Devin Harris' leap year with Nets
After learning the basics in Dallas, Devin Harris is playing like a star in New Jersey
The surprising Nets have let Harris "expand his wings" as a playmaker
Harris admits that he must develop a better feel for when to pass or shoot
BOSTON -- The jab steps, the sudden bursts to the rim, the lurking rhythm of attack that is all his own -- it appears unscripted and unpredictable. Devin Harris looks like he's improvising on the basketball court, like the pianist playing off his four partners in an after-hours jazz band.
Yet his style is based in a classical basketball education: He was trained on Bach before finding his voice in bebop. The game doesn't come as naturally as he makes it look.
New Jersey is one of the league's surprises thanks to Harris, Vince Carter, rookie center Brook Lopez and the flexibility of coach Lawrence Frank. I picked them to finish last in their conference, but the Nets (19-20 after Wednesday's loss to the Celtics) are the No. 7 team in the East and Harris is the league's most improved player with career bests of 22.9 points and 6.7 assists in his first full season as their point guard. With an unguardable first step, he gets to the basket as quickly and cleanly as any guard in the NBA.
Before he was packaged to New Jersey last February for Jason Kidd, Harris spent more than three seasons in Dallas under the microscopic examination of coach Avery Johnson, a self-made point guard who won an NBA championship without the natural abilities of Harris.
"I learned how to control a team,'' Harris said. "He taught me a lot about changing gears. When I came in, I thought it was one gear all the time. He taught me how to go slow to fast, fast to slow.''
As much as Johnson was trying to teach him to play under control, he was also providing Harris with the tools to make the most of the opportunity he is now exploiting in New Jersey. Harris now hovers freely around the three-point line, ball in hand -- and without warning he cuts a knifing solo through the defense that transcends choreography.
"Every great player is fundamentally sound, and every great player is a risk-taker,'' Nets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said. "If you've got talent, the more aggressive you are, generally the better you play. A lot of players hold back; they hesitate and they try to think before they play. Basketball is a game of reading and reaction, and that comes from playing a lot and working on your fundamentals and then trusting your game.''
"We only had one guy on our roster who averaged more than 10 points a game for his career, and that's Vince,'' Frank said. "Devin's a career 10 points-a-game scorer, Bobby Simmons is 10, and everyone else is single [digits]. So how are you going to score over 70 points?''
Frank's best idea was to replace the last remnants of the Princeton offense with dribble-drive options that would liberate Harris to score.
"It was time for him to expand his wings,'' Frank said.
This was the style Harris envisioned when he entered the NBA as a second-team All-America from Wisconsin, where he averaged 19.5 points as a junior to break Michael Finley's single-season record at the school. But he wound up going to Dallas, where he was charged with organizing and creating shots for Dirk Nowitzki, Finley, Jerry Stackhouse, Josh Howard and Jason Terry -- all averaging at least 12 points for a team that would reach the NBA Finals one year later.
"Winning games at the rate we were winning, it was fun for me,'' Harris said.
But he was rarely comfortable playing to a disciplined style that was more learned than natural. He was thinking more than he was reacting, but he told himself it wouldn't be like this forever.
"There are very few players who start and end with [the same] team,'' he said. "So I was just taking it one day at a time and not looking toward the future.''
Carter remembers making the transition from system player at North Carolina to become a star early in his NBA career with Toronto.
"For coach [Dean] Smith, that's the way we were taught -- to play with the fundamentals, under control, while still giving us the ability to utilize our talents when we could under the realm of the offense,'' Carter said.
His scoring jumped from 18.3 points as an NBA rookie to 25.7 the following year, after "[coach] Butch Carter was like, 'I'm going to give you the ball, we're going to show the world what you can do.' Once I got comfortable my second year, I just got better and better. Then in my third and fourth year is when I let go.''
That's the next phase Harris is seeking. As well as he's playing now, he's looking forward to launching himself from this breakthrough season to become a star at the level of Chris Paul and Deron Williams. That means developing a better feeling for when to pass or shoot.
"That's something I'm struggling with,'' Harris acknowledged. "My first instinct is to get us going by scoring, but sometimes I've got to trust my teammates a little bit more.''
Though he's in the best condition of his career, Harris knows he'll have to increase his capacity in order to elevate his defense without being too tired to attack at the other end. Dallas owner Mark Cuban used to predict that Harris would become a first-team All-NBA defender.
"I think my defense has slid a bit since I came over,'' Harris said. "That was one of the things I had to focus on in Dallas to get on the floor, because obviously they had all of the shooting already. But definitely I'd like to be at that level.''
Will Harris continue to grow? Could he have earned the same opportunities to flourish in Dallas among all of the Mavericks' established soloists? How many Devin Harrises are there throughout the NBA, each waiting to be rescued by a band in need of his undiscovered voice?
These are all questions for another day. The years in Dallas taught Harris to earn everything, and now it's up to him to keep turning the hard work into joy.