Gary Harris’s three years with the Nuggets have been a picture-perfect study in improvement, and the 2016-17 season was his best yet. The third-year shooting guard finished the season so strong it was difficult to remember just how trying the first quarter of the season was for him as injuries took an early toll.
“It was tough,” Harris said. “Just because, all of the work you put in, in the summer and then to get hurt in the preseason and be out, and then to come back for like five games and be out again. It was tough. Nobody said it was going to be an easy season. So I just continued to work, not get down. I wanted to stay as healthy as possible and was able to finish out strong.”
Harris’ breakout season featured career-highs in points (14.9), rebounds (3.1), assists (2.9), field goal percentage (50.3), and 3-point percentage (42.0). Harris finished the season ranked eighth in the NBA in 3-point percentage.
It was the campaign Harris had always been in search of, and it did not occur by happenstance. Harris committed to improving last summer in everything from ball handling and shooting to getting stronger and in better condition. Before the season even started, Nuggets coach Michael Malone raved about the work his starting shooting guard put in. Harris made those reviews stand up after he pushed through an injury-filled start that saw him miss 20 of the first 25 games of the season.
“I grew a lot,” Harris said. “It started at the end of last season. I approached things a little bit differently. My confidence was growing. It continued to grow throughout the summer, just all of the work I was putting in. Now I’m at this point this year, and I feel like I’m ready to take another step.”
Offense. Harris’ offensive effectiveness started with his versatility and finished with his ability to do all of those things at a high level.
He had five actions that he used at least 12 percent of the time. From an efficiency standpoint, Harris was one of the best shooting guards in the league. The Nuggets had an initial plan to use him more in pick-and-roll as the ball handler, and they did get to some of that – 12.4 percent of his possessions came from that action. But he was much better as the recipient of the pass, and the Nuggets looked to him more in those situations as the season went on. A full 245 of his 320 field goals made were assisted. Harris shot a robust 45.9 percent in catch-and-shoot opportunities. Both he and the Nuggets offense put him in good positions to make shots, and Harris made good on those attempts.
Harris was among the NBA’s best in these three actions, per Synergy stats: Spot-up shooting (1.209 points per possession), transition (1.375 ppp) and cuts (1.394 ppp). Those three actions accounted for over 55 percent of everything he was used in. Harris generally kept his shot attempts, however, to two types – 3-point shots and attempts at the rim. Eighty-eight percent of his makes were from those two areas.
One of the Nuggets’ best cutters, Harris kept himself on the move and that meshed well with pass-first center Nikola Jokic, who assisted on 25 percent (81-of-320) of Harris’ made field goals, by far the most of any player to Harris. They came in a wide variety of areas – most were cuts, and some of those were off of fake handoffs that resulted in straight-line dives to the basket. Jokic found Harris in transition and camped out in the opposite corner, always ready for the skip pass. And more often than he ever has before, he nailed the shot. Harris was also the most explosive he’s ever been to the rim, flying in for 38 dunks.
“I joke with him,” Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly said. “You had like no dunks at Michigan State and now he dunks all the time.”
Defense. If the Nuggets needed a steal, they’d lean on Harris to deliver. He led the team with 71 steals. Harris also came up with clutch steals – 14 of his total came in the fourth quarter. Harris has always been a very aware defender with quick hands; so whether it was poking the basketball away from a ball-handler, collapsing down off of his man to grab the ball, or getting in the passing lane, Harris’ hands were always active. He got a lot of deflections and thefts as a result.
Harris was also good guarding the ball handler in screen-roll actions, only allowing 40 percent shooting in those circumstances. There was regression, however, in all other types of defending, which in part can be attributed to a bigger offensive workload that had a wear-down effect. Turnovers were not a big issue for Harris, who had the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team.
In all, this was a pivotal season for Harris, who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is a core piece the Nuggets want to build with.