Gary Harris looks like the Nuggets’ shooting guard of the future

Roughly three-fourths of the way through this season, Nuggets’ starting shooting guard Gary Harris has separated himself from the pack.

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Shooting guard Gary Harris at the Denver Nuggets press day, Sept. 26, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  pepsi center; nuggets; basketball; sports; kevinjbeaty; denver; colorado; denverite;

Shooting guard Gary Harris at the Denver Nuggets press day, Sept. 26, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

One of the first people Denver Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly called after the NBA Draft in June was a player already on his roster: Gary Harris.

Connelly had just used two of his three first-round selections on guards. Denver chose Kentucky sharpshooter Jamal Murray No. 7 overall and then took one-and-done shooting guard Malik Beasley out of Florida State at No. 19.

The Nuggets, who used the No. 7 overall pick on Emmanuel Mudiay in 2015, were overflowing with young guards after the draft. So Connelly decided to call Harris to reassure him that his spot as the team’s starting shooting guard was safe.

“It’s Gary’s job,” Connelly told the media that night. “Certainly I hope Jamal does everything he does to potentially take the job, but Gary’s our starting two guard.”

Roughly three-fourths of the way through this season, Harris has not only held off the competition for the starting shooting guard spot — he’s separated himself from the pack entirely.

The third-year player out of Michigan State is averaging 14.2 points. 3.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists. This year Harris has evolved into one of the better outside shooters in the NBA. He’s taking 4.4 3-pointers a game and converting them at a 42 percent rate. Harris is particularly dangerous spotting up; he’s converting 44.4 percent of catch-and-shoot 3s this season, which puts him ninth overall of players who attempt at least three per game.

Harris has shown marked year-to-year improvement. He shot just 30.1 percent from the floor as a rookie. As a second-year player, his field-goal percentage jumped to 46.9. Now it’s all the way up to 48.5 percent.

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“Obviously his rookie year, before I got the job, there were questions about what type of player he was going to be,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “When I got here, I started him for 76 games, and he showed me the potential he had offensively and defensively. All summer long, he was one of our best workers. He lived in the gym, he worked on his body, he worked on his handle, and he worked on his shot. Right now he’s playing with great confidence. He’s shooting with great confidence.”

Dec. 15 is a significant date for the Nuggets because that’s when Malone made Nikola Jokic the starting center. Since that date, the Nuggets have the most efficient offense in the NBA. Jokic has been the key to that upswing. But it’s not a coincidence that Dec. 15 was also when Harris returned from a groin injury that cost him 20 games at the beginning of the year.

Jokic’s and Harris’ offensive games complement each other almost perfectly. Harris understands better than anyone on Denver’s roster how to take advantage of Jokic’s passing gifts.

“We’ve been playing together a lot these last two years,” Harris said. “It’s been fun, man. I enjoy playing with him. We have a good time, a good relationship on and off the court. Just to see him grow each game is fun to watch.”

The Nuggets have gone 19-17 since Jokic and Harris were inserted into the starting lineup Dec. 15. That’s helped them vault into the lead for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. As of Friday afternoon, they held a 2 1/2 game advantage over Portland for the No. 8 seed. Harris’ improvement in his third season has been a major reason why Denver is in a position to earn a playoff spot for the first time since 2013.

“His rookie year, I’m sure that’s not lost on him,” Malone said. “His rookie year he didn’t get a chance to play. I’m sure people doubted him. And last year was a good year. He wanted to come back and show people that it wasn’t a fluke, and that he could be even better. He hasn’t finished developing. He can still get better. And I know he will because of his work ethic.”

At the beginning of the year, some wondered: Might Murray overtake Harris as the starting shooting guard? Now that question has become: Can they coexist together in the backcourt? Murray has already moved ahead of Emmanuel Mudiay in the point guard rotation. Murray made his first start NBA start at the position Wednesday in place of Jameer Nelson, who was out with an illness.

The early returns were good:

There were questions about who would win the starting shooting guard spot back in June. Now it looks as though Harris has earned it permanently moving forward.

Gary, he’s not going to give this job up. … He’s a competitor,” Malone said. “He wants to be out there. I trust him on the floor. That’s one of the greatest things you can say about a player. I have complete trust and faith in Gary Harris.”

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