For the past year or so, Devin Harris' life has spun almost as quickly off the court as the PG spins around defenders on it. Now that he's settling down in New Jersey, the only moving Harris wants to do is back into the playoffs.
By Russ Bengston, SLAM
Devin Harris has had a busy year, and even for a guy who like that kid from The Incredibles, he's gotta be ,after splitting the summer of '07 between his native Milwaukee and adopted Chicago (and scrimmaging against Team USA in Las Vegas), he started the season in Dallas and ended it in New Jersey, with all the requisite NBA travel between. And as soon as the regular season ended, with his Nets missing the Playoffs, Harris was on his way back to Dallas to watch his former team fizzle against the Hornets. So in May, trying to catch up, I send him what seems like a logical text message: "Are you in Dallas or New Jersey?" The answer, quick in coming, either makes no sense, or all the sense in the world: "Actually, I'm in Virginia."
He's in Virginia for his sister's college graduation. Having just left Dallas before that, he'll then head to Miami for a couple of days to relax, then return to Dallas to try and sell his home, then back to Milwaukee and over to Chicago to start working out with trainer Tim Grover sometime in the beginning of June. After that he’ll visit new teammates Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter at their respective summer spots before coming back to New Jersey to get started on a brand-new season. Whew. Everything in Devin's life moves, and it moves fast. Except, of course, for the trade that brought him to New Jersey for All-Star Jason Kidd.
Harris first heard that he might get dealt on January 26th, the same day he injured his ankle in a win over Denver. Details slowly merged. Too slowly. Week passed. Rumors swirled. And as Devin sat home waiting to be able to ply, he wondered who exactly he’d be playing for. Even when the trade was officially announced, it wasn’t, well, official. "It was like, okay, this day, I’m going, this day, I’m not," he says. "And then it got to a point where if I didn’t go, it would be too weird."
Finally on February 18, closure. Harris, along with DeSagana Diop, Trenton Hassell, Maurice Ager, a resigned Keith Van Horn and two first round picks, was sent to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for Kidd, Malik Allen and Antoine Wright. Harris, still unable to play on his bad ankle, instead sat down with Nets head coach Lawrence Frank for an hour to find out what was expected of him.
"Basically, what we talked about was, ‘before I put limitations on what you can and cannot do, the door is gonna be open for ya," Frank says. "You’re going to get an opportunity to show me what you’re able to do and things we want you to avoid. It was basically just giving him the rope to see what he could do with it."
The news lifted a huge weight off the 6-3, 185-pound Harris’ back. While then-Dallas coach Avery Johnson had vowed to let him be more of a leader in his fourth year, things weren’t moving as quickly as he would have liked. "I think just because he had me since Day One he was compelled to micromanage and make sure he controlled things I was doing on the floor," Harris says. "At first, it was pretty much his way or the highway," he laughs. "But the more time I spent, the more of a compromise we got."
Still, it was nice to have a coach just throw him the keys to the high-powered offense and say "have at it". And when Harris finally took the floor in New Jersey on February 28th, the day after his 25th birthday, he came off the bench and put the pedal to the metal. Quicker with the ball that most are without, Harris lit the Bucks up for 20 points in 21 minutes. YouTubed Andrew Bogut with a nasty dunk, flicked a perfect alley-oop to Vince Carter on the break. Apparently fitting in was not going to a problem. "You just come in and do what you’re good at and try to get them to accept you as a player," Harris says now. "And I did that in New Jersey in one game."
Frank didn’t expect it to go any other way. "Everyone wants to embrace the point guard, because they want the ball," he says. "Those guys are usually the most popular guys on the team because they decide when and how you catch it. It’s usually the big guy who’s alone in the corner."
It was fitting that Harris would make his Nets debut against the Bucks. He grew up in Milwaukee, playing AAU ball for a team sponsored by then-Bucks coach George Karl. He also went to Bucks practices, observing the likes of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glen Robinson. "We ran a lot of their plays," Harris says. "We had a good sense watching them play and watching them work out, we got a great sense of what they do and how to be effective.
