Gary Harris remembers what it was like in the early days of his career.
The Denver Nuggets were struggling to find their identity after trading Carmelo Anthony. They were still competitive, but not enough in the crowded Western Conference. They were falling short of the playoffs and dissatisfied with their progress.
They were a team stuck in the dreaded middle — too good to stand a good chance for a top pick in the draft but not good enough to make the playoffs. Harris was one of those late Lottery picks who showed a ton of promise, but was not something on his face that would excite the fan base.
Like so many teams stuck here, the Nuggets probably had to ask too much of Harris. The relatively empty arenas at the then-Pepsi Center (they were 27th of 30 teams in the 2015 season, Harris’ rookie year) were a sign of a team struggling to make its mark.
Just six years later, the Nuggets were competing for division titles and playing in the Western Conference Finals. A couple of smart draft picks and shrewd moves around the roster will do that.
In those early years, Harris was the team’s second-best scorer in a balanced lineup that finally found some spark in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray in their early years. They had multiple guys who could put up points.
That was the beginning. And Harris may well have been a bigger part of it if not for injuries cutting his time short. He has been on the bottom floor and a team ready to rise up.
"“It started with us first,” Harris said after Friday’s game. “It started before we had the fans. it starts right now. With this team, I have been here for a very short amount of time right now. But just seeing how the guys interact with each other, this is going to be a very close team. We can do special things. It’s going to start day one. We have to start working on it each day. It’s not going to happen all in one day. Just keep working and fighting and being there for each other.”"
The Orlando Magic are starting fresh and giving fresh starts to four players who have all hit crossroads in their young NBA careers.
The one sentiment that was shared by everyone coming to Orlando was the excitement for this fresh start.
Just like the franchise is trying to sell a new path, a lot of players are going to be carving a new path and getting a fresh start after struggling to find their footing with their previous rosters.
This is a brand new start for everyone.
Harris is the most notable immediate player heading to Orlando. He was a key role player for the Nuggets for the last several years even as injuries slowed his production and development. Still, he remained a key player for the Nuggets, helping them lock down Donovan Mitchell and complete a 3-1 series comeback in the playoffs.
The Nuggets seemed to be saddened by attaching him in this deal for Aaron Gordon, even though they needed Gordon’s size more and Gary Harris had played in only 19 games so far this season (all starts). The Nuggets valued Harris’ defense and leadership. That makes him an intriguing addition for Orlando.
But he has to prove he can stay healthy too. Harris has played in 60 games only twice in his career. He will be out for the time being and has not played since Feb. 17 (and that was the only game after a long absence). There will be waiting for him. But this is his chance to be back in a prominent role.
Steve Clifford said Gary Harris is probably the player he is most familiar with because he has been in the league the longest. He is certainly the player who would fit his eye best with his strong defensive reputation.
But this is a new start in a new system for him. It is as much a clean slate for Harris as it is for the Magic. And it is a clean slate for several other players.
A change of scenery brings both opportunity and a refresh when a player hits a dead end with their previous teams.
Sometimes things simply are not working out or a team’s goals change suddenly, making it harder to commit to a development project. Or even a new coaching staff has different ideas on how to use a player getting used to the previous regime.
This is where Wendell Carter falls. This is a chance to reset himself.
"“I’m definitely excited,” Carter said after Friday’s game. “I’m going into this thing all the way in and trying to do the best I can for this team. A change of scenery, new teammates, new coaching staff, everything, I feel like it’s a reset. Kind of like getting drafted all over again. I’m coming into a situation where I can help this team win.”"
Carter had a strong start to his career with the Chicago Bulls, averaging 10.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game as a rookie before nearly posting a double-double last year with 11.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.
But his numbers and impact have stagnated this year. He has struggled to defend bigger players from the center position and his jumper has not expanded. There were reportedly some confidence issues and confusion about how former coach Jim Boylen wanted to use him even though Carter put up improved numbers.
A nagging injury had slowed Wendell Carter down much of this season as he struggled within Billy Donovan’s offense. The only good thing that seems to have gotten better is his improved passing from the high post.
But there is still a lot of work to do for him.
The Bulls were breaking through to the playoffs but to do so, they were seemingly leaving the former seventh overall pick from the 2018 Draft behind.
This is a fresh start for him indeed.
The same could be said for R.J. Hampton, who struggled to get minutes in Denver’s loaded backcourt.
A team with championship aspirations is hardly the place for a young player to get minutes. Indeed, Hampton was averaging only 9.3 minutes per game in 25 games this year. The Nuggets simply did not have the time to give the young player real playing time in the midst of this season.
Orlando will have the ability to throw the talented guard who was previously ranked in the top-10 of his high school class before opting to spend his gap year in the NBL in Australia rather than in the NCAA. The Magic had their eye on Hampton during the Draft process and could use an athletic driver for this new squad.
For a lot of these players, this is the kind of opportunity they crave.
"“Personally it is a fresh start,” Otto Porter said after Friday’s game. “A great opportunity to play some really good basketball. I think I can bring my leadership, being a veteran. I can bring a lot of little things that hopefully help the younger guys and teach them what it takes to get some wins.”"
Prove it again
Even a veteran like Otto Porter senses the chance for a new start.
Porter has struggled with injuries since signing a four-year, $106.5-million contract in 2017. He has played in only 39 total games the last two seasons. Porter started coming off the bench for the Bulls this year and averaged only 9.9 points per game, the worst season average since his first two years in the league.
At his best, he was a solid floor spacer and secondary attacker. Orlando will need one of those to support the young roster and provide some veteran leadership.
Carter said Porter was one of his favorite veterans on the team. That should help the Magic find some stability the rest of this season to better evaluate the players they have.
It will undoubtedly be a lot of work. And there will be a lot of things to figure out in the meantime. The Magic have to find a new way to play. As Clifford put it, the first step is to find something this group is good at and emphasize that.
The team can grow from there.
The Magic have already made some impression on their new teammates. And they have a clear goal to keep building with the rest of their season as they carve that new identity.
"“I think the guys all look so focused,” Hampton said after Friday’s game. “They look eager to win more games and eager to finish the season off the right way. How I see myself fitting in with those guys is have fun, play the right way, share the ball. We’re a really young, fast, athletic team. I think that is something I bring.”"
What this team will be is still to be determined. The Magic are still trying to get themselves organized.
But undoubtedly, one door closing is another opening. For all these players, they have an opportunity to start as fresh as the Magic are starting.