Nuggets Film Room: Gary Harris’ growth as a playmaker through his wide array of assists

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Well before Gary Harris was making the news for his potential involvement in trade scenarios surrounding Paul George and Kyrie Irving, the Nuggets’ starting shooting guard was turning heads around the NBA for the leap he had taken in his third season.

At a clip of .502 in 2016-17, he led all guards in field goal percentage, and was fourth in effective field goal percentage at .586, making him one of the league’s most efficient shooters, all while improving his points per game to 14.9 from 12.3 the previous season. And when something other than shooting made people take notice of Harris, it was usually his proficiency as a cutter and his effectiveness in moving off the ball, especially vis-à-vis Nikola Jokic’s emergence as a phenomenal passer.

One aspect of Harris’ game which has received too little recognition, however, is the improvement in his passing and playmaking. This may fly under the radar as, while his passes are fundamentally quite sound, they tend to lack flash and flair. But as the chart below shows, Harris’ assists per game and per 36 minutes have been on a fairly consistently upward – if not incredibly steep – trajectory over the past two seasons:

As we will see when we go to the video below, it is not only the increased frequency of his assists, but also the high quality of shots Harris finds and creates for his teammates that make him a sneaky good playmaker.

This is reflected in the correlation between his assists and Nuggets' wins in 2016-17. In the five games in which Harris had six or more assists, Denver went a perfect 5-0, in nine games of five or more assists 7-2 (.778), 11-8 in games of four or more assists (.579), while in the thirty-eight games in which Harris had three or fewer assists, the Nuggets went 18-20 (.474).

There has been much discussion of a so-called “Jokic effect” in which the Serbian center’s passing acumen seems to have “rubbed off” on his teammates – notably Kenneth Faried, who appeared to become both a more willing and able passer over the course of last season. And we may be able to see some of that in Harris’ numbers as well, as he really found his playmaking groove near the end of the season, notching six of the aforementioned nine games with five or more assists in March and April.   

Whatever the cause, the development of Harris as a playmaker and the positive impact this has had on the Nuggets offense is evident in the numbers. As it turns out, though, it is even more striking when we turn to the eye test and examine in detail not only the various ways that he is delivering his assists but just how impressively he is doing so.

Before turning to the video analysis, I should note that my categorization was in some cases somewhat arbitrary. At least a few of what I put into the dribble handoff set of plays could very well also be called pick-and-rolls – the distinction between the two can be blurry, especially in as fluid of an offense as the Nuggets play, and I tended to go with the dribble handoff in cases where the screener was in motion. Likewise, some of the drives were initiated off of screens set in dribble handoffs or pick-and-rolls, but I chose the drive as the point of emphasis since it seemed to me to be the most pertinent action leading to Harris’ assists in those plays. At any rate, the categories are intended only to showcase the wide-ranging diversity of the different types of assists Harris dishes out, not to be a definitive catalog, and are certainly subject to alternate interpretations.

Additionally, although the video clips below were selected from 17 of the games in which Harris had a four or more assists (or about 30 percent of all the games he played), they show 82 of his 164 total assists in the 2016-17 season, exactly half. Having hit that 50 percent mark, I feel that it is reasonable to presume that this is a large enough sample size to be representative of his overall assist type distribution, although it should be noted that from those 17 games a few of his assist plays such as inbounds were discarded.

Assists off pick-and-rolls

In the first video, we see 17 Harris assists of pick-and-rolls. In the first 12 of these, he dishes to the roll man, who in seven of those cases is Jokic. As much as has rightfully been made of Jokic’s superb passing on Harris cuts, the chemistry clearly goes great the other way on pick-and-rolls (and as we will see below, dribble handoffs) as well. Harris also has quickly developed a good pairing with Mason Plumlee, which if the latter returns to the Nuggets could be a very important consideration for coach Michael Malone as he tries to work out effective rotations.

Of particular note in these assists to the roll man is Harris’ skill and precision in utilizing the bounce pass, which he employs in 8 out of the 12 assists of this type shown here. He does a great job not only of threading the ball through defenders in some fairly tight spaces but also in most cases anticipating and putting the ball in front of the big where he’ll arrive to catch it in just the right spot.

Importantly, basically, all of Denver’s rotation bigs are legitimate scoring threats when rolling to the basket, meaning the defense has to take them seriously and will often collapse when they see them head for the rim. And in six of the remaining plays, Harris uses his awareness of this to find open 3-point shooters when their defenders sag off responding to the roll.  

This raises two themes we will see repeatedly throughout all these assist clips. First, Harris’ aptitude for great assists is often founded in excellent court awareness and fast, good decision making. He reads unfolding plays incredibly well and reacts quickly with the right choice more often than not. Second, so many of the looks Harris finds for his teammates aren’t only open, but are also quality shot selections – 3-pointers, cuts with open lanes to the basket, and at-rim layups and dunks – he is great at facilitating high-value open shots that fuel Denver’s offensive efficiency.


Assists off dribble handoffs

The first six of the 13 clips in this next video shows Harris dishing the ball out to teammates at the arc for 3-pointers after receiving it on the dribble handoff. Much like how in pick-and-rolls he allows the roll man to draw defenses toward the paint to free up 3-point shooters, in most of these plays Harris himself either cuts to the basket or shows like he’s cutting to lure defenders away from the 3-point line before finding an open man there.

A great example of this is in the fourth clip, where Harris, by making a move near the elbow like he’s going to cut to the rim, draws Metta World Peace all the way inside the paint, opening up a wide open shot for Will Barton. Here Harris isn’t just finding a great look for Barton, he’s creating it.

