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Joe Harris on Woj Podcast: James Harden ‘by far the best passer I’ve ever played with’

Brooklyn Nets v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Joe Harris says he is “not a star ... by any means” in the NBA, but his stats and his team’s success would belie that. Harris is first in 3-point percentage at a time when 3-point shooting is more valued than ever, shooting 50.6 percent overall and leading the league in every shooting metric.

He is, by any standard, the best shooter in the NBA. And slowly but surely he has mounted the all-time ladder. After going 4-of-5 Wednesday night, the 29-year-old is now shooting 43.79 percent for his career, fourth place all-time, and not that far behind No. 3 Hubert Davis who finished his career at 44.09 percent.

Not bad for a guy who just five years ago was traded and cut the same day he had a bone removed from his ankle ... and who the Nets almost didn’t renew after his first year in Brooklyn.

In a lengthy and fascinating podcast with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski earlier this week, Harris touched on a number of aspects of his career, offering detailed perspectives on how the Nets resurrected his career from near-zero to now and what he sees in his teammates, in particular James Harden, and his head coach, Steve Nash.

The longest-serving Net offered heaps of praise for Harden as a player ... and teammate.

“First and foremost, James is an incredible basketball player. I think the one thing that is pretty underrated in his game is his ability to pass the ball. He’s by far the best passer I’ve ever played with (and Harris played with LeBron) and just like you mentioned, if you get an even a sliver of space, the defense might relax whatever, the ball’s coming your way.

“He really reminds me of playing with D’Angelo (Russell). DLo was an unbelievable passer when he was here in Brooklyn, being able to control the game, facilitate, But James because people are worried about him his offensive ability to score he sort of lulls people to sleep every now and then. There’ve been a number of times this season where he might have the ball and you think he’s going to be giving in to a stepback and attack the rim he’s kind of lulling the defense to sleep and (laughs) the ball comes instantly to your hands wherever you might be. It makes my job easy because I know that the ball is coming my way more often than not. I have room and rhythm and I have to be aggressive taking those shots.”

Harris said Mike D’antoni, who worked with Harden for four years, gave him fair warning of his new point guard’s skills.

“Mike, as everything was sort of unfolding, he came over to me and said, you’re going to love playing with him. He makes the game so much easier for everyone on the court, but particularly shooters. He likes to find people who he knows are going to be aggressive taking shots. He told me to continue that aggressive mindset that I had had and continue it because he knows if you’re aggressive taking shots, he’s going to find you.”

It’s all a function of his intelligence, Harris argues. He understands what’s needed, which tool to pull from his toolbox.

“James is such a smart player too. He’s continuing to put guys in different spots, in different spots, in position for everyone to have success, not just for him because he’s trying to win games. You see it continually where he could come out and try to score 40 points every night and he could probably get to it and do it. But he’s facilitating, getting guys involved, trying to get other guys going early on.

“I mean he can take over late in games. I mean last night in San Antonio, I think in the first quarter he had a free throw and maybe a three, but he had four rebounds, six assists. He’s really controlling the pace of the game and sort of dictating what’s going on. He does this, night in, night out, but he’s cerebrally doing it, communicating with guys over the course of the game and getting guys in spots where where we’re best positioned for success.”

Harris spoke at length about how he developed his game, how he’s gone from a pure shooter taken in the second round to a more well-rounded player.

“Early on, you’re just trying to solidify a niche in this league. For me, obviously, it still is to this day. My best strength and what has gotten me to this point is shooting the ball. But you can’t be limited. That’s not to say my game has transformed a lot between then and now. I’m still not breaking guys down off the dribble, handling the ball at times. I’m definitely sticking to my strength but I think I’ve improved in different areas like you mentioned, finishing as it were. Guys are going to run you off the line and you’ve got to make reads and decisions from there. And I take a lot of pride in making the right reads. I’m opportunistic when I’m finishing, be an efficient finisher, not turning the ball over, trying to make a decision while driving.”

He credited Kenny Atkinson, his coach the first three and a half seasons in Brooklyn, for helping him change his game, noting that Atkinson —and long-time assistant Jordan Ott— not only said he could be the Nets’ Kyle Korver, but a more well-rounded version of the player then seen as the NBA’s best pure shooter.

“I think a lot of that goes back to Kenny. He was kind of early on talking to me about other guys in the past where he saw similarities like Kyle Korver, different shooters he had seen but he said, ‘I think you can more than that. I think you can help us in other areas.’ He’d say ‘you shouldn’t limit yourself.’ To being this specific, he said, ‘You’ve got to open up your game in other facets.’

