Devin Harris' first thought when he joined the Jazz was simple but hopeful: "Playoffs, baby."
The hope is gone for Utah. And little has worked out as Harris initially imagined when he was exchanged midseason for Deron Williams, trading an increasingly depressing tenure in New Jersey for what was supposed to be a bright new start with the Jazz. Utah is just 6-16 since D-Will was replaced, while the player who assumed his reign has endured false starts, injuries and teamwide frustration.
The rebuilding Jazz are at a crossroad. So is Harris. Just three years ago, he was an All-Star with rising stock, close to cracking the elite tier of point guards. But that was before the youth movement began, as young guns such as Chicago's Derrick Rose, Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook and Boston's Rajon Rondo soared to the top. And that was before Harris was buried in Jersey, performing under broken lights for the bottom-of-the-barrel Nets a franchise that won only 12 games last season and has captured just 24 victories in 2010-11.
"Anytime you lose as much as I've lost in the past couple years, you get slipped in and kind of forgotten about," Harris said.
A new generation of highly athletic, multi-dimensional point guards now represent the best that the NBA has to offer. Is the ex-Net still in the mix? Most of his numbers fail to crack the top 10 at his position this season, while even Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin acknowledged that Harris will be carrying extra weight when the 2011-12 campaign begins.
"He feels he has a little something to prove again," Corbin said. "He hasn't had the successes he's had after making the All-Star team."
Harris isn't concerned with making anyone's top-10 fantasy list. He knows who he is, what he has done and what he can still do. Mature, confident, intelligent and self-aware, the No. 5 overall pick of the 2005 NBA Draft doesn't think he's come close to hitting his peak.
"You can't look back. You've just got to continue to look forward," Harris said. "A lot of things you can't control, a lot of things you can. But you just come into every situation as opportunistic and just look forward."
Ask Harris his strengths and weaknesses and he knows them all. He is one of the premier point guards in the league at driving toward the basket and getting to the free-throw line; his midrange shot can sing. But he also vows to fine-tune his 3-point shooting and off-ball defense.
"I try to win the battle of guards every night that's my goal," Harris said.
A 26-point performance on 9-of-16 shooting Thursday against Portland including a career-high-tying five made 3-pointers provided a glimpse of what a healthy, synced-up Harris can accomplish with the ball in his hands. The Jazz's renowned offensive system showed serious signs of slippage during Harris' seven-game absence due to a strained right hamstring, as the pick-and-roll washed away and hard screens vanished. But sharp execution was temporarily in vogue versus the Blazers particularly during the first quarter, when Harris dished out three quick assists and Utah briefly played Jazz basketball.
Moments like that have given Harris hope. He believes in his new team and the players who wear the uniform. And he plans to spend extra time in Salt Lake City this summer, allowing him to lock in with core players such as Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.
"We're pieces away," Harris said. "We've got a lot of guys who may or may not be here next year we're hoping that we get a lot of our guys back. But we're definitely looking to get better. And I think that with the guys that we have here and the nucleus that we're building on, I think we definitely can do something."
It's a sweet sound for Corbin. Utah's coach is using the final few games of the season to judge his team's character and devotion, grading individual players while building toward a great whole. Harris might not be a top-five point guard anymore, and his name no longer registers like it once did. But Corbin believes that Harris' leadership, experience and overall persona are invaluable as the Jazz attempt to move past 2010-11 and into the future.
"I think once we get through training camp and get more familiar with who he is, ... and the guys can read off of him and find the opportunities where his abilities will shine more, I think he can get back to that [All-Star] caliber," Corbin said.
Position • Guard
Year • 7
Age • 28
Vitals • 6-foot-3, 190 pounds
Stats • 15.1 points, 7.1 assists, 2.4 rebounds, 42.5 percent FG, 32.3 percent 3s
Career • 13.3 points, 5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 44.2 percent FG, 30.5 percent 3s
Draft • No. 5 pick in 2005 by Washington
College • Wisconsin
Born • Milwaukee
Finding his way
Harris averaged a career-high 7.6 assists through 54 games with New Jersey this season. But he is averaging just 5.1 assists with the Jazz his lowest total since 2006-07 and is also below his recent yearly totals in points, minutes, free-throw percentage and steals.
Harris has played in more than 75 games only twice during his career. He has missed 12 contests this season, 18 in 2009-10, 13 in 2008-09 and at least 18 in 2007-08 and 2005-06.