The next set of plays is where we essentially cross over with pick-and-rolls, where after getting the ball on the handoff Harris feeds it back to the screener, who’s rolling to the rim. Not too much needs to be added here since that was covered above, except that in some cases, like the last two plays in this video, because Harris is driving with the ball, it puts him in a good position to deliver an interior pass to a cutter for a high percentage shot near the basket.


Drive and kick assists

In this third video, we can see a lot of the concepts discussed above in play, most especially Harris’ keen court awareness and his utilization of drives to pull defenses into the paint and away from the arc to free up 3-point shooters there. This can be seen most dramatically in the eighth clip, where Harris drives to the basket and lures T.J. McConnell from the 3-point line practically all the way to the baseline. This leaves Emmanuel Mudiay wide open for a three with McConnell way too far away from the arc to have any hope of closing out. (As a side note, this is a trap the Nuggets' defense tends to fall into too often, and it would be useful for them to take defensive lessons from their own offensive principles to be more vigilant about preventing 3-point attempts.)

Another aspect of Harris’ good decision making on display here is how, in addition to quickly making the right plays when appropriate, he also has the patience and wherewithal (we could say, perhaps, in contrast to Mudiay) to not force the issue when a play isn’t there at first, but rather to keep his dribble alive and probe until a better option presents itself. This can clearly be seen in the third clip, where Harris wants to get the ball to Plumlee as he cuts down the lane, but gets doubled along the baseline and instead searches out Jamal Murray for an open three in the corner.


Inside passing off drives and cuts

In this fourth video, we can see how the “Jokic effect” may have made its mark on Harris. I consider these to be some of the best examples which showcase the growth in his passing skills. Since they are mainly from close range and lack the highly visible panache of behind-the-back or cross-court passes, at first blush they may not be as eye-catching as those of a particular Serbian. But there is a high degree of difficulty to most of these, as Harris is on the move (usually at a fast clip) and often threading the ball through two or more defenders with great accuracy.

Another aspect of Harris’ approach to playmaking on display here is a large amount of trust he clearly places in his teammates to get into scoring position. On many of his drives, he clearly is heading into enough traffic to make it unlikely for him to get an easy layup or dunk. It seems as if he knows this, but heads for the rim anyhow, as he knows one or more of his teammates will be there in a better scoring position for him to dish. I don’t mean to beat up on Mudiay here, but again, in contrast to getting stuck in the weeds with nowhere to go, when Harris dribbles into traffic, he seems to be thinking a few steps ahead to how he’ll take advantage of the collapsing defense to set up a good look for another player.


Passing along the perimeter

While most of the passes seen in this fifth video are fairly standard in and of themselves, what really stands out is, once again, Harris’ sharp awareness of how the play is unfolding and where his teammates are, and his timely decision making predicated upon that. The second clip against the Mavericks is a great illustration of how Harris has a knack for recognizing when he should pass up a decent shot for himself to create a much better one for a teammate. In this case, as well as in the two clips that follow, that dime is delivered to a more-open Murray in the corner.

Harris truly has an excellent instinct for recognizing a bit quicker than defenses can react just how soon the man guarding him will be closing out, and how he can get the ball to a teammate with their defender at least one step further away, if even in the vicinity at all. And a key component to all of this is his unselfishness, as facilitating high-quality shots for other players means passing up on scoring opportunities for himself. There are a fair amount of players in the NBA who would take a lot of the shots Harris passes up, whether because they want to be the one taking the shot, or because they don’t trust their teammates to seal the deal.


Assists in transition

The most noticeable and important aspect of the assists Harris dishes out in this sixth video is the fact that so many of them are created by defensive plays he makes at the other end of the court. Reading passing lanes and using his fast, pesky hands to disrupt the ball handler, Harris nabs steals he quickly uses to set up easy buckets for teammates who usually by then are running the floor ahead of him. There have been rumblings that Malone may want the Nuggets to play a more aggressive style of defense in the upcoming season, and considering how effective Harris can be (as well as Jokic and Paul Millsap, for that matter) at forcing turnovers and creating offense out of defense, that should be a most welcome development.

And to beat the fast decision-making drum again, nowhere is it more visible or critical than on these fast break plays, where making the right pass without hesitation is what leads directly to points on the board. Whether serving up a quick outlet pass or taking the ball up the court himself off a rebound or steal, Harris relentlessly pushes the pace to ensure a good shot is taken before the defense has the chance to get back and set up.


Entry passes and miscellaneous assists

Rounding out the 82 assists with this seventh video, we take a look at a few entry passes and several others which did not fall neatly into the above categories. Most of the latter are the type of hustle plays at which Harris excels, and the entry passes again highlight his precision in putting the ball in the right place for the bigs to score easily at the rim.


Projecting Harris’ assist numbers for the 2017-18 season

From the All-Star break in February through to the end of the season, Harris averaged 3.3 assists in 34.6 minutes per game. And while the upward trajectory seen in the chart at the top will, of course, not continue indefinitely or at the same pace, he showed enough continuing development in his playmaking skills that a modest improvement might reasonably be expected next season. Additionally, many expect there to be a starting role at point guard for Murray – who is not as prolific a playmaker as Jameer Nelson – and that could also give a slight boost to a heavier distribution of the assist load in the other four positions.

The offense will, however, continue to be initiated primarily through Jokic, and even though that sometimes means (as we saw above) that Harris will be creating shots off dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls, it seems unlikely just by virtue of touches that his assist numbers will take too great a leap. So while I doubt he will cross over the four assist per game threshold, it would not be surprising to see him flirt with it and finish next season averaging around 3.7 or 3.8 assists per game. And considering he’ll be spending most of his time on the court with at least two or three other accomplished playmakers, that is a great place for him to be.

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