The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.
When Kobe Bryant retired at the end of the 2015-16 season, it appeared as though the 2-guard position was on life support. Sure, James Harden would carry Bryant’s torch as a do-it-all superstar, and Klay Thompson had already emerged as one of the most prolific sharpshooters in NBA history, but shooting guards were otherwise largely relegated to 3-and-D specialists.
While CJ McCollum, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker have breathed new life into the position over the past few seasons, Gary Harris of the Denver Nuggets will soon join that party, too.
When Harris made his NBA debut four years ago, he was little more than an overmatched, inefficient fringe rotation player. Across 55 games, he averaged only 3.4 points on 30.4 percent shooting overall and 20.4 percent shooting from 3-point range, calling into question whether he’d stick in the league for long. The following season, he put those concerns to rest, as he drastically increased his scoring output (12.3 points per game) and efficiency (46.9 percent overall, 35.4 percent from deep) while starting all 76 games in which he appeared.
Harris has steadily improved in the two years since, highlighted by the career-high 17.5 points per game he averaged this past season. Though his efficiency dropped from his 2016-17 campaign — he went from shooting 50.2 percent overall and 42.0 percent from deep to 48.5 percent and 39.6 percent, respectively — he demonstrated far more of an ability to create offense for himself than he had in the past.
Whereas more than three-quarters of his made shots were assisted in 2016-17, more than 30 percent were unassisted this past season. His efficiency on pull-up shots soared as well, going from 31.4 percent overall and 22.5 percent from 3-point range in 2016-17 to 40.0 percent and 34.4 percent this past season, respectively. Though his effective field-goal percentage on pull-ups trailed that of Thompson and McCollum’s, he finished ahead of Beal, Booker and Jimmy Butler, among others.
If Harris continues to develop as an off-the-dribble threat and three-level scorer, he’ll have All-Star upside in no time. As Christopher Dempsey of Nuggets.com noted, opponents this past season set out to thwart the synergy between Harris and center Nikola Jokic, making his adjustment into an on-ball weapon a necessity.
"“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.”"
That isn’t to say Harris didn’t do damage off the ball, though. He ranked in the 80th percentile as a spot-up shooter, averaging 1.12 points per 100 possession on such shots. That put him ahead of Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Trevor Ariza, among others. He also drilled an impressive 41.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts, which was tied with Rookie of the Year runner-up Donovan Mitchell and ahead of Holiday, Ariza and Kyrie Irving.
Harris’ development into a well-rounded offensive threat makes him even more of an ideal sidekick for Jokic. He can rise up and fire away upon receiving a pinpoint pass from the Serbian big man, but he’s now more of a threat to create off the dribble, too. In turn, that will push defenses to their breaking point, as they’ll have to worry about containing Harris off the catch and preventing him from driving into the paint or dishing to an open shooter.
In March, Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight went so far as to suggest Harris is on “a similar trajectory” to Kawhi Leonard, pre-quadriceps injury. “From afar, nothing Harris does seems truly spectacular,” he wrote. “But zoom in just a little, watch a handful of Denver’s games, and you’ll see elements of Harris’s consistent, well-rounded skill set start to stand out. Just the way Leonard’s once did.”
Harris may not become a two-time Defensive Player of the Year like Leonard, but his chops on that end of the court are no laughing matter, either. Though he’s undersized for a 2-guard at 6-foot-4, he had the best defensive point differential of any Denver player last season. With him on the floor, the Nuggets allowed 3.1 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did with him on the bench. Though there’s plenty of noise in individual defensive ratings, his placement toward the top of the deflections leaderboard speaks to the havoc he wreaks on a nightly basis.
No one will mistake Harris for Bryant or Harden anytime soon, but he’s lurking under the radar as one of the NBA’s best young 2-guards. If the Nuggets make a charge toward 50 wins and a playoff spot this season, he’ll be a huge reason why.