DENVER — Kawhi Leonard is indispensable to the San Antonio Spurs — or at least that’s how he’s now perceived. His mysterious injury not only threatens to snap the Spurs’ two-decade-long playoff streak, but there’s a chance it could also derail the club’s future by driving Leonard away.
If there’s an irony in how monumentally important Leonard is to the Spurs’ chances now, though, it’s that he was still relatively anonymous to the casual basketball fan just four years ago, despite performing at a fairly high level on one of the league’s best teams at that time. It wasn’t until June 2014, when Leonard earned NBA Finals MVP honors, that he began drawing broader attention en route to becoming a bona fide star, one whose health could shift the tenor of a conference finals series.
Now, another player — Nuggets shooting guard Gary Harris — quietly appears to be on a similar trajectory. From afar, nothing Harris does seems truly spectacular. 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.
“When I got here, there were questions about whether Gary Harris was an NBA player,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told me, a reference to Harris’s rookie season, in which he shot just over 30 percent from the field.The thought seems comical now, as Harris is serving as both Denver’s best on-ball defender and its leading scorer.
For a while, Harris was far stronger on the defensive side of the ball, where it’s harder for the average fan to notice excellence. A solid scorer, by contrast, handles the ball more and gets his name called while the camera pans to his face every time he finds the bottom of the basket. Forcing a missed shot or denying your man the ball on the other end, however, usually isn’t enough to garner that same attention. So that may partially explain why the 23-year-old Harris flies under the radar.
At 6 foot 4, he doesn’t force teams to alter entire offensive schemes the way that the 6-foot-7 Leonard, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, can. Yet Harris constantly seems to find ways to disrupt the league’s best wing players.
Harris ranks ninth in the NBA in deflections per game — the same ranking Leonard held last season — hounding volume scorers as they come around screens and illustrating nearly perfect timing as he swats down directly on the ball just as a player is lifting up to launch his shot attempt. Harris’s quick hands and defensive persistence are pretty much the only things that prevent the Nuggets, who surrender more layups than anyone except Orlando, from having the worst defense in basketball. With Harris on the court, Denver surrenders 107.4 points per 100 possessions, which would tie for 20th among the league’s 30 teams. With Harris on the bench, the Nuggets allow 110.6 points per 100 possessions, a rate that would tie for dead last.
It’s incredibly difficult to draw the types of defensive assignments that Harris typically gets without committing a lot of fouls. But just like Leonard did in his fourth season, Harris has collected more steals than fouls so far this year, a feat that only elite defensive shooting guards and small forwards generally manage.
Harris could be named an All-NBA defender in the coming years without changing much about his game. But to achieve true stardom, he will likely need two things: More scoring — he’s still pretty limited in creating looks for himself — and more wins for the Nuggets.
“If we make the playoffs, a lot more people are going to see and know who the hell Gary Harris is,” said Malone, whose team is locked in a crowded playoff race. “It’s funny: Last year, Nikola Jokic wasn’t going to be a part of All-Star Weekend. Then he puts up 40 points at Madison Square Garden and gets a phone call from the NBA the very next day. ‘Hey, we want you to be part of All-Star Weekend!’ So, we know Nikola and how special he is. And I think the same is true of Gary.”
Harris has shown true scoring progress every year since his dismal rookie campaign. The former Michigan State star has gone from 3, to 12, to 15 and now 18 points per game; he has become one of the league’s best offensive threats in transition; and he’s on track to shoot 40 percent from the 3-point line for a second straight year. He moves incredibly well without the ball and has perhaps the team’s best on-court chemistry with Jokic, the face of the Nuggets and one of the league’s most skilled young big men.
Harris’s development on offense bears similarities to Leonard’s rise. Through their first four seasons, their numbers looked identical — 12.2 points and 2.1 assists on 47 percent shooting and 37 percent from 3 for Harris ; 12.3 points and 1.8 assists on 50 percent shooting overall and 37 percent from 3 for Leonard.
Perhaps even more important: The two men play with an unusually quiet, workmanlike approach, and they are among the most consistent players in the NBA on a night-to-night basis. “He just puts his head down and goes about his business. He doesn’t talk about it much — he just goes out and does it, and we’re fine with that,” says Denver guard Will Barton, whose locker is next to Harris’s. (Harris’s noticeably quiet disposition, along with the Nuggets’ struggles to really break through on TV with local fans, undoubtedly contributes to why Harris isn’t better known around the league yet.)
In Harris’s case, one could argue that his consistency on both ends has him on the cusp of joining the elite. Using effective field-goal percentage, a stat that accounts for 3-pointers by looking at the number of points generated per field-goal attempt rather than just shots made per attempt, the chart below illustrates how often the league’s starting shooting guards and small forwards have good shooting nights compared to bad ones. Unsurprisingly, Kevin Durant and LeBron James are at the very top of that list. Leonard rates fifth. And right behind him is Harris at No. 6.
Of course, none of this is to say that Harris will continue ascending the way Leonard has during his fifth and sixth seasons, when he went from scoring 16.5 points a contest to 25.5 points while managing to become more efficient despite a heavier offensive load. Without Harris becoming more of a one-on-one threat, which Kawhi has become stellar at in relatively short order, it’s more sensible to compare his offense to Golden State’s Klay Thompson or Washington’s Otto Porter, who play better off the ball than with it.
Should Harris develop a more aggressive brand of offense, though, there’s reason to think he could find success with it. While he’s not built like Leonard — one of the NBA’s strongest players, and just one of four NBA wing players last season to record more and-1s than he had shots blocked — Harris is far stronger than he looks and doesn’t shy away from contact. The former All-American high school football player is one of three guards, after James and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, who shoots 70 percent at the rim — elite company for strength around the basket.
Malone said Harris has been diligent every summer about taking direction from coaches and staff each offseason to continue improving. But Harris told me it was simpler than that for him. “Really, I just want go out there to play and have fun,” he said. “It’s not about me going out and saying, ‘I’ve got to go out and be better than I was last year.’ If you put in the work, it’s going to show itself.”
And if Harris continues to improve and show his work to this extent, it may be only a matter of time until just about every basketball fan knows who he is.
Senior writer Neil Paine contributed to research for this story.
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