The podium is the NBA postseason’s version of a game ball. With more media packing the locker rooms in the playoffs, the league will often pull certain players out of the fray and up on stage in the interview room. Most of the time, it’s a spot reserved for a team’s star. But occasionally, an unsung hero will swing a game and get their moment in the spotlight. That is what J.A. Adande would call a Podium Game. Here are the under-the-radar players most likely to get one as we barrel toward the big stage of the postseason.
Player: Joe Harris
Team: Brooklyn Nets
Numbers: 13.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 62.5 eFG%, minus-1.5 net rating
How’d he get here?
Harris is not the only diamond that Brooklyn GM Sean Marks has found in the rough, but he was the one buried the deepest. The only remarkable thing about the beginning of Harris’s career is just how unlucky he was. Cleveland selected him 33rd overall in 2014, at a time when the franchise had larger, Kinglike small forwards to consider. Harris spent two seasons between the Cavs and their G League affiliate, the Canton Charge. Then, on January 12, 2016, Harris’s career suddenly seemed as good as over after one of the shittiest days a player could possibly have: For breakfast, Harris had surgery on his right foot; for lunch, he received the news that he was traded to Orlando; for dinner, the Magic waived him. A couple of months later, Cleveland won a ring without him.
Marks signed Harris that summer, and he has ascended along with the Nets each season, from a nobody on the NBA’s worst team in 2016-17, to the Average Joe on a roster filled with them in 2017-18, to the league’s best 3-point shooter on a bubble playoff team in 2018-19. Harris, much like Brooklyn, is making up for lost time. At 27, he’s the oldest player in the Nets’ starting lineup but has logged fewer games over his career than point guard D’Angelo Russell, who is almost five years Harris’s junior.
What’s his game like?
While Harris contains multitudes on the court, what’s most necessary to know about him is this: I’d rather square up against Harris in a bar fight than try to defend him on the perimeter. Harris is the best deep shooter in the league this season at 47.5 percent. He didn’t only win the 3-point contest during All-Star Weekend, he set a record for the most points scored (51!) since the format was changed in 2015. In February, he hit 55.1 percent of his 3s. The following month, Harris was in a “slump”; after the Nets beat the Lakers last week, a game that Harris finished 6-for-8 from deep, Kenny Atkinson remarked on how happy he was that his gunner was out of his funk. “He’s struggling a little bit shooting the ball, so it’s good to see him come back,” Atkinson said. His “slump” was nine games at an above-average 38.2 percent.
When Marks signed Harris, Atkinson hoped he’d become their Kyle Korver. His player comps now surpass that. Harris isn’t just part of the catch-and-shoot club that Korver, JJ Redick, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry were in years ago; he’s got a position on the spot-up board of trustees. His field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot 3s trumps all players with at least 150 such attempts, and at 47.7, it’s higher than his regular 3-point percentage.
“It’s not like I’m wowing people with my athleticism or my ballhandling ability,” Harris said last month when asked about his 3-point shooting. But his constant buzzing around screens opens the floor for Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert to work their magic inside. That—and his transition 3s, another area in which he excels—also allows Harris to find cutters. He can make the extra pass after receiving the ball as quickly as he can get a shot off; though he’s not typically thought of as a facilitator (he averages 2.4 assists), Harris has fed big man Jarrett Allen more than anyone on the team besides Russell.
What separates Harris from all aforementioned marksmen outside of Curry is that he isn’t fettered to the perimeter, despite his athletic shortcoming. He averages seven drives per game and three shots off said drives; Curry averages 3.1 shots on drives. Part of that is talent—Harris isn’t playing with Ben Simmons or a Donovan Mitchell, or Curry and Durant for that matter. (Thompson, to his credit, still manages 4.6 drives per game.)
What does his team say about him?
Dinwiddie: “We become a much more explosive offense in general [with Harris]. We go from OK to big time.”
Atkinson: “Joe’s never been a guy with a chip on his shoulder. He’s not ‘Oh, I’ve got to show everybody.’ He’s more about his work and more about the laser focus and excelling at his craft. … That’s the purity of Joe.”
Russell: “He’s leading the league in 3-point field goal percentage, so that says enough alone. But when he’s getting it going, it relaxes [the defense]. It eases up the defenders on us and allows us to continue to control the game.”
Atkinson: “I think he’s done a real good job [on defense]. I’m not sure where his rebounding numbers are, but he’s one of our best hit-first guys, boxing out. He just doesn’t get lost on screening situations. Fouling guys and chasing guys at his position, he’s gotta do a lot of that. And then his pick-and-roll defense has gotten better. I thought last year or two years ago he was running into screens all the time. He’s doing a much better job of navigating screens.”
On a scale from Jokic to J.R. Smith, how irrational is his confidence?
After beating Curry in the 3-point contest (and hitting each 3-pointer on his final rack), Harris acted like it was warm-ups. He was the first Net to ever win the contest. Yet he was nonchalant, and not in an “act like you’ve been here before” way, because it was the largest stage he’d ever been on. It looked like Harris was thinking about what was for dinner later.
“That was shocking to me,” Atkinson said. “I can’t believe he didn’t fist-pump or anything.”
What’s his biggest moment so far?
Winning the 3-point contest is an obvious peak, but another highlight came in December, in the final seconds of a double-overtime game against Charlotte. Harris recovered a loose ball, drove to the basket, and laid in the winning bucket. It showed confidence and an ability to read the game—though Harris isn’t the quickest in transition, he trusted himself enough to break through two defenders rather than pull up deep, knowing they needed only two points to win.
Why might he swing a playoff game?
Though Brooklyn has only four games left, its remaining schedule is the toughest for any team. That matters now much more than it did before, as the Nets have dropped to the seventh spot in the East after a brutal series of opponents that seemed like going through an Iron Man, a marathon, and that contest where you’re in the mud and get beer afterward all back-to-back-to-back-to-back (to-back). (Except, no beer.) Now, Miami and Orlando are trailing by only half a game and one game, respectively. So Harris might be the difference between the Nets making the playoffs and coming in ninth. In the five games he’s missed this season, the team’s gone 0-5; in games Harris has scored fewer than 10 points, they’ve gone 5-13 (six of those were in March, during his … “slump”). Brooklyn is composed of players who are out to prove themselves. With the 3-point contest title, inches away from the regular season 3P% title and a postseason berth, Harris is one of the many faces of the mission.