2018-19 season), but he continues to wreak havoc on unsuspecting ball-handlers.

Against the Brooklyn Nets, Harris’ reach and quick hands poked the ball away from Joe Harris as he tried to go around a screen set by DeAndre Jordan.

Harris thrives when he is matched up against players that aren’t lead guards, as their loose handles can be a welcome sign for Harris to create a turnover that leads to points in transition.

However, Harris’ quick hands don’t just cause trouble ballhandlers on the perimeter, they also allow Harris to get his hands on the ball as players attack the basket.

In the clip below, Harris does well to stay with Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday before reaching in and getting the strip as Holiday went up for the shot (the play was classified as a block in the box score).

Harris had success defending Holiday in the first matchup between the Nuggets and Pelicans, as he forced New Orleans’ lead guard into 1 of 4 shooting when the two were directly matched up.

Active contests and consistent team defense

Harris has also worked to fight through screens and contest as many shots as possible this season, which has helped him hold some of the elite offensive players in the league to off-nights.

In addition to holding Holiday to 25 percent shooting this season, Harris has held Devin Booker (2 of 8 from the field, three turnovers), Damian Lillard (2 of 7 from the field) and Luka Doncic (0 of 4 shooting, two turnovers) in check when he directly defended them.

“That man right there,” Jamal Murray said following Denver’s win over the Washington Wizards. “He has done a great job — an amazing job. Every good player that comes in here or every star player that comes in here, he does a great job of just taking away what they do best.”

It’s important to note the traditional box score doesn’t accurately represent a player’s individual defense on a given night. If Devin Booker shoots 4 of 17 from the field, Harris didn’t defend all 17 shot attempts. With the amount of switching that goes on in today’s NBA and the flow of a basketball game, players rarely spend each minute on the floor guarding their respective position.

However, when Harris has been matched up with a fellow guard, he has consistently performed well this season, as highlighted above. In the clip below, Harris chases Booker around the floor before sticking with him and contesting the fading jumper from the Suns’ young star guard.

When Harris isn’t forcing star guards into turnovers and tough shots, he is executing within the team’s defensive scheme, with the perfect example being Denver’s aggressive approach in defending James Harden.

In the play below, Harris does a great job defending Harden one-on-one. He forces the 2018 MVP to start driving into the paint, which is exactly where the Nuggets found success against Harden. As a result of Harris sticking with Harden on the drive and forcing him to the middle of the floor, Millsap was able to help over and get the steal, leading to a layup in transition.

Although Harden had an effective shooting night (8 of 16 from the field), the number of field-goal attempts was well below his season average and Denver forced eight turnovers against Houston’s lead guard.

Although Harris won’t show up on many highlight reels with impressive steals and blocks this season, he has quietly become one of the better perimeter defenders in the league and is one of the driving forces behind the league’s top-ranked defense.

There will surely be plenty of competition for the All-Defensive First Team this season that may keep Harris off that list, but head coach Michael Malone and the Nuggets will surely be happy with Harris’ contributions if he continues defending at this level.

*All statistics current as of 12/5*