Gary Harris is the kind of player and person that franchises and organizations love.
The Denver Nuggets seemed especially sorry to see him leave in the end. He was well-liked in the locker room, a good glue player and someone who always felt like he did whatever the team needed from him.
There was nothing but well wishes from Nuggets fans as he departed for Orlando. They all felt the Orlando Magic were getting a solid veteran for a rebuild.
Of course, Harris has his own goals. He has always been chasing a version of himself that seemingly got taken away from him. His vaunted 2018 season is something he has constantly been trying to live up to.
Injuries have slowed his process down. He has struggled just to stay on the court and make good on this potential. And so the Magic’s first goal with Harris was simply to get him healthy and on the court.
Time is running out for Harris.
Gary Harris is still trying to chase his standout 2018 season. As the veteran on the Orlando Magic, they will need him to get to that level just as Harris needs a return there too.
Not only is he now positioned as the veteran — and likely veteran starter — on a team that is rebuilding, but his contract is up at the end of the year. He is playing this year for his place in the league. And while his reputation will certainly earn him another contract somewhere. This season will determine exactly the extent of that contract.
At the end of the day, a player is worth what he brings on the floor. And after the way he finished his season with the Magic, that is still a mystery.
Harris averaged 10.2 points per game and 2.3 assists per game in 20 appearances with the Magic last year. However, he shot only a 42.9-percent effective field goal percentage and just 36.4-percent from beyond the arc (the majority of his shots were 3-pointers).
With the Magic, he made 10 of his 26 3-pointers with the closest defender six or more feet away and 12 of his 30 shots with the closest defender 4-6 feet away. This accounted for 22 of his 24 makes and 56 of his 66 attempts.
Harris just does not have the volume to make any conclusions with the team. And the Magic could not put him in enough advantageous positions. Harris should be more than a spot-up shooter. It is the other parts of his game that Harris had to emphasize.
The hints of his mythical 2018 season are all still there. It is just a question of how much the Magic can scale it up and just how much Harris can take over.
That standard Harris set in 2018 is something everyone references with him. He averaged 17.5 points per game with a 57.0-percent effective field goal percentage with a 39.6-percent from beyond the arc.
That is always what Harris is chasing. And it came on a roster like the one the Magic currently have — extremely young and still coming into its own. Orlando certainly wants a veteran to help guide and sculpt this young roster. And Harris has helped a team get through these growing pains before. It was something he spoke about when he arrived in Orlando in March.
His first task though is just staying on the court.
Harris fell off because of various injury issues. Since that season, Harris has not played more than 60 games in a season.
He was seemingly fine with the reduction in his role that came with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray’s ascendance. He even thrived in his defensive role for that team, becoming a key player in their 3-1 series comeback against the Utah Jazz in 2020.
Indeed, of all his stats last year, his defense was the only thing that really stood out. Last year was a recovery year for Harris as injury slowed him down. And it slowed his offense down.
But even throughout the whole season, Harris rated well defensively.
According to numbers from Basketball Index, he had 3.1 deflections per 75 possessions and 1.0 steals per 75 possessions, both in the top quarter of the league.
There is obviously still work to do. And Harris’ work with the Magic still left a lot to be desired. With the Magic last season, the team had a 117.6 defensive rating with Harris on the floor compared to 116.8 overall after the trade deadline.
Orlando did not get the full effect from Harris last year.
Every team needs a player willing to do the dirty work like Harris does. And that is why Harris remains extremely popular. It is filling in those gaps and helping the team — more specifically, this young team — that will determine Harris’ success.
And so the question for Harris to answer this year is whether he can return to that role and return to that player or whether he will continue to struggle to find his footing yet again. Every player in the league is seeking consistency at the end of the day — it is one of the big stories of Terrence Ross’ career, for instance.
And that is where Harris finds himself at this critical crossroads for his career.
Orlando will need more from Harris. The team needs a 3-and-D player. That is always where Harris projected. He was not the near star he looked like in 2018. That was by necessity as much as anything. Holding him to that standard was always a mistake.
So Harris has to find a new standard to play to. He has to set that standard as much as anything this year for his career to continue.
And that is what this season is about. He has a lot to prove and a lot to re-prove with this Magic team. Orlando is going to give him that opportunity to do so.
But with so much young talent — and the prospect of getting some return for him at the trade deadline before his contract expires — Harris will still have to earn it too. He has the history that he can at least do that.
But Harris certainly wants and should be more. He should be a lot more than what the Magic saw in those final 20 games. Perhaps a full offseason and training camp with his new team will help settle things in and give him a clearer understanding of his role.
The Magic are certainly expecting more from Harris this year. A whole lot more. And he has to deliver.
If not for the team, then for himself.
This is the season Harris has been fighting for. And the opportunity he needs to reclaim his path forward.