Nuggets guard Gary Harris at No. 20

The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over the next two days. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 players under the age of 25.

The Nuggets are ready to make the playoffs. After finishing on the outside looking in a season ago, they are doing all they can to make sure this team is playing extra basketball come this spring. Nikola Jokic is the sun this team orbits around and the addition of Paul Millsap gives them a credible No. 2. With shooters at every position, this team is set up to be an offensive monster for years to come.

All they’re missing is a do-it-all two way guard. It just so happens the player they need has been hiding in plain sight. It wouldn’t be the first time Denver’s unearthed gold from within, either.

Gary Harris was drafted No. 19 overall by the Bulls in the 2012 NBA Draft and then shipped to the Nuggets along with the rights to Jusurf Nurkic for Doug McDermott in a draft-night deal. Harris is the only player of the trio that remains on the team that traded for him.

The former Michigan State guard has seen steady improvement across the board in each of his first three seasons. Last year, he shot over 50.2 percent from the field and 42.0 percent on 3-pointers. If he could make a jump from the high-70s into the 90s at the free throw line, he’ll join one of the most exclusive clubs in all of basketball.

Not just a catch-and-shoot player stationed in the corner, Harris can make plays with the ball in his hands as well with 75 of his 320 made shots last season being unassisted. If the defense overdoes it as they close out, he can put the ball on the floor and make plays at the basket for himself and others as showcased by his near 3:1 assist to turnover ratio (3.1 assists per game to 1.3 turnovers per game) last season.

More importantly, Harris developed quite a connection with Jokic last season. Dec. 15 is often referred to as the date Denver’s season jump started itself into a high-speed full-throttle machine because it’s when Mike Malone re-introduced Jokic into the starting lineup. It also happens to be the same date Harris returned to the lineup from injury.

His ability as a slasher and cutter made him a favorite target for Jokic’s dimes. Despite being listed at 6-foot-4, Harris has an 8-foot standing reach and the extra length helps him to finish after knifing through the defense. According to NBA.com, Harris finished in the 74.9 percentile in scoring off of cuts last season, where 12.2 percent of his offense came from. As long as the outside shooting from a year ago was no fluke, he should once again be a very efficient player thanks to the combined playmaking of Millsap and Jokic.

The biggest improvement Harris will need to make is defensively. Playing under Tom Izzo in college means he at least has a baseline understanding of what it takes to be effective on that end. During his three years in the league, the Nuggets have slowly added more and more to his plate defensively and he was the top option to guard most opposing team’s best perimeter player last season such as Russell Westbrook and James Harden. (The likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo were left to Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari).

While locked in on the ball, Harris can fall asleep off the ball at times. These lapses need to be fine tuned and corrected if he is to ever become the elite 3-and-D wing the Nuggets sorely need to make noise in the vaunted Western Conference. Since neither Jokic nor Millsap serve as a true rim protector, it is on the team as a whole to ensure that players don’t get open lanes to the rim. Denver ranked 29th in defensive efficiency last season, so they’ll need to make a big leap if they are to get into the playoffs.

As for Harris personally, he will be an extension target as a member of the 2012 NBA Draft class. The Nuggets are likely to try to get him on board with a below-market deal, but Harris could be looking at a deal in the $75-90 million range total with the right improvements if he chooses to bet on himself.

While Harris’ name was brought up in a couple trade rumors this offseason, both involving the Cavaliers, he is here to stay for the time being. Being a superstar is likely out of the cards for Harris, but every team is looking for players who can be elite in their role. Players like Andre Iguodala, Danny Green, Rajon Rondo, Shane Battier and Tristan Thompson have helped the best teams get over the championship hurdle in recent years. Harris has what it takes to excel in that role for a championship contender.

If Harris wants to remain on this list — he turned 23 on Sept. 14 — it is not about another year of slightly above average play. He can’t take only another incremental jump this season. The time is now for Harris to make a leap. The skill is there. The opportunity is there. It’s on Harris to take it.

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