Former Michigan State guard gets defensive in Denver

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By Michelle R. Martinelli

As Denver Nuggets shooting guard Gary Harris establishes himself in the team’s starting lineup, the defensive lessons taught by his college coach, Tom Izzo, still impact his approach to each game.

Harris hasn’t forgotten what he learned in his two seasons at Michigan State, especially since he and Izzo are still in touch. Izzo’s emphasis on tough defense contribute to the Spartans consistently being a perennial fixture in the NCAA Tournament.

In 2016, the 21-year-old is averaging 11.5 points per game and 33 minutes, and he ranks fifth on the team with a 46.4 field goal percentage. But Denver coach Michael Malone said Harris’ key contributions are on defense, crediting Harris’ notable improvements this season to his confidence.

“He knows he’s starting, he’s getting his 30 minutes per night, he’s getting his touches and he’s playing for a coach and staff that believes in him,” Malone said. “He’s one of our best defenders every single night. We’ll challenge him with the other team’s best perimeter player, and we just want him to continue to grow.”

At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Harris currently leads the Nuggets with 1.2 steals per game, grabbing a season-high five in the 104-101 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 23.

In comparison, he averaged just 3.4 points per game and 13.1 minutes in the 2014-15 season. He said he views this season more like his rookie year because of his breakout role.

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Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris. (Garrett W. Ellwood/GETTY IMAGES)

Complementing his confidence, Harris said being cemented as a starter has improved his focus in each game, so he’s not dwelling on the unknown number of minutes he’ll play. He also described how Malone’s defensive-minded coaching style has helped him excel this season, but that’s not new to him.

“They kind of have a lot of similar ways,” Harris said of Izzo and Malone. “They preach defense, they get on you, but they definitely hold you accountable, and they’re definitely behind you 100 percent.”

Being a one-and-done college player is becoming increasingly popular, and Harris could have declared for the draft after his freshman year with the Spartans. But he said he doesn’t regret his decision to stick around for one more season, utilizing it to further mature on and off the court.

Getting an extra year of college ball also allowed him to stay a kid a little longer, Harris said.

“[I wanted to] enjoy it as much as possible because college is some of the best years of your life,” Harris said. “It’s definitely a job once you get to this level, [but] people kind of think it’s all fun and games.”

Harris said he still maintains relationships with people from Michigan State, noting that Izzo texted him almost immediately after the Nuggets snapped the Toronto Raptors’ 11-game win streak Feb. 1. He said he’s often in touch with his former roommate and Spartan guard Denzel Valentine, and when the two talk, it’s rarely about basketball and more about their families and personal lives. He said he also hopes to catch up with Valentine when he plays the Pistons in Detroit on Wednesday.

While Harris’ college days are behind him, he said there’s a strong bond among the Nuggets, adding “the team’s chemistry is great right now.”

In October, Denver opted to extend Harris’ rookie contract for a third year through the 2016-17 season.

“We can all get better, but I love where Gary is at right now and hope he continues to go on that path,” Malone said.

Photo at top: Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris fights off Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James during the Nuggets’ 98-95 loss Dec. 29 at the Pepsi Center in Denver. (Garrett W. Ellwood/GETTY IMAGES)

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