Shooters Shoot: How Joe Harris Made Himself Indispensable

The Brooklyn Net's career year earned him a trip to All-Star Weekend. How did he perfect his craft?

The NBA is as three-point happy as it has ever been. And with a quick glance at any NBA game during 2019, the evidence is pretty clear. In order to keep up with contenders at the top—namely, the Golden State Warriors—teams league-wide are scouting more closely for skills that may not be as physically obvious. Where teams used to round out their rosters with physically-imposing forwards and powerful centers, they’re now on the hunt for lanky, deft sharpshooters who have a nose for open space and a knack for complimenting ball-handlers. Times have changed, and rosters have adjusted.

Players’ skills are evaluated differently now than they were even two or three years ago, creating the NBA Free Agency version of the butterfly effect. For instance, if the 2014 draft happened tomorrow, it isn’t farfetched to say Brooklyn Net forward Joe Harris, who is having a career year, would be a lottery pick (look it up if you don’t believe me).

Luckily for the Nets though they didn’t have to draft him at all; they were able to grab him after he was waived. Still recovering from the 2014 calamity, Brooklyn was trying to figure out how to rebuild without any draft picks. Despite minimal NBA reps, Joe’s reputation as a shooter and absence of ego matched with Nets GM Sean Marks’ new ground-up approach, and they signed him in the summer of 2016. While coming to NYC is daunting for anyone from a small town like Chelan, WA—"There are more people that live in my building than the town I grew up in," says Harris, sitting in the media room of the Brooklyn Nets’ Industry City practice facility—Harris is one of the great success stories in the modern NBA.

Two years later, Marks’ vision has paid off wildly. When we spoke with Joe in late January, the Nets had just ripped off 20 of their last 28 with Joe a key asset, averaging 13PPG and 45% 3FG -- good enough for top five in a league filled with an unprecedented level of shooting talent. The NBA has taken notice; Harris will compete in the All-Star Weekend's celebrated Three-Point Contest. ONE37PM sat down with Joe to talk about his craft, the importance of culture on the Nets’ rebuild and the benefits of betting on yourself. 

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Anthony Geathers for ONE37pm

You’re shooting 48% from three right now, third in the NBA -- can you talk about honing your craft? Were you always training to be an NBA shooter or did your training take shape at different levels of your career?

Harris: My dad was a basketball coach. I always grew up around the game, being in the gym. I had an inherent passion for the game early on. I was always pretty technical, especially when it comes to shooting and form. So that skill was kind of what I was always honing in and from the time that I was a little kid. I tried to do a lot of different stuff to be a better all-around basketball player, but the one thing that was always consistent was that I was always a pretty good shooter. I was fortunate to have my dad as a coach, and he could be real technical with me when I was really young, in terms of following good habits and the proper shooting mechanics and form.

What are some of the things your dad did to ensure you had a pure jumper?

Harris: The first thing anybody who played for my dad had to do when they got to the gym, is what he would call “cotton shots.” You’d get in, and you’d shoot directly underneath the hoop, one-handed, and make five shots from five different spots around the rim. Honestly, it’s such a simple thing, but that helped build up the proper mechanics. Now I go into these youth camps and stuff and the kids, the first thing they want to do is go heave it from three. Everyone wants to be Steph Curry.

You can see still see those fundamentals in your jumper today. A couple of the best shooters over history have had an unorthodox element in their jumper, but the great ones always have rhythm and confidence. Are you a believer in textbook shooting?

Harris: Sort of. I mean, in terms of shooting it quicker you have to be somewhat technical and have proper form. But then there are guys like Reggie Miller and shooters like that. Even Ray Allen, his shot is pretty textbook once it gets to a certain point, but he does things like dipping the ball, and he shoots it relatively flat, which is different than what you would want from a good shooter. So it’s hard to say that being exact and proper gives you a distinct advantage or anything like that. I think the consistency of doing it, whatever that you do, being able to do it over and over again is probably the most important thing.

At a certain point, shooting really just becomes about conviction over discipline. Like Klay’s quote the other day where he was talking about how to solve his shooting slump, and he goes “Who at this point do I get advice from?”

Harris: Who the hell is going to give him advice? Not a lot of people are gonna take him to the side and be like, “This is how you need to shoot.” That’s the thing. Shooting—at least the way that I look at it—is based on rhythm and confidence, and for someone like him, it has nothing to do with his mechanics. It’s like a hitter in baseball; you’re gonna go through slumps at some point. It’s just a matter of time.

