By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS — The top five players in the 2004 NBA Draft have all led varied existences. No. 1 Dwight Howard? Well, there’ll be a movie one day. No. 2 Emeka Okafor‘s been serviceable, but he sat out this season with a neck injury. No. 3 Ben Gordon exited the collective fan consciousness years ago, not to mention the Bobcats’ rotation.
Those three players will make $47.2 million combined this season. No. 4 Shaun Livingston is having a nice renaissance in Brooklyn years after a gruesome knee injury threatened to end his career altogether. He’s truly earning his veteran minimum $1.27 million salary.
So is the No. 5 pick, Devin Harris. Also on a minimum deal with Dallas, Harris’ career has come full circle. Traded to New Jersey in 2008 for Jason Kidd, Harris 2.0 has given the Mavs quickness, a little fire and a major jolt in their first-round series against the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs that is surprisingly tied at 1-1. Eighth-seeded Dallas will try to grab the series lead in Saturday’s Game 3 (4:30 p.m. ET, TNT) on their home floor.
“Obviously this is why I wanted to come back, to be in this type of situation, play these types of games and be in this type of series,” Harris said. “Right now, it’s a perfect fit for me.”
For a while, Harris couldn’t be sure he’d make it back on the floor because of his injured … toe? Harris hurt his second toe on his left foot early last year, but exams found nothing but a possible case of turf toe. The pain progressively grew worse, but it wasn’t until he got checked out by the Mavs’ medical staff during a free agency visit that the actual injury was revealed.
He had dislocated the joint between his second metatarsal and toe bone, and a tear of the plantar plate requiring surgery in August. It’s a rare injury for an athlete and it was determined that the likely cause was his unusually long second metatarsal.
Then came a setback, further delaying a recovery that was already going to wipe out at least the first two months of the season and was forcing him to alter the mechanics of how he ran to properly balance the weight.
“I was working my way back from the surgery and the way they did the surgery they took pressure off of my second [metatarsal], and your second, when you’re running is where more of the pressure goes,” Harris said. “It squished into my third [metatarsal] and it wasn’t equipped to handle that much pressure so it caused a stress fracture in the third toe. I had to back off and let it heal.”
He finally made his debut on Jan. 18, allowing coach Rick Carlisle to ease off rookies Gal Mekel and Shane Larkin. Against the Spurs, he’s proven invaluable, scoring 19 and 18 points, respectively, in the first two games on 15-for-25 shooting.
“He’s been great,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “I thought when he came back in January, that’s kind of when we were all healthy and that’s when we really started playing well on the road. He’s a big key for us off the bench. We don’t have a lot of penetrators out there. I’ve said it all year that he and Monta [Ellis] have a lot of responsibility to get in the paint for us and get other guys shots, get themselves shots. He’s been great on both ends of the floor.”
Before Dallas traded him away, Harris figured he was in the early stages of a long career in Dallas. His mom, dad and brother all moved with him from Wisconsin his rookie season. He played a key role as a second-year player in the 2006 semifinal series win over the Spurs, and the Mavs went on to advance to the franchise’s first NBA Finals. After the 2007 first-round bust against Golden State, then-coach Avery Johnson tabbed him as the starting point guard.
A year-and-a-half later he was out the door to New Jersey in a 2008 deadline trade for the veteran, a deal that was hotly debated in Dallas. Fans fretted throwing away speed, youth and potential for the aging Kidd’s court savvy and Hall of Fame-bound leadership.
Harris emerged as a first-time All-Star in 2008-09, averaging 21.3 ppg. It wasn’t long before the Nets shifted gears and sent Harris to Utah for Deron Williams. Utah later shipped Harris to Atlanta for Marvin Williams.
“When I first got there [New Jersey], we were expected to make the playoffs, and then they decided to make a move and were gradually trading away pieces, so the I became unhappy,” Harris said. “Utah was kind of like just a stop as well was Atlanta. Knowing that you’re not going to be in the plans, it’s kind of hard to find happiness.”
Harris sought happiness in free agency, but had few takers. He was set to accept a three-year, $9 million deal with Dallas. Then his physical revealed the true damage to his toe. Harris agreed to downgrade to a one-year, veteran minimum contract. The savings allowed Dallas to then sign Monta Ellis.
“You have doubts,” Harris said of his return to full health. “Obviously, I had to change a lot of things within my mechanics, but I was positive to know I would still be an active player. It’s been a long road since the summer. I’ve had a lot of things happen, stayed positive, worked hard and I’m in a good position right now.”