October 2006

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NBA Star Comes Back Home



Interview with Dallas Mavericks' Devin Harris

By A. David Dahmer

Very few athletes are talented enough to be in a position where they have to decide whether they should return to college or turn pro early. It’s an incredibly difficult and complex situation for a young person to be in and is exacerbated by the fact that hindsight is always 20/20.

Sportswriters and sports fans love to look back and ridicule the disasters while often ignoring the successes of this particular difficult decision. Some talented players go into the NBA too soon.

Too young and too immature, they are quickly overwhelmed and out of basketball within a few years, making people wonder what they could have been had they been taken along slowly and given room to learn and grow. Other athletes stay in college another year, get hurt, and see their value plummet in the next year’s draft and the millions of dollars they would have received disappear. Or, worse, they never play their sport again.

The Wisconsin Badgers’ Devin Harris had to make such a decision two years ago, and much to the chagrin of millions of Badger fans, who at the time wanted him back at the UW, it looks like he made the right one. Only in his second year, Harris was recently a key player on a Dallas Mavericks team that made it all the way to the NBA Finals before falling to Dwayne Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, and the Miami Heat in six games.

“It’s a great accomplishment for our team,” Harris says of making it to the NBA Championship. “We fell a little short of our goals, but next year it will be exciting to know that we have that type of potential on our team. Coming up a couple games short will make us work that much harder to get back to that type of level.”

The 23-year-old Dallas Mavericks point guard was back on his old stomping grounds, running the Devin Harris Basketball Camp at Middleton High School Aug. 3. Harris took a little time out from running drills with the kids to sit on the bleachers and talk with The Madison Times. “It just gives you a chance to give back and to teach and show where you came from,” Harris says of his camp, which is in its inaugural year.

“It’s a good opportunity to work with kids and to be a positive role model.” Harris says that the kids at his camp are learning a variety of things — playing to their strengths, using their abilities, defense, shooting — all of the fundamentals. He remembers the great experiences he used to have going to basketball camps as a kid in Wauwatosa, Wis.

One of the greatest, if not the greatest basketball talents to ever come out of Wisconsin, Harris says he makes it back home about half of the summer, splitting the time between Milwaukee and Madison. “Madison is more like a freelance city, and there’s always a lot going on,” Harris says. “Everybody’s on their own time and relaxed; nobody is in a rush. We get in all these big cities, and everybody’s in a rush to do all of these things.

Madison’s a place you like to relax in. It’s something you don’t get to do very often.” Harris attended the University of Wisconsin and gained national attention for his play at the collegiate level. He skipped his final year at Wisconsin and was a top-five draft pick in 2004. “I have no complaints so far.

I’m having a good time. I’m learning a lot, and I’m really trying to enjoy it,” Harris says of pro life. With an 82-game schedule (versus a 30-game collegiate schedule) that can reach up to 100 games when playoffs are included, Harris has learned firsthand how grueling the NBA can be, with its constant traveling and road trips.

“In college, you’re always coming right back after the games, but in the pros you can be gone for 10 days at a time,” Harris says. “You kind of get used to it after a while, and it becomes less and less grueling.”

Playing against some of the best athletes in the world day in and day out has also been a big adjustment for Harris, who in college was usually the best player on the court — sometimes by far. “The mental aspect is very tough — learning how to compete each and every night against a different kind of player; learning how to be successful,” Harris says.

Harris has to guard many lightning-quick point guards in the NBA. But who’s the quickest? “There’s a lot of ‘em,” Harris smiles. “[Philadelphia 76ers’] Allen Iverson is up there. [Atlanta Hawks’] Speedy Claxton. [San Antonio Spurs’] Tony Parker. Those three are the tops.” Harris grew up in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee, where he was a superior athlete throughout high school.

Flying somewhat under the radar, Harris exploded during his senior season at Wauwatosa East High School, setting school scoring records through an undefeated regular season. He was named Wisconsin’s “Mr. Basketball” for 2001 and signed up to play for the Badgers.