“It was one of those things between him and other assistants we have had like Jordan Ott who’s been with the Nets during my entire tenure here. He just pinpointed those different areas to focus on during the off season and then just applying it over the course of the year. Simplifying the game, making sure you’re making the right read.”

Admitting he never thought “I’d be in this position,” Harris was asked how he reacted when his agent, Mark Bertelstein, told him the Nets were offering him a four-year deal valued at around $75 million ... and why he quickly agreed to the offer. It wasn’t just about money.

“I mean I was telling him to take it (laughs). Part of it too is the level of familiarity, comfortability with Brooklyn. Obviously, I’ve been here from the time Sean has been here and a number of other people who’ve been on the staff. They know what I’m about, they know where my value is.

“Sometimes it’s different. Obviously a deal offered by a separate team and there are certain people in the organization who see the value in you but people are unfamiliar with you. You have to really reintroduce yourself to understand what you’re all about. In a place like Brooklyn, there’s familiarity with so many people from the top down. It’s just a comfortable decision for me. being that I didn’t have to change up a lot in my thinking. I knew Brooklyn is where I want to be. It makes it a lot easier what you’re about, what you bring to the table.”

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the podcast was Harris talking about the early days of the “Markinson” era when he and other castoffs like Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell were given new leases on NBA life. It started with structure, Harris told Woj.

“They were trying to solidify all sorts of organization pillars where there was an emphasis on skills development. growing the young players that they had. There was an emphasis on the performance side of stuff. Guys learned to take care of their bodies, making it a daily ritual, a habit they didn’t have to worry about. There was a lot of structure in place for all of us. For most of us coming into it, we weren’t really used to that. We all came from different organizations. My situation in particular. I didn’t really have a ton of structure like that when I was in Cleveland. A lot of what was there, these guys were real independent, they figured it out on their own. They didn’t need guys taking them aside doing this, doing that.”

He provided Woj with what his daily routine was in those early days (not repeating his famous line that the Nets checked on the color of his urine.)

“‘This is what you’re doing.’ Kenny’s talking about doing vitamins every day. Sean is putting an emphasis of the performance side of stuff. You’re working with a trainer that you’re seeing on a daily basis. You’re having to do various stuff in the weight room. Every day, you’re coming in knowing exactly what you’re going to do. You’re going to have your vitamins. You were going to see your trainer or someone from the performance staff. Then, you’re going to do your stuff in the weight room, then you’re going to practice. Then, you’re going to see someone gain after practice!

“You built up this sort of ritual which a lot of those guys who were in Cleveland had been doing independently, already had in place that was successful over a long period of time. But I think Brooklyn allowed us to grab on to this structure, really grow and develop a lot.”

Then, there was the on-court experience, how players got long leashes.

“Obviously it helped having a younger team aside from all that stuff going on, we’re being thrown into the fire in a lot of these games where if I made a mistake in Cleveland, I’m probably getting taken out. It was a championship team and they didn’t have time to learn through mistakes whereas the team in Brooklyn, we’re learning through a lot of mistakes, messing up but figuring it out along the way. Kenny allowed us a longer lease in that regard. We all really grew and figured it out together.“

Harris spoke as well about how he sees his current role and his goals. There was a lot of humility.

“I know I have the self-realization. I’m not a star player by any means. My job is to be the best role player in the NBA. That’s my goal, that’s what I think about even before playing with James and Ky and Kevin and now it just makes it even easier. You need to have those valuable role players for the team to have success.”

On his rookie head coach, Harris had nothing but praise noting, as did DeAndre Jordan Wednesday, his communication — and management — skills.

“Steve has been unbelievable. For him, I think it’s been difficult job because so much of his job is trying to manage everybody who we have on this team especially in the difficult times. When you’re winning games, doing well, but it’s pretty trying and tough, You lose a back-to-back, you have a one-off game where it just might not be there and keeping everybody together.

“That’s sort of the biggest thing I’ve seen from him. The way he coaches us is, I feel, how he led his teams when he was in Phoenix where everyone who ever played with him talked about how he was the ultimate team player, the ultimate guy who was the glue that kept everyone together, consistently just positive, optimistic outlook. That’s how he is with us. I think a lot us have gravitated to that mindset and really have that belief in him.”

There’s more in there, including how Harris’ success has led to NBA scouting staffs to take second looks at draft prospects with his skills.