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Player Preview: How much time will Jalen Harris need to find his role?

Jalen Harris would be headed to the G League right now, except plans for that are on hold. In the meantime, he’ll put in work to become a Raptor and we’ll see how it goes.

Toronto Raptors v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

As the 59th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Jalen Harris does not have the same margin for error as others in his class. He’s already agreed to a two-way contract with the Raptors, which often amounts to something like a year-long tryout. It puts Harris slightly below other players with partially-guaranteed contracts in terms of the league and team hierarchy. Dewan Hernandez, who was also picked 59th last year, only lasted a year in Toronto. Shamorie Ponds, who was on a two-way contract with the Raptors last year too, only made it half a season.

Harris’ offensive output will earn the same scrutiny as Ponds’ did last season — Toronto will want to see if it can translate at the NBA level. Harris was one of the best isolation players last season when he played for the Nevada Wolf Pack; he was very clearly capable of scoring in a bunch of different ways. Harris’ combination of handles, quick first step, jab steps/footwork, and underrated athleticism left his defenders praying for him to miss his shot because he could generate clean enough looks from anywhere on the floor.

As befits such ability, Harris eventually became “The Guy” on his collegiate team, and was very much the focal point of the offense as a scorer, if not a facilitator. If all else failed for Nevada at the time, Harris’ teammates could get the ball back to him to come up with something with the clock winding down. Again, a useful skill — but can Harris do that at the NBA level?

Because of the pandemic, the NBA loosened the two-way contract players’ restrictions to practice and play for their main club for this year. Teams are now allowed to play these players up to 50 games, instead of 45 official days with the mother club. These changes meant Harris can practice with the Raptors as much as they would like him to while the G League figures out how to operate this season. But that’s no guarantee he’ll actually play for Toronto. While the NBA did recently allow teams to dress 15 players this season, which could allow more guys to get on the court, Harris could very well be Toronto’s 16th or 17th man this coming season.

Upcoming Season

With the Raptors’ guard depth, it will be tough for Harris to crack the rotation. He might get a look in spot minutes on back-to-back games or in someone’s absence, but that could be it. The NBA also released their updated protocols on players taking a healthy scratch. With only four nationally televised games for the first half of the season, it should be easier for coach Nick Nurse to give his core players respite. Expect Harris to get a call-up should Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet takes a rest day, or knock on wood, should there be a COVID outbreak on the team.

In his recent interview, Bobby Webster said that they plan to field a team for whatever form the G League takes this season. Harris will likely spend the year as an understudy, and get his consistent playing time once the Raptors 905 are ready to go. Unless Malachi Flynn fails to crack the Raptors rotation, I expect Harris to come in as the 905’s starting point guard and get full-time reps as the team’s main facilitator, similar to Jordan Loyd’s spot on the team a couple years ago.

Aside from that, if Harris does get some garbage time minutes, he could provide the Raptors with some scoring punch and shot creation that was missing last year, when we were watching Stanley Johnson playing as the squad’s point-forward.

Projected Role

Despite being a work-in-progress, Harris’ addition helps to address the Raptors’ lack of multi-threat facilitators. He was a member of a backcourt-or-bust Nevada Wolfpack team last season in which he, Jazz Johnson, and Lindsey Drew took turns facilitating and hunting for shots. It’s remarkable for Harris to average almost four assists with minimal passing options on the team, as his forwards at the time were raw and struggled with the catch, let alone the finish.

The Raptors likely project Harris as a comb-guard who can provide some scoring off the bench and occasionally run the point to give the team a different look. He is a little undersized for an NBA shooting guard, so unless he’s locking down people at his position or scoring at a torrid rate, he’s more likely to project as a super-sub than a starter.

The Raptors have not had a walking bucket off the bench since the 6God Lou Williams, although there’s an argument to be made for Norman Powell’s performance last season. Harris’ game has a lot of hints of what C.J. McCollum, Jamal Murray, and (a smaller version of) Larry Hughes did during their rookie years. Harris could be a player to bail-out the offense when things get stagnant, which is very much a skill worth developing for the NBA.

Areas of Improvement

Coach Nurse demands a certain level of defense from his players. We saw Terence Davis get quick hooks after his lapses, Matt Thomas unable to get on the floor, and even heard Nurse call out players for their poor defensive efforts after getting benched. It’s the effort, ever-changing scheme awareness, and discipline that could be a tough transition for Harris.

Harris’s role in college was as the engine of their offense, so we have to cut him some slack on the evaluation of his defense. Still, Harris does turn on the effort in battling for the boards, helping in the paint, chasing on-ball, rotating, hawking the passing lanes, and fighting screens better in crunch time/key moments. That said, the effort can be inconsistent, and there are moments when Harris would lose his man because his head doesn’t swivel when he’s at the top half of the 2-3 zone (his focus being on the ball with a plan to dig-in for it). Harris will need a consistent effort on defense to earn Nurse’s trust and stay on the floor.

Offensively, Harris’ numbers at Nevada in catch-and-shoot situations (34 percent) have to improve, but he won’t have the entire defense keying on him in Toronto. Speaking of shooting, Harris will need to continue working on his perimeter skills. He did manage to shoot 36.2 percent from three, but was under 30 percent in his first 12 games at Nevada. Hopefully the extended time off has allowed him to work on the holes in his game. After pouring through Harris’ game tapes, a few factors affect his catch-and-shoot proficiency.

For one, Harris is not getting a consistently good rhythm. If the pass is not directly in his pocket, he often reaches for the ball, while the better NBA shooters make an effort to get behind the ball to catch it in their shooting pocket. Another is that Harris’ perimeter shot is still a work in progress. Before his lone season at Nevada, he only attempted around three 3s per game — a number that’ll have to start increasing. Another potential factor that could hinder Harris is his shooting form, as it looks like he has to “load” his shot up and take his time getting his hands positioned properly.

Nevada v New Mexico Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

If there’s any part of Harris’ offense that could help flatten his NBA learning curve, it has to be finishing around the rim. He’s shifty once he gets inside the arc, using the threat of a quick pull-up from the midrange to get an angle/step against his defender and glide his way in for a layup. Harris prefers to finesse his way around the basket rather than use his athleticism to finish more above the rim plays. That’s fine, but at the NBA level, the defenders are bigger, stronger, and quicker, so Harris will have to adjust to that level of physicality. Meanwhile, while Harris prefers going to his right, he’s shown that he can finish with his left hand. The key component here is for him to use his athleticism a bit more and to develop those fast-twitch movements around the basket.

Harris showed that he can facilitate for his teammates at Nevada. Now in the NBA, he’ll have to prove that at a higher level, against better defenders than he’s faced so far. Developing into a capable secondary playmaker would add more value to his game. Harris has shown good awareness of where his teammates are, and he can get the ball to them. However, he lacks the reps running complex pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop actions due to the limitation of his forwards at Nevada. This aspect of his play-making game will need work.

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So how’s it going so far? Well, Harris appeared in a few minutes during the Raptors’ preseason opener against the Charlotte Hornets. He shot 1-of-4 from the field, with his only make coming from three. He shared ball-handling duties with DeAndre’ Bembry, which was somewhat to be expected. But unlike fellow rookie Malachi Flynn, Harris looked like he was still feeling out the game speed on both ends. Time will tell where he goes from here.