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FILM STUDY: Joe Harris’ offense is starting to come alive in career-year as a defender

Charlotte Hornets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Joe Harris has that verve about him again.

The fist pumps have returned. As he relocates up and down the perimeter, his moppy brown hair flows in the still Barclays Center air with a renewed sense of confidence. His trademarked finger-points suddenly emit brazenness. When he catches the ball on the move, you can practically feel those calm feelings of warmth creep into your stomach knowing that three Nets points will soon be put on the scoreboard.

Wednesday against Charlotte was the first time in more than a week that Harris finished with fewer than 10 points, a testament to his consistency, and you could make a compelling case that he’s been Brooklyn’s third-best player in that stretch.

Harris has missed just eight total three-pointers in his last four games. He’s largely resembled the player that led the league twice in 3-point percentage in 2018-19 and 2020-21; the same guy who sits at slot #3 on the active 3-point percentage leaders list. (Seth Curry is No. 1.)

His resurgence wasn’t always a given. November was a frigid month for Harris from three at 33.3%, and some league executives wondered if he was the same player after undergoing a pair of surgeries on the same left ankle last season.

Worries, be gone!

Below is every made three from Harris’ last four performances, dating back to his 14-point night against the Washington Wizards. Right away, you’ll notice many of Joe’s looks have come on the break, either out of stationary positioning or a slight jog. He’s also been the benefactor of Brooklyn’s (admittedly rare) offensive rebounding opportunities, spotting up or shifting up the three-point line once his teammates secure the ball off the glass.

We’ve even seen some relocation threes from Joe—lifts up the wing, for example, as Brooklyn runs pick-and-roll. While hosting the Wizards, Harris even nailed a pick-and-pop three after ‘ghosting’ the ball screen for Kevin Durant. And then against Boston, Joe was feeling it so much that he took the ball up the floor himself and dribbled into a rhythm three like he was Game 6 Klay freaking Thompson or something...

Joe’s recent hot stretch has helped his 3-point percentage climb to 37.2%—still a career-low during his time in Brooklyn but much closer to the league-leading marks he’s put up as a Net.

“You just love that he’s a teammate of yours. I think when we first talked about it, I was extremely confident that Joe would eventually start making shots. It’s because his preparation is professional because his approach is professional,” said head coach Jacque Vaughn about Joe after the loss against the Celtics. “It was a matter of time and he’s still got some room where he’ll make some more shots for us.”

There were always signs that Joe would return to form. Ironically, they came on the side of the ball that Joe has been criticized for the most historically: defense.

There is a strong case to be made that this is Joe Harris’ best defensive season as a Brooklyn Net. The 79.3 points per 100 possessions (84th percentile) that Brooklyn allows when Joe is on the floor is by far the best mark of his career. Catch-all metrics like FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR rating are a little lower on his impact but still grade this out as one of his best years as a defender.

As crazy as it sounds, his defense was ahead of his offense for most of the year until last week.

Joe surely won’t be mistaken as a do-it-all wing-stopper—like, say, OG Anunoby. Royce O’Neale typically takes on Brooklyn’s toughest defensive assignments due to his pedigree on that end, low base, and quick hands. Harris, meanwhile, only tends to find himself matched up with the stars of the league as a byproduct of Brooklyn’s switching defense.

He turned in one of his finest defensive performances on Sunday in what was Brooklyn’s biggest test of the year. The Boston Celtics targeted Harris on numerous occasions by using Jayson Tatum as a screener, a popular tactic for Joe Mazzulla’s squad to coerce mismatches, and Joe held his own. The video below contains three of Joe’s best sequences while guarding Boston’s MVP candidate on switches.

  1. Up first, Tatum screens for Payton Pritchard to force the switch, and Harris does an excellent job fronting Tatum so that he can’t get an elbow touch, which causes Boston’s offensive possession to stall out.
  2. Next up, Tatum once again screens for Pritchard to get Harris on the high side, yet Joe does a fantastic job raising his right arm to deny the passing window, which forces a catch underneath the basket. Harris finishes the play by stripping Tatum.
  3. Then finally, Joe picks up Tatum squarely on top of the blue Barclays logo after the switch. When Tatum crosses to his left to come off a pick-and-roll, Joe sticks out his right arm to deny Tatum’s ability to use Luke Kornet’s screen and get the advantage. Tatum counters with a hang dribble going right, and Joe shadows Tatum right into the help of O’Neale. Boston’s best player effectively steps into a mousetrap due to the guidance of Harris.

