In an era in which professional athletes are too often egotistical and referred to as "divas" or "prima donnas," it is refreshing to come across a player like Devin Harris. I recently had the opportunity to follow Harris behind the scenes at one of his free basketball camps for his "34 Ways to Assist Foundation," which gives under-privileged kids in the Milwaukee and Madison areas the chance to learn the fundamentals of the game, as well as life lessons. I also got to talk hoops with Harris in an exclusive one-on-one interview.
In his first full season with the New Jersey Nets, Harris made "the leap" from a solid NBA point guard to an All-Star, finishing 14th in the league averaging 21.3 points per game. He proved to be a building block for a franchise that is in a re-building mode.
Last offseason, the Nets dealt long-time small forward Richard Jefferson to gain more cap flexibility. A similar move was made earlier this summer when New Jersey traded Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson to Orlando for Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston and Tony Battie, leaving Harris as the focal point of the team for the upcoming season.
"You definitely have to embrace it," Harris told me this past Saturday. "With the move we made, it puts a lot of pressure on my shoulders to be that vocal leader on and off the court, as well as be the primary scorer and the point guard. But it's something that I've wanted since day one... Now I'm starting to become a franchise-type player, it's something that you have to relish."
Something that Harris won?t relish is the struggles the young Nets are likely to face this season. Besides Harris, second-year center Brook Lopez will be the only returning player who averaged double figures in scoring. "We have a lot of young guys so hopefully I can bring them along a little quicker so the re-building process doesn't take as long," Harris said.
The re-building process may not take too long in New Jersey. The former Badger is just one of four Nets guaranteed to be under contract past the 2009-2010 season, meaning they should have plenty of cap space for the much-anticipated 2010 offseason when superstars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are set to hit the market. Harris hopes he can be a selling point to a superstar hoping to sign with a bigger market team.
"I've been paying a lot of attention this summer to guys who are being brought in. Boston did a great job with bringing Rasheed Wallace in. They sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to recruit him... Those guys know the tricks of the trade that hopefully I can pick up to help bring in another big name."
Harris has also paid attention to what teams in the Eastern Conference have done this offseason. He acknowledges that the power is shifting from the West to the East, making it more difficult for the Nets to catch up to the elite teams during their re-building efforts.
"Especially with Cleveland just loading up on talent. Boston's already been good, but then they add a crafty veteran. Orlando was already in the Finals, but then they add a guy like Vince Carter and Brandon Bass who are proven players. It makes it a little tougher, but a little more challenging as well."
Beginning Thursday, Harris will be one of 23 NBA stars participating in the U.S. Basketball Men?s National Team mini-camp in Las Vegas. Representing his country in 2012 Olympic Games is a long-term goal, but for the immediate future, Harris wants to help the Nets return to respectability in the NBA.
"It's a process, sometimes you have to go through the rough ends to make it to the top. We're working hard to get to that point."