So this year you guys are 5th in the NBA in 3PA. How much planning from the Front Office to the game plan goes into a stat like that? Obviously, this is an extremely deliberate strategy.

Harris: You’ve seen a wave in the NBA. There’s much more of a priority put on shooting and shooting threes. And a lot of it boils down to the analytics of the game, too. They talk a lot about the points per possession, and your points per possession are going to be significantly higher shooting threes. Especially, corner threes, uncontested threes, the points per possession averages jump up super high. And even if you’re shooting at a really high clip from the mid-range, your points per possession is still not going to be even comparable to what you would get from threes.

It’s easier to shoot when you know everyone on your team is rooting for you, and not going to get bitter when someone else is taking shots. How much of the shooting success would you credit with game planning and Xs and Os versus just letting shooters shoot?

Harris: Kenny [Atkinson] instills a lot of freedom offensively—guys are not afraid to make mistakes or take errant shots. Obviously, you have to know your place, and not to shoot if someone is draped all over you. But Kenny wants people playing free and loose, and that’s when the offense is at its best.

You don’t want it to be constricted and people to be second-guessing what they’re doing. You want people to play freely and get creative, and the system that we have in place is all built around guys reading and reacting and being able to make plays, and I think we’ve gotten more comfortable with it and we obviously have gotten better offensively because of that.

Anyone can make a game plan to chuck but in your team’s style of play it’s really clear that everyone is bought in to get open threes. Like Jared Dudley comes in and he’s just setting screens and swinging the ball side to side. Can you explain how this culture came to be?

Harris: Kenny [Atkinson] has definitely built a system where we don’t have necessarily a superstar talent where we can just go into isolation all the time. We really have to move the ball and get the ball going side to side in order for guys to get clean looks and get good shots. And I think, like you said, you have someone like a Jared Dudley or even just some of our other, bigger guys that are really good at getting the ball and facilitating. And we have guards that are really good at facilitating and kind of doing it on every level, you know, D’Angelo [Russell], Spencer [Dinwiddie] -- we just do a lot through them, you know where we’re trying to get the defense moving side to side and let certain guys facilitate and create open shots for a lot of the shooters that we have.

There has been some criticism around the popularity of threes, though. Earlier this season, Gregg Popovich said that three-pointers are killing the game. What would you say to someone who thinks that?

I’m in the NBA right now because of three-pointers. I would have to disagree with him, but I can see where his point is made. You don’t want to overdo it on the analytics.

The other day, we played against Houston, and it was an NBA record for threes taken in a game. I think they took like 70 as a team which is just absurd. It’s like a track meet. People were just launching, honestly. It’s almost like playing in a rec league, and if you’re a basketball purist, there’s something to be said like the way the game was played through the 90s, even through most of the 80s where people weren’t really putting much of a focus on threes or even really guarding the three-point line. It was more just people were trying to swing the ball around to get a good shot and preferably something at the rim. It’s funny, you know, the way that people play now, they’re talking about it, the other day, even when with D’Antoni Phoenix teams, their pace of play would be almost last in the NBA right now

How do you think that bodes for the future of the pace of the game?

Harris: The game is just adapting. That’s all that it is. Like, you’re gonna look ten years from now, and we’re all going to be saying the exact same thing. We’re gonna be like “Jeeze, everybody that plays is just 6’9 and 6’10 and shoots threes, and brings the ball up the floor.” The game is just going to be played at a ridiculous pace. I think everybody just kind of gets better, they start playing different styles, and yeah—I’m gonna be an old head 10 years, 15 years from now looking back on the NBA like there’s no way that I could have played. I came into the league at a good time where there’s obviously a precedent put on shooting but then ten years from now I’m probably gonna be like "Yeah, there’s no way I could play now."

Sometimes on other teams, you see vets get bitter on the success of the younger dudes, but your vets seem like genuine teammates. What role do they play in the culture?

Harris: They are genuine teammates. That’s the perfect way to put it. Those guys have the most respect in our locker room. We’ve had success playing this way, so people understand that we’re not going to be going off and doing stuff on your own. You got to play within the system. Like Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, DeMarre Carroll, they’ve played on some good teams, some playoff caliber teams, and they understand what it takes to win. If things start to kind of shift one way, they’re really good at reeling it back in and basically reminding guys you know why we’ve had success in the first place.

