Gary Harris is Making a Leap as a Passer

The story of Gary Harris is one of year-to-year, steady growth.

From his rookie to sophomore season, he elevated his 3-point shooting from 20.4 percent to 35.4 percent. In his third year, he emerged as an über-efficient scorer at the rim. Last season, he became a credible shooter off the dribble. Each summer, he’s added a valuable skill to his utility belt.

It now appears Harris is expanding his scope of impact beyond the scoring column, averaging career-highs in assists per game (3.8) and assist rate (18.0 percent). Couple those marks with his career-low turnover rate of 2.8 percent so far — granted this is unsustainable, though has a sizable margin for regression as his previous career best is 9.8 percent — and Harris is surfacing as the Denver Nuggets’ secondary facilitator.

The BBall Index’s player grades suggest Harris’ true evolution occurred in his second year and it’s simply manifesting onto the stat sheet this season. In 2015-16, he graded out as a C+ playmaker (59th percentile) but in 2016-17, received an A- (86th percentile). Last year, he improved again, finishing in the 91st percentile (A) and should continue to rank above the 90th percentile through the 2020-21 season, per BBI’s expected growth curve.

If that’s the case, the Nuggets’ offensive ceiling has unlocked a new gear. Jamal Murray could embrace a pure scoring and off-ball specialist role, enabling Harris and Nikola Jokic to shoulder much of the playmaking burden in the starting unit.

This is one of the advantages of Jokic. Because he can execute virtually every pass on the court, Harris’ talents are largely a luxury and less of a necessity — an unfamiliar dynamic for teams who lack a top-five passer in the NBA. He is a complementary facilitator in the shadows of one of the NBA’s best. Even so, it means the offense has more flexibility in how it can deploy Harris, confident in his burgeoning vision.

Harris is exuding confidence and moxie throughout Denver’s first six games that weren’t always present prior to this year. He’s mastered the art of shifting gears on forays to the rim, his sharpened ball-handling is leading to newfound self-creation opportunities and he’s hunting for shots more than ever (career-high 16.6 shots per 36 minutes), conscious of his status as a legitimate three-level scorer. 

The development in his facilitating is even more subtle, though. He’s a fraction quicker to whip the ball to teammates, he looks more adept at passing on the move and is driving the lane, buckling defenses and spotting the open man.

In the pick and roll, Harris is growing more precise with the placement of his pocket passes. Whereas in years past he might not have put the big man in an optimal situation to keep rolling in stride, Harris is doing just that now:

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To borrow a phrase from my pal Mike Zavagno of Dime Uproxx and SB Nation’s Fear the Sword, Harris is morphing into a Level Two passer. No longer do those pocket passes encompass the extent of his creation impact.

He displayed the ability to sling the ball to teammates on the opposite wing at times last season but is seemingly doing so even more frequently. In his fifth year, he has grown proactive in his decision-making at times, rather than simply taking what the defensive provides.

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Consider that first assist. Harris winds around Jokic on the dribble handoff and has ample options to spark a scoring chance. With four defenders (maybe five, if you count Ryan Anderson in the corner) tracking Harris, he rifles a bullet to Murray, leaving Isaiah Canaan to recover. The closeout is poor and Murray weaves his way through traffic for a layup.

Those types of passes, the ones that shift the calculus of the floor and throw the first punch against defenses, elevate a player beyond the first tier as a playmaker.

While the Nuggets have their modern point guard playing center, they’ve tried to groom Murray into more of a natural floor general after he played shooting guard most of his basketball career. Slowly, though, Harris is asserting himself as the team’s peripheral dime-dropper. Through six games, Denver boasts a laundry list of improvements — the defense and Nikola Jokic’s free-throw rate among them — but Harris’s leap as a creator is a development that feels sustainable and can spur a long-term positive impact for the club.

It wasn’t unforeseen, though. Instead, it’s just another example of his unceasing, gradual advancements and the next chapter in the novel of Gary Harris.

*Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and the Bball Index’s player grades*

*Ben Holz assisted with data collection and Aidan Lising created the graphic for this article*

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