OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 23: Gary Harris #14 of the Denver Nuggets drives to the basket against the Golden State Warriors on December 23, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Story Behind Gary Harris' Basketball Evolution Into Playmaking

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

One year ago, prior to the start of the 2016-17 NBA season, the Nuggets had a playmaking plan for Gary Harris. They openly talked about it.

He was to have the ball in his hands more, particularly in pick-and-roll situations. He had already shown that he could score. The next step was making those around him better. But they never quite got to that. Instead, Harris had taken his scoring to an even higher level, featuring improved 3-point shooting and constant cutting as part of his newfound chemistry with center Nikola Jokic. He was the recipient. Dishing out assists was pushed to the backburner.

Prior to this season, the notion of Harris as a playmaker wasn’t exactly a narrative surrounding predictions of his play. But two-and-a-half months into the season, as the calendar is poised to turn to 2018, Harris has gotten to the playmaking piece of his game in a big way.

Why now?

"I don’t know,” Harris said. “I guess I’m just doing what the team needs.”

In the Nuggets’ last nine games – Harris has played in eight of them – he is second on the team in assists with 5.3 per game. Overall, Harris has never been a more well-rounded basketball player than he is now. These things are also happening.

- He has the highest net rating of his career: 7.1

- He has the best defensive rating of his career: 103.8

- He has the best assist percentage of his career: 14.8 percent

- He has the highest usage rate of his career: 19.6 percent

- He has the highest percentage of field goals made at the rim: 65.9 percent

This season, he’s averaging a career-high 3.3 assists per game. His assists average has increased in each of his four seasons in the NBA. If you add Harris’s points per possession plus the possessions in which he gets assists, the fourth-year shooting guard is averaging 1.275 points per possession, which is in the top 25 percent of the league.

“And I think he’s been doing it for a while now,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “If you look at his season numbers, his playmaking, his assist rate, Gary’s playmaking is what is helping him elevate from being a good, young two-way player to becoming a very good two-guard – young (or) old, he’s a very good player. Because, his shooting, his defense, his finishing; I mean, his drives per game lately have been off the charts. And I think now he’s getting to the point that when he drives he’s drawing such a crowd, he’s learning to make the right play.”

Not only is Harris drawing a crowd, but teams have nearly completely taken away his patented back cuts, which he scored so many points on last season.

“Teams are not trying to let me back cut,” Harris said, grinning. “None of that anymore.”

One of his answers to teams taking so much of his cutting action away is being better on the ball. It’s happened in stages.

First, Harris started collecting assists as a result of the natural scheme of the offense. So, for instance, late in the shot clock as the play progressed they had designated safety valves built in for open jump shots or dump downs. Now, he’s still got those options, but his natural feel as a playmaker has started to shine through.

Part of it is anticipation. He’s looking to make plays on the fly. He’s getting rid of the ball early, hitting shooters in stride and they are able to catch and step right into jump shots. His vision is much better.

His pocket passing has been stellar. Harris has been precise and on-time with passing in the lane through crowds. Harris’ passing in pick-and-roll situations has been great. “The hardest thing is learning to make plays with a second or two to react,” Harris said.

And yet he has.

According to Synergy stats, 58.5 percent of his assists have gone for two-point shots, the other 41.5 percent have been assists on 3-pointers. Malone noted the sharp recent increase in Harris’s drives per game. He’s been using a great many of those drives to probe the defense and set teammates up. Harris smiled when asked how much of this recent playmaking binge has been a part of his basketball history.

"I used to collapse defenses,” Harris said, “to score.”

He laughed.

His impact on keeping a Nuggets offense built on player and ball movement, however, has been serious business. The Nuggets are more dynamic with Harris being a legitimate threat to score or make a play for a teammate.

“So,” Malone said, “I think it’s a big boost to his development as a complete basketball player.”

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv and @chrisadempsey on Twitter