This rebuild was also a result of the smart contracts Sean signed players to, yourself included. Do you think not having expensive contracts with heavy expectations is related to the culture too?

Harris: It’s definitely made it a little bit easier. But then on the same token too, you have guys that are playing for contracts, and they know that you know, you’re not going to be able to get the best deal if you’re on a bad team. You got to be on a good team in order to get your value up.

With regards to your current success despite your contract, fellow Brooklyn legend, Jay-Z once proposed the question, “Would you rather be overpaid or underrated?”

Harris: I have no comment.

When you were a free agent, what role did NYC’s other opportunities off the court play in your decision to signing with the Nets?

Harris: That’s definitely a factor. The Nets they want us to be here and be around, and part of that goes into establishing the culture. If you sign with a team like Brooklyn, you’re basically committing to being in NYC. And you know, I love being here, I love living in Brooklyn, the convenience of the city, being able to walk around, to not have a car. I’m a huge foodie, I love eating around different spots, and there’s probably no better place in the country to do that than in New York—especially Brooklyn.

How do you weigh the benefits of the city compared to the actual ‘workplace’ during free agency?

Harris: Yeah, at the end of the day, all that does play an important piece, but it is secondary to the basketball stuff. Because that is the top priority, that is what I’m doing day in and day out. What’s most important is like what are the people like that I’m working with every day.

You got a favorite pizza spot? Top two?

Harris: I like Roberta’s a lot. But for purely like New York pizza, Di Fara. I mean you got to make the trek out there and just get a slice. It’s big time.

Along the way to the success you’re having now as an NBA player, can you describe a time where you really had to double down on your vision and bet on yourself?

Harris: Back to when I was in Cleveland, I got surgery on my foot, and I got traded actually the same day I had surgery to Orlando in my hospital bed. And Orlando waived me. So I was like, shit. I was sitting there with no job, and I’m pretty realistic to the fact that I’m a second round pick. I hadn’t done anything in the NBA, so there wasn’t anything for other teams to even evaluate. And like, my chances of staying in the NBA are very slim at this point.

At any point, did you ever really waver from your vision or consider any non-NBA careers?

Harris: I didn’t. When I got waived, I was basically like, “Well chances of me staying in the NBA are probably slim, but I’m going to play basketball regardless” If I got to go play in South America, I was totally fine with that. For me, I’m going to try and play basketball for as long as I can because I love it. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid.

And so regardless, you know, NBA, overseas, wherever, like I was going to plan on playing somewhere and to be honest, I did have a little bit of doubt about getting back into the NBA. But I was still reassured by the fact that I’m still going to have the opportunity to make a living playing basketball. It’s not all that bad. And then, I got lucky—after the rehab process, I had couple different free agent workouts and then lucky that Brooklyn was in the mold of obtaining younger players a little bit more creatively and giving guys second-chance opportunities.

A lot of guys in the league today are investing super heavily off the court both financially and in themselves and other interests. How have you used your position as an NBA player to open up doors in other industries?

Harris: This past summer, I went for like a week to SL Greene, Blackstone, Madison Capital. And I basically just sat in with some of the administrators for like the week just to see like day to day operations. I never had a normal job, so I don’t know what putting a suit on and going and sitting in an office space is like and yeah—there’s just a lot of cool opportunities that present itself just by playing basketball. So it opens up a bunch of doors, and I think the NBA players have gotten a lot better of taking advantage of building up relationships and networks and kind of you know just figuring out what the next step might be.

When you’re a rookie, there’s this transition program, and they talk about the average career span for NBA players and even a long career, might be 10, 11 years. And that flies by. You know, it goes by quickly. They want guys to be prepared for what they want to do next, and what they try to get across to most guys too is that the intangibles, the things that make you a great basketball player are applicable in every aspect of everyday life, business, whatever you want to do. 

Have you put in any thought to what you might want to do after your playing career?

Harris: I’m not too interested in having you know, a 9 to 5 job afterward. My interests lie mostly in basketball. Like if I was to be done playing tomorrow, in an ideal world, I would still be involved in the game in some capacity. If that was like in coaching, front office, whatever, I would still just want to be around the game.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Read more: So, What Exactly Is Basketball's Warm Up Challenge?

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