In his freshman season, the 2001-2002 season, Harris was already a starter on a relatively unheralded team. The Badgers came into the season predicted to finish as low as ninth in the Big Ten Conference, but they unexpectedly won the Big Ten Championship. Harris’ sophomore season saw him lead the Badgers to their second consecutive Big Ten Championship.

The Badgers reached the “Sweet 16” in the NCAA Tournament before falling to the University of Kentucky Wildcats, a perennial basketball power. The 2003-2004 season had Harris establishing himself as one of the top players in the nation. He was named Big Ten Player of the Year, won the Silver Basketball award, and was named a Second Team All-American. Harris decided to leave college early, after his junior year, to play in the NBA. Badger fans weren’t particularly happy with that decision.

They clearly wanted Harris to stay, but he weighed many factors before finally deciding to go pro. Washington selected Harris with the fifth overall pick and subsequently traded him to the Dallas Mavericks. “It was a very tough decision.

That rookie season, I wasn’t playing as much; and the team was not doing well,” Harris recalls of his 2004-2005 season, in which he averaged 5.7 points per game (ppg) and 2.2 assists per game (apg). “But now it doesn’t really matter, because I’m in a position where I’m really focusing in on a pro career and excelling at that.”

Harris was well aware that his Badgers were doing pretty well while he was getting a lot of pine time during his rookie year. They made it to the finals of the Syracuse Regional before narrowly falling to the eventual champion, the North Carolina Tarheels. Would he have made a difference in the tournament had he stayed? “I watched that North Carolina game. But who’s to say I wouldn’t have gotten hurt and even been there?”

Harris asks. “Who knows what would have happened? It’s a tough way to look at it.” Reminded that people live to guess and second-guess about such hypothetical scenarios, Harris reluctantly offers what would have been. “Alright, then. If it makes everybody feel better, we probably would have beat Carolina and went on to win the championship,” Harris laughs. Harris still chats with his former Badger teammates regularly and keeps track of how they are doing.

He’s looking forward to the upcoming season. “I think they’re going to play really well. They’re probably one of the deepest teams that we’ve had in the last five or six years or so,” Harris says. “They lost [graduated forward] Ray [Nixon], but everybody else is back. I think they really have a shot to do well.” Harris is also focusing on his own game, where he’s hoping to repeat his successes in both high school and college.

“In high school and college, the first year is always the toughest, the second year was a little better, and the third year I really exploded. I really understood the game, and I really did well,” Harris says. “I’m hoping that this is the same type of transformation in the NBA.” Harris showed marked improvement in the early stages of the 2005-06 season, especially when it came to scoring, ending the year with averages of 9.9 ppg and 3.2 apg.

He improved his jump shot and his ability to split defenses and get to the rim, occasionally ending in powerful dunks. “In college, I used to be a shooter; now, in the pros, I’ve been a driver,” Harris says. “I’m working on expanding my game out on the floor and being able to hit the jumper.”

Harris has always been a good defender, but he’s bringing it to a new level in the pros. “Defense came to me over time; being quick and whatnot,” Harris says. “The point guards we come up against every night in the NBA are tough. So you have to be able to play some defense, or it will be a long night for you.

It’s something that I’ve been able to learn how to do and that I’ve become very good at.” Harris really began to show off all of his skills during this past year’s playoffs, proving himself invaluable in Dallas’ quest for a championship. He burst onto the scene in the conference semifinal series against San Antonio, starting the final six games of that series and averaging 20.6 points in the Mavericks’ victories in games two, three, and four.

His high was a 24-point effort in the Mavs’ 104-103 win in Game Three. Against the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals, Harris started the series with a monstrous effort. He scored a career-high 30 points in Game One.

It’s clear that Harris is — along with his good friend and former adversary at Marquette University and present adversary in the 2006 NBA finals, Dwayne Wade — one of the NBA’s exciting young rising stars. “My goals are to continue to get better,” Harris says.

“Long term, I want to win a championship. “And then maybe another one,” he adds with a smile.





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