Wisconsin is really not known as a “hotbed” for NBA talent, which may be why no one really heard of Devin Harris coming out of the University of Wisconsin.
In only his second year, Harris was a key player on a Dallas Mavericks team that made it all the way to the NBA Finals before falling to Dwayne Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, and the Miami Heat in six games.
“It was a great accomplishment,” Harris says of making it to the NBA Championship. “We fell a little short of our goals though. It was exciting, it was also very frustrating coming up just short. It drives me to keep working hard.”
Flying somewhat under the radar, Harris exploded during his senior season at Wauwatosa East High School, setting school scoring records through an undefeated regular season. He was named Wisconsin’s “Mr. Basketball” for 2001 and signed up to play for the Badgers.
In his freshman season, the 2001-2002 season, Harris quickly became a starter on a relatively unheralded team. The Badgers came into the season predicted to finish as low as ninth in the Big Ten Conference, but they unexpectedly won the Big Ten Championship. Harris’ sophomore season saw him lead the Badgers to their second consecutive Big Ten Championship.
The Badgers reached the “Sweet 16” in the NCAA Tournament before falling to the University of Kentucky Wildcats, a perennial basketball power. The 2003-2004 season had Harris establishing himself as one of the top players in the nation. He was named Big Ten Player of the Year, won the Silver Basketball award, and was named a Second Team All-American. Harris decided to leave college early, after his junior year, to play in the NBA. Badger fans weren’t particularly happy with that decision.
They clearly wanted Harris to stay, but he weighed many factors before finally deciding to go pro. Washington selected Harris with the fifth overall pick and subsequently traded him to the Dallas Mavericks. “It was a very tough decision.
That rookie season, I wasn’t playing as much; and the team was not doing well,” Harris recalls of his 2004-2005 season, in which he averaged 5.7 points per game (ppg) and 2.2 assists per game (apg).
Harris was well aware that his Badgers were doing pretty well while he was getting a lot of pine time during his rookie year. They made it to the finals of the Syracuse Regional before narrowly falling to the eventual champion, the North Carolina Tarheels. Would he have made a difference in the tournament had he stayed? “I watched that North Carolina game. But who’s to say I wouldn’t have gotten hurt and even been there?”
Reminded that people live to guess and second-guess about such hypothetical scenarios, Harris reluctantly offers what would have been. “Alright, then. If it makes everybody feel better, we probably would have beat Carolina and went on to win the championship,” Harris laughs.
Since being drafted, Harris has worked hard on improving every season. He improved his jump shot and his ability to split defenses and get to the rim, occasionally ending in powerful dunks. “In college, I used to be a shooter; now, in the pros, I’ve been a driver,” Harris says. “I’m working on expanding my game out on the floor and being able to hit the jumper.”
You can’t play for Bo Ryan at Wisconsin without playing defense. Harris has always been a good defender, but he’s bringing it to a new level in the pros. “Defense came to me over time; being quick and whatnot,” Harris says. “The point guards we come up against every night in the NBA are tough. So you have to be able to play some defense, or it will be a long night for you.
Mark Cuban used to predict that Harris would become a first-team All-NBA defender. “I think my defense has slid a bit since I came over (New Jersey),” Harris said. “That was one of the things I had to focus on in Dallas to get on the floor, because obviously they had all of the shooting already. But definitely I’d like to be at that level.”
All good things come to end, and things get a little depressing when talking about playing in New Jersey. “It was really tough getting traded from Dallas, and especially now that we aren’t winning and it seems all Dallas is doing is winning.”
Before he was packaged to New Jersey last February for Jason Kidd, Harris spent more than three seasons in Dallas under the microscopic examination of coach Avery Johnson, a self-made point guard who won an NBA championship without the natural abilities of Harris.
“I learned how to control a team,” Harris said. “He taught me a lot about changing gears. When I came in, I thought it was one gear all the time. He taught me how to go slow to fast, fast to slow.”
As much as Johnson was trying to teach him to play under control, he was also providing Harris with the tools to make the most of the opportunity he is now exploiting in New Jersey. Harris now hovers freely around the three-point line, ball in hand — and without warning he cuts a knifing solo through the defense that transcends choreography.
This was the style Harris envisioned when he entered the NBA as a second-team All-America from Wisconsin, where he averaged 19.5 points as a junior to break Michael Finley’s single-season record at the school. But he wound up going to Dallas, where he was charged with organizing and creating shots for Dirk Nowitzki, Finley, Jerry Stackhouse, Josh Howard and Jason Terry — all averaging at least 12 points for a team that would reach the NBA Finals one year later.
“Winning games at the rate we were winning, it was fun for me,” Harris said.
But he was rarely comfortable playing to a disciplined style that was more learned than natural. He was thinking more than he was reacting, but he told himself it wouldn’t be like this forever.
“There are very few players who start and end with [the same] team,” he said. “So I was just taking it one day at a time and not looking toward the future.”
With New Jersey in line for the #1 pick in next year’s draft, and all eyes on John Wall of Kentucky, many are saying Harris is now expendable. Harris simply shrugs the future off. “I think the player that I have evolved into is the kind of player that I am. If I move on from here, I just hope I go to a team that wants me.”
Has losing taught him anything? “How much I love winning,” Harris laughs.