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WHEN THE Nets traded Jason Kidd to the Mavericks for Devin Harris last February, they knew they were getting a younger (by 10 years) and less expensive (by $13.6 million this year) point guard whose game already included aggressive defense and a lightning first step. What they didn't expect, however, is that Harris would quickly become one of the league's best backcourt scorers and join Chris Paul and Deron Williams in discussions of the top young playmakers.
That Harris has improved isn't surprising. Since he was taken fifth in the 2004 draft out of Wisconsin, his numbers have ticked up each year, to 14.8 points and 5.8 assists per game in 2007--08. This season, though, the 25-year-old Harris has taken a quantum leap: Through Sunday he was averaging 25.3 points on 48.7% shooting and 6.4 assists—and making the Kidd deal look like a heist. "The offense we run is not your typical NBA offense," Harris says. "But it's the perfect offense for me."
In New Jersey's new dribble-drive system, Harris is encouraged to call his own number: As soon as he brings the ball across half-court he looks to take his man off the dribble. The goal is to use the 6'3" Harris's superior speed to get a layup or to create an open look for a teammate off a collapsing defense. By stacking the floor with big men who can step outside (Yi Jianlian, Brook Lopez, Ryan Anderson), the Nets produce huge gaps for Harris to exploit. "I'm in attack mode at all times," he says. "Our offense is predicated on my penetration."
Putting the ball in Harris's hands—something that would not have happened had he stayed in Dallas, where Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard are options A and B—has been a wild success. On Sunday, Harris exploded for a career-high 47 points, abusing Steve Nash and Grant Hill, in a 117--109 victory over the Suns. That came on the heels of torching Williams last Saturday for 34 in a 105--88 win at Utah. (Harris has now reached 30 points six times this season, after having never scored 30 before.) And on Nov. 26 Harris beat the Kings 116--114 on a pull-up with 12 seconds left in overtime.
At week's end the Nets were a surprising 9--7 and fifth in the league in scoring (101.9 points per game), with Harris and Vince Carter (23.8) forming the NBA's most productive backcourt. And with his mandate to attack the rim, Harris has been second only to Magic center Dwight Howard at getting to the foul line (11.8 attempts per game at week's end) and the best—by far—at making those trips count (9.7 makes per game).
Harris's present success recalls his college days, when he started every game for three years and broke the school's single-season scoring record as a junior. "I always told him, 'Go rim-to-rim if you can,'" says Badgers coach Bo Ryan. "There weren't too many guys Devin couldn't beat off the bounce." Ryan's confidence in Harris is shared by New Jersey coach Lawrence Frank, who has given Harris as much responsibility as he gave to Kidd. "I don't want him to look to me if a play goes wrong," says Frank. "He has to move right on to the next play because the other four guys on the floor are looking at him."
The relationship between player and coach is crucial for the long-term success of the franchise. Frank, in his sixth season with the Nets, has the full support of the team's front office, while Harris is in the first year of a five-year, $42 million extension he signed in September 2007. Both men figure to be building blocks for the Nets as they (eventually) move to Brooklyn. "Coach wants me to take ownership of the team," says Harris. "I think I have."
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