“You notice a little bit in the Boston game, his ability to be more aggressive in pick-and-roll coverage,” said Vaughn before Wednesday’s game against Charlotte. “There’s an element of pick-and-roll coverage where there is a brief second where no one has an advantage, and it’s your opportunity to take advantage of that situation or be the recipient of this pick-and-roll. Joe’s learning how to dictate, and he has that split second (where) he can be the aggressor and then allow his teammates to fill behind him. So he’s learning that process that’s allowed him to be a better pick-and-roll defender.”

The final play from the video above is a great example of what Vaughn is talking about in terms of Joe’s heightened pick-and-roll deterrence. He’s not being the “aggressor” in the traditional sense, clawing for the ball and bodying up his matchup with chest bumps like a Marcus Smart or Patrick Beverley. Instead, he’s dictating the terms of engagement with his body positioning and escorts one of the finest offensive players in the league into his swarming teammates.

Brooklyn’s defense is largely built off its staunch rim protection that leads the league in blocks, and Joe’s ability to funnel offensive players into the bear trap-like wingspans of Nic Claxton, Kevin Durant, and Ben Simmons makes him a hand-in-glove fit with this scheme. In large part, it’s why he grades out positively as a pick-and-roll defender, allowing just 87.9 points per 100 possessions against opposing ball-handlers (64th percentile at his position).

In the limited sample of just 28 total possessions, Harris has also done a nice job defending players in isolation. His 39.3 points per 100 possessions allowed in one-on-one situations ranks within the 93rd percentile at his position. Harris is also holding opponents 3.3% under their expected field goal percentage, the first time in his eight-year career that he’s been a net-positive according to this specific metric.

Always a beefy dude, Joe is pretty tough to move on forays to the rim or bruising post-ups, reasons alone to believe in his defensive viability in the playoff crucible. Plus, he’s improved his technique over the years, repeatedly sticking to Brad Beal’s step-back mid-ranger like epoxy glue in the most recent meetup with the DMV hoopers.

Quicker downhill guards can, of course, get by him, as lateral quickness definitely isn’t a keystone part of Joe’s defensive game. But still, his portability and willingness to take on a variety of matchups will greatly behoove the Nets when it counts.

Harris has matched his improvements on the ball with a heightened understanding of how to make an impact as a team defender. He’s had some really nice help rotations as of late that he’s capped off with strong vertical contests.

  1. Below, Kevin Durant bites on a pump fake from Jayson Tatum, and Joe shifts over promptly with his arms raised high to deter Boston’s star. This causes Tatum to slow down for a euro-step to absorb contact, buying Durant time to soar back into the play for a humiliating rejection. An awesome play from KD, to be clear, but it wouldn’t be possible without Joe’s participation.
  2. In the first of the two games against Portland, the Blazers went to a pick-and-roll between Damian Lillard and Justice Winslow. Brooklyn defended this action by blitzing Lillard, giving Winslow a free lane to roll to the rim. Though it wasn’t even his rotation (it’s KD’s), Harris instinctually helped from the strongside corner off of Josh Hart, a low-percentage outside threat, and contested Winslow. This turned a would-be dunk into a double-clutch layup that slammed into the backboard...

Part of being a great team defender is the ability to rebound, and though Joe has never been great in this category, he makes up for it by sealing opponents with box-outs. His 1.5 box outs per game lead his Nets, and this earned high praise from his head coach before Wednesday’s nail-biter against the Charlotte Hornets.

“A 70% box out rate, he was above average. There you go, Joe Harris! So all that stuff we talked about, the shooting and everything, the ability to do your job, be a great teammate,” said Vaughn. “70%: Seven out of 10 times he’s boxing out, he’s doing the right thing. That’s helping us not be in last place, hopefully, in defensive rebounding a month from now.”

Joe Harris has gone from a defensive liability to a viable 3-and-D wing since landing in Brooklyn. That’s quite the tale of improvement, and it’s all through the gradual refinement of his technique and awareness. Assuming his 3-point shot continues to trend upward, he’ll be a mainstay in Brooklyn’s starting lineup. Perhaps he’s also a player worth keeping off the table in trade talks.