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Why Joe Harris winning three-point contest means everything to Brooklyn

NBA: All-Star Saturday Night Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Head coach Kenny Atkinson was hired in 2016 to develop players and coach a team filled with no-name players. One of the players was Joe Harris, a castoff looking for a second chance after a two-year stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers and their G League affiliate, the Canton Charge.

Three seasons in, Harris’ 47 percent from beyond the arc is the second-highest number in the NBA. After a process that took longer than expected, Harris was invited to participate in the three-point contest against some of the NBA’s premiere shooters.

“It gives [me] goosebumps, it gets you emotional,” Atkinson said recently.

The “underdog” Harris heard few cheers when he was announced on stage. His beard beaming, his eyes showing no sign of anxiousness. The stage, the glory… that wasn’t his time. His time came when it was just him, a rack of basketballs and a hoop to shoot on.

Harris went on to win the three-point contest, becoming the first Net to ever win the competition. He also set a record for most points scored (51) since the 34-point format was implemented in 2015. His 25 points in the first round was good enough to land him a spot against Steph Curry and Buddy Hield in the final round.

“Just fortunate to be here,” said Harris after the win. “We were talking about it coming in, obviously the field was stacked. You’ve got some of the best shooters of all time in Dirk and Steph. Great shooters in their own regard. Just honored to be here, honored to compete with everybody.”

Harris stunned the crowd, hitting 16 of his final 20 balls including five straight on his final money ball rack. His 26 points were too much for crowd-favorite Steph Curry to overcome after he finished just one money ball short of sending it to a tie breaker.

After the match, Harris grabbed Curry and respectfully said, “’I thought we were going to that tie-breaker, man” as Curry laughed and walked off, something that likely was forgotten in the matter of minutes for the former MVP and three-time Finals winner.

But it means something different in Brooklyn.

It means everything.

It represents everything they’ve accomplished since Sean Marks and Atkinson took over. Until recently, not many people watch the Nets or know their story — Shaquille O’Neal admitted after the contest that he had never even heard of Harris. Marks and Atkinson came in with a goal to develop high-character castoff players and build a respectable culture through them. Unknowns like Harris were welcomed.

“Some guys come in right away and are able to contribute,” Harris explains. “But you look at the makeup of our Brooklyn Nets team and it’s a lot of guys that were cast off & had a second opportunity. I personally was one of those guys.”

Last year, it was former G Leaguer turned star Spencer Dinwiddie in the Skills Competition. This year, it’s Joe Harris in the three-point contest. Marks’ squad spots them and Atkinson’s team develops them. The rest turns you into part of the family.

Emphasis on family. The Nets are a tight knit organization built on a high character culture. They’re proud of their own.

“Joe Harris… thinking of where he came from, the Cleveland thing, not being in the league basically. Now he’s starting for us, signed an excellent contract and now he’s in with the elite shooters in the league in the 3-point shooting contest,” Atkinson said.

Harris spent two years at the end of the bench playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He played 51 total games with the big-league club, while playing 21 with the G League affiliate in Canton. Then, he faced the worst-case scenario for a marginal NBA player.

It’s January 12, 2016. The day started with foot surgery, followed up by a phone call that he had been traded to the Orlando Magic. The Magic then waived Harris and suddenly he was unemployed… for six months.

That’s when Brooklyn’s Assistant Coach Bret Brelmaier, a former Assistant with Cleveland, mentioned Harris’ name when Marks and Atkinson were constructing the roster.

And so, the Nets brought in Harris – a no-name player with very little credibility in the league to put any high hopes on him. Atkinson told Harris the Nets wanted him to become their version of Kyle Korver. People, including Harris himself apparently, began scratching their heads. Not long after, the Nets hosted Media Day with each individual player at a table.

Nobody was talking to Joe.

He flew under the radar as the Nets struggled to win 20 games. Harris seized his opportunity and shot the three ball at a 39 percent clip in 22 minutes per game. The following summer, Harris’ table was filled with reporters.

He’s asked to give his individual goal for the upcoming season.

“40 percent from three,” Harris says.

He hit 42 percent from three.

Suddenly, Harris had become a bit of a household name and poster boy for the organization. He took a discount and signed a two-year, $16 million contract to stay with the Nets. He assumed leadership roles because, “The culture that we have here… you know what to expect, you know what the coaches and front office want out of you,” Harris said late September.

His 42 percent clip turned into a 47 percent clip 59 games into this season, while playing an integral role in Brooklyn’s playoff bid. You can argue that he’s one of the NBA’s most improved players, averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, free throw percentage and three-point percentage.

Harris’ hidden ego is a good thing in Brooklyn, but can work against him. He almost wasn’t invited to the three-point event. The NBA took its time selecting Harris for the three-point contest, choosing the Curry brothers to compete in their hometown. Then, they rightfully invited Devin Booker back to defend his title. Next, they brought in Damian Lillard and for old-times sake Dirk Nowitzki was invited.

Nets players started a long campaign tweeting at the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver. The Brooklyn Nets social account produced a nifty video to show Joe’s craft to bucket-getting, anywhere and anytime.

Some fans threatened to take things into their own hands.

And finally, the announcement was made with less than two weeks to spare. The man who started with nothing had evolved into something. Then, in front of a national audience, he beat the Curry brothers, first Seth, then Steph. Shaq, who admitted he didn’t know Harris, added that during the competition, Harris did not change his expression. No smiling. Just focus. He came to win, Shaq argued.

But if you watch the Nets consistently, you were not the slightest bit surprised that Joe “Buckets” Harris is the 2019 three-point champ. Back in Brooklyn, he remains the poster boy for development. These things are appreciated for a specific reason. With their common goal, guys like Dinwiddie and Harris bettered the team, the culture ... and their individual games in the process.

This is Brooklyn’s biggest pitch to free agents going forward, and that’s why Joe Harris is so important: He epitomizes everything the Brooklyn Nets are.

“It’s good when guys get individual accolades like that. It helps the program,” Atkinson said less than two weeks back. “I think other guys in the league look [at Joe Harris] and say, ‘hey come to Brooklyn and there’s opportunity there and you’ll develop.’”