The Toronto Raptors’ season ended in disappointment, but if we have to look for some of its bright spots, Jalen Harris is one of them. As the cursed year wound down and it became clear the Raptors were not trying to make it into the play-in tournament, Harris took advantage of some increased playing time to prove he deserves to be in the NBA.
The 59th pick overall signed with the Raptors as a two-way contract player. It was a bit of a gamble on Harris’ part due to the team’s depth chart at the guard spot and the uncertainty regarding the 2020-21 G League season. As expected, Harris barely saw time with the main club when they were still jockeying for playoff positioning. Luckily for Harris, the G League pushed through, and he was able to showcase his skill set before injuries took away his opportunity to do more.
Harris resurfaced later in the season for the Raptors, appearing in nine straight games. During that stretch, Harris averaged 10.3 points, 1.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists while shooting 44.4 percent behind the arc on around four attempts per game.
Now the question is obvious: did Harris do or show enough to be part of the Raptors’ future plans? Let’s review.
With the Raptors 905
Harris’ role with the Raptors 905 is clear: as the starting shooting guard, he needs to show his scoring punch as a three-level scorer, be a secondary playmaker to Malachi Flynn, occasionally run the point, and show what he can do defensively.
For a while, Harris looked the part.
Harris was always shot-ready with the 905. He showed an ability to come in “cold” after sitting on the bench for a while and still nailing his first shot despite playing off-the-ball. Harris shot 50 percent behind the arc on 5.7 attempts per game in the G League, which is insane because he only shot 36.2 percent at Nevada, and his spot-up shooting was one of the more prominent question marks on his game.
Harris was excellent at making himself a target to his teammates with the ball, as 70 percent of his makes were assisted. Those shots were either spot-ups, cuts, and sometimes, a nostalgic alley-oop like the one Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan used to run. As a facilitator, Harris had success with drive-and-kick actions, as the 905 did not have a traditional big man for consistent pick-and-rolls.
If there’s an early concern during Harris’ stint in the G League, it’s his finishing around the rim. He only shot 46 percent in the paint, and had some growing pains trying to attack the basket, especially against a set defense. That was a relatively minor stain on an otherwise efficient campaign as a G League rookie.
Unfortunately, Harris’ first season with the 905 ended prematurely just as he was heating up. After the Raptors re-added Flynn to the main squad, Harris was “the man” for the 905. For a few games, the offense revolved around him, and to his credit: he showed why the Raptors remain high on him.
But a combination of a dislocated finger midway through the shortened G League season, the Raptors disastrous COVID outbreak, and the logistics of quarantine protocols to re-enter the Bubble prevented him from coming back to the 905 on time. Harris managed to join the team for their playoff run, but he was clearly not in the same rhythm.
With the Raptors
Few Raptors increased their stock more than Jalen Harris down the stretch of the 2020-21 season. Sure, Khem Birch’s fit was a pleasant surprise, Flynn now looks like a steal at 29th, and Freddie Gillespie could be another diamond-in-the-rough project. But with Harris, there were no expectations. For most, he was a meme — the “#WeTheNorth” guy.
No matter the distance, we got you T.O. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/V8QiH4tVFQ— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 21, 2020
Harris started creeping into the rotation against the Utah Jazz, and while he splashed his perimeter shots, it was clear he was not at game-speed defensively. Harris showed a bit more against the Los Angeles Lakers, but he also came to realize the defenders were now bigger and faster around the rim. His catch-and-shoot game was still on-point though.
Against the Los Angeles Clippers, Harris showed the fanbase his athleticism and feathery bounce, as he really got up to finish a contested fastbreak. In this game, he started showing his knack for re-location around the perimeter and being ready for the catch-and-shoot.
It wasn’t until the Memphis Grizzlies game when Harris saw his minutes go up, along with his usage. His perimeter game continued to be on-point, but he also showed more of his ability to get in the paint and hit the open man around the perimeter. In all, Harris started to show more confidence in his all-around game.
Harris’ second game against the Clippers brought another facet of his game — this time, his playmaking/facilitation skills. Harris shared backup point guard duties with DeAndre’ Bembry as the Raptors sat Lowry and Fred VanVleet for the season. He was decent running the offense, switching from scorer to facilitator, including a nice pick-and-pop play with Chris Boucher.
Against the Chicago Bulls, Harris started showing flashes of being able to shoot over taller defenders without needing the half-step or angle advantage. That development carried over to his career night against his hometown team, the Dallas Mavericks, where he erupted for 31 points and four assists.
Harris opened the game with a floater over Dwight Powell’s outstretched hands and later on put him on an island, using a nice pump-fake to get a lay-up in his face. Harris repeatedly attacked the Mavs’ defense, showing off his shiftiness in his forays to the basket. The combination of his handles, footwork, and patience navigating for open spots around the teeth of the defense made us forget that Harris was a relatively unknown rookie in just his ninth real NBA game.
Even with a small sample size with the main club, I believe Jalen Harris has shown enough to compete for a full roster spot next season. Still, there’s no guarantee that he’ll get a standard contract. At the very least, he showed that he deserves a second two-way contract. Much like Flynn, Harris is not a raw 19-year-old prospect, so there’s not quite the same upside to playing in the G League next season. Perhaps the Raptors can send him to the G League to play as the 905’s starting point guard to work on his playmaking skills and hopefully parlay a good campaign into a standard contract, like what happened to Chris Boucher.
Another 905 stint might still be in the cards, but I believe Harris needs a step up in competition for him to take his game to the next level. Even with the few games that we’ve seen, it looks like he can hang with the big boys if the Raptors are willing to invest in him. Still, we know that at least two of VanVleet, Lowry, Gary Trent Jr., and Flynn will be around next season, and they would eat most of Toronto’s guard minutes.
And now, a note of caution. At best, despite our optimism, Harris may only be a part-time 7th or 8th man in the Raptors’ rotation. His ability to play off-ball, be an instant source of offense, and his knack for efficient shooting (over his last nine games at 63.2 EFG%) are encouraging.
Harris needs to work on his decision-making with the ball — he was a bit loose with it once his usage went up. Defensively, he’ll always play the passing lane, looking for opportunities to dig, but as an on-ball defender, Harris will need to be better if he wants consistent playing time from coach Nick Nurse. Harris needs to get into his stance better and better use his lateral quickness to stay in front of opponents.
Offensively, Harris can get in trouble if he gets funnelled into a crowd. He’ll need some counters, as eventually his moves will get scouted as he plays more. Right now, his game is the mirror image of lefties, where he almost always go right and extreme right. Another area of improvement is releasing his perimeter shot faster and hitting perimeter shots within less than ideal parameters. Harris’ shot looks good right now because he’s catching the ball with a lot of space. As the fourth or fifth offensive option, that’s fine — but if he wants to be an effective scorer in the NBA, he’ll need to be able to shoot under duress.
Harris has a big summer ahead of him. He should have a good idea of what works and what needs refinement among the tools in his bag. Physically, Harris will likely need to get stronger now so he can endure the bumps offensively and defensively. What we’ve seen so far, though, suggests he’s capable of more at the NBA level. And in all, Harris might be ready to parlay his two-way contract into a full one next season.