DENVER -- Entering this season, while most were interested in the development of the likes of Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Emmanuel Mudiay, and newly-drafted Jamal Murray, it was actually Gary Harris who was quietly setting himself up for his best season to date and supplanting himself as a top-three player in terms of importance to the Denver Nuggets.
"Gary Harris, if you had to give grades for the offseason, Gary Harris had a phenomenal offseason. He was in our gym almost every day," coach Michael Malone said. "He worked on his body. He worked on his shooting. He worked on his handles. I think that all of that hard work pays off and you see his confidence at a very high level right now."
Ultimately, Harris' ability to show off his improved play was delayed by a rash of injuries to start the season. Ten minutes into the Nuggets' first preseason game, Harris partially tore his groin and missed the rest of the preseason as well as the first five regular season games. A right foot injury forced him to miss an additional 15 games. Overall, Harris missed 20 of Denver's first 25 matchups.
Once Harris was finally able to get a rhythm and shake off the rust from missing so many games early in the season, it was his improved play that finally shined through. Harris' numbers are up across the board and the work he put in during the offseason is on full display as he unveils a new side to his offensive arsenal by playing with the ball in his hands more often.
Harris developing a better comfort level with the ball in his hands was priority No. 1 last summer, according to Malone. If Harris was to become the Nuggets' shooting guard of the future, he would need to find a way to impact the offensive end of the floor beyond being an off-ball cutter and spot up shooter. He needed to find a way to score without the aid of his teammates and help create open looks for others.
Malone recently reflected on Harris' drive this past offseason and his improved play on the ball.
"When the season ends, after every year, we meet with our players 1-on-1 in an exit interview and we talk to them about the things that they really need to focus on for them to be a better player but also for us to be a better team. One of the things for Gary Harris last year was working on his ball-handling and his ability to play in the pick-and-roll. He obviously is not a finished product in that area but you can tell all the work he has done on his ball-handling has paid off. He looks a lot more comfortable making plays off the bounce, attacking, and getting to the rim and finishing. When I do put him in pick-and-rolls, which is not very often, he has done a pretty good job as of late. That is something that I have talked with him about recently, to get him involved in some more pick-and-rolls because he is a downhill attacker who is learning to make the right play and the right read out of the pick-and-roll. Again, Gary Harris has improved across the board because of all the work and time he has put in."
Harris improving his handle has expanded the court for him. The extra gravity he now creates for himself has directly aided what has become a lethal three-point jump shot that has Harris ranked as the 7th-best shooter from beyond the arc at 42.6 percent on 4.4 attempts per game, a career high.
On top of becoming even more of an offensive threat for Denver, Harris has not fallen off too far defensively and has actually been playing at a much higher level as of late. So much so that Malone elected to defend Isaiah Thomas with Harris, and only Harris. Malone matched Harris' minutes with Thomas' and it ended up being one of the larger deciding factors as to why Denver was able to beat the Celtics by 20 points and keep their playoff aspirations alive and well.
After the game, Malone had very high praise for his shooting guard and, at one point, called Harris' fourth-quarter defense "inspiring" as he held Thomas, the NBA's leading scorer in the fourth quarter, to just one shot and one rebound and forced a turnover in the final frame.
"Gary is a guy who embraces the challenge. We put him on Isaiah and every time they put Isaiah back into the game we put Gary back into the game. He embraces that opportunity to guard the best in the NBA," Malone said. "I think he is one of the better two-way players in the NBA and he is making a name for himself. Guarding Isaiah Thomas is not an easy challenge but it is one that Gary embraced."
With Denver in the midst of a playoff chase that would give them their first playoff berth since the 2012-13 season, the Nuggets will need Harris. Without his individual development and his seemingly telepathic connection with Jokic, Denver would not be in the position they are today. Harris is the embodiment of the "work culture" that Malone has tried so hard to implement into the Nuggets and it seems that his blue-collar mentality may be one of the defining factors on if Denver finds themselves playing meaningful basketball come April.
"I think with Gary, it's like the old adage, he has put the work in. He has put the time in," Malone explained. "Every shot he makes in the game he has had a thousand reps in practice. He's committed to his craft, he loves it, and he is playing at a high level for us; most importantly on both ends of the floor."