After excelling at Wauwatosa East high (which also produced former NBA player Tony Smith, a mentor to Harris), Harris went to on to Wisconsin, where he played for Bo Ryan and won a pair of Big Ten titles. Speed was his forte, and size wasn’t so he also wound up with a change of position. "When I got here, I was a 6-3 2 guard," Harris says. "and they kind of developed me into a point guard and taking on those leadership roles."
He stepped into the starting lineup as a freshman and didn’t leave until he declared for the NBA Draft. Selected by the Washington Wizards fifth overall in 2004, he was immediately traded to Dallas, where he was expected to bide his time behind All-Star Steve Nash. Instead, Nash signed with Phoenix and Harris—after a successful summer league stint with fellow rookies Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels—once again found himself inserted directly into the starting lineup.
It didn’t last long this time. Dallas had also acquired veteran guard Jason Terry. So Harris only started 19 games that first year, then just four the next. After missing a good portion of his second season with a leg injury, he came back in time for the Playoffs, however, and that’s where he truly blossomed. In a hard-fought Western Conference semifinals against the defending Spurs, he reeled off games of 20, 24, and 18 points in Games 2, 3 and 4, beating Tony Parker at his own game as the Mavs took control of the series.
After a tough loss in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat, the Mavericks came back determined in ‘06-07. "You could see in our demeanor as we came out, we just kind of ran through the regular season," Harris says. "It didn’t end the way we wanted to, but was definitely in our mindset."
That would be an understatement. Harris top-seeded Mavs won 67 games, rested up at the end of the season, and then went down in flames in the first round to the underdog Warriors. "Trying to go from the intensity we were at to Playoff intensity," Harris says, "we just didn’t get there quick enough." For his part, Harris posted 13.2 points and five assists per in the series, both well above his season averages. He came back in the fall of ’07 with three things—the proverbial 15 pounds of muscle, a brand-new five-year contract extension and his usual bright smile and positive attitude. A few months later, though, the Mavericks chose to go in a different direction. (A few months after that, after another first round exit, the Mavericks chose to go in a very different direction. A-very, get it? But that’s another story.)
And while Kidd struggled to adapt to Avery and the Mavericks, Harris flourished. "Mr. Whoosh" established new personal game records for points, rebounds, assists, steals and field goals in his 25 games with the Nets—he racked up 19 and 12 in a win over Utah, 26 and 9 in a win over Atlanta, 22 and 15 in a win over Indiana. He averaged 16.6 points and 7 assists per as a Net, and the fast-breaking New Jersey offense actually got faster. "I think that’s where we’re most successful," Harris says. "When we’re getting up and down the floor offensively, playing a lot out of transition, scoring a lot of points."
(It’s perhaps worth noting in Harris’ um defense, that he speaks about playing on the other side of the ball as well. When asked what he brings with him from Dallas, the first thing he mentions is "a good defensive sense" and he says—twice—that "defensively is where we got to get better," but while defense may very well win championships, it doesn’t make for exciting magazine articles. Let’s get back to offense. Coach?)
"I didn’t realize offensively he could do as many things as he’s done for us so far," Frank says. "He had better vision than we thought. He sees guys, he’s able to get the ball to guys, so offensively he’s better than we thought."
And although the Nets wound up missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2000-01 season, the future looks bright. Losing a future Hall of Famer is never easy, but Jason Kidd was 34 years old and not getting any younger. In trading for Harris, the Nets effectively turned back the clock..
"I think Devin, really this year was the first year he got an opportunity—both in Dallas and here—to take a little more ownership in the team," Frank says. "I feel like he’s really, really gonna benefit from training camp, from just getting acclimated, plus I think he can really assert himself, take another step."
If taking another step means taking over the Nets, Harris feels more than up to the challenge. "I think in order for us to be successful, it’s something I have to do. They wanted me for a reason, and obviously good teams with good point guards usually have good leadership, but I definitely have to put my stamp on it and really make it my own.
"I’m just focused on trying to get Jersey back to the playoffs, and then everything goes from there."