Unfavorite Son

The shot looks so smooth as the ball leaves Devin Harris' hands that you just know it's going in. And it does, ripping through the net without hitting the rim. He's finding his rhythm now, nailing jumper after jumper with the same polished form--bent knees, short hop, follow-through, wrist snap... splash.

It is the most court time that the Mavericks rookie guard has seen in weeks. (A few days later, against the woeful Hawks, he'll play well and have a monster dunk.) He began the season as a starter--went from the fifth pick in the NBA draft to the player head coach Don Nelson couldn't shut up about. In the preseason, and then in the first month or so of real games, Nellie raved about the skinny kid from Wisconsin with the quick first step. With Steve Nash gone to Phoenix and the newly imported Jason Terry struggling, Nellie went with the baby face, handed him the team's remote control and asked Harris to push all the right buttons. Which he did. Sort of. At first.

Like most rookies, Harris was up and down, good and bad. On some nights, you could clearly see the potential that made him a big-time draftee--the speed to the bucket, the explosiveness, the hustle. Other nights you didn't want to see anything from him at all, because he'd make an errant pass and then follow that up with a shot so poorly selected that Jerry Stackhouse wouldn't even take it. He looked like what he is--a first-year player still finding his way. But measured against his predecessor, compared with an All-Star guard who rarely made a mistake on the offensive end, Harris looked that much worse. And then there was the not so minor point that Nellie can't sit still; he is a man who has no trouble yanking a player who underperforms, switching things around until he feels comfortable with the combination he has on the floor. So that's what he did. Harris, suddenly and without explanation, went from starter and favored son to an afterthought. Then the Mavs traded for Darrell Armstrong, which only moved Harris farther down the bench. Harris went from playing the majority of the game to some of the game to none of the game. He was a DNP (hoops jargon for "did not play") against Minnesota and Seattle and Golden State. That's about as bad as it gets; even the towel boy has seen more action lately. (Because Armstrong can't shoot straight, Nellie let Harris play against Atlanta, which was encouraging for the rookie. But there's no guarantee that he'll stay in the lineup.)

But today Harris is stroking it--letting the ball fly and watching it fall mercifully through the net time and again. That's the good news. The bad news is that no one is guarding him, and no one is around to see it. He's in the gym all alone, save a few journos who are hanging around the American Airlines Center practice court on a random Friday. He's getting some extra work in with one of the player development guys, Kelvin Upshaw; Nellie, the one guy Harris wants to see him putting in time, has already retreated to his office. This is how far Harris has fallen.

"I haven't gotten much feedback from him," Harris says when asked whether Nellie talked to him about sitting down for a while. He says it softly, speaking the way he looks--like a kid who is unsure of his surroundings. "We really haven't gotten into it like this is what's gonna happen. But I didn't really need to get much to know that I wasn't performing. That's not his fault. He's the coach, and he needs someone to step up. I needed to step up. That's what I'm going to try to do."

True, he wasn't playing well at the end (too many shooting performances in the 6-for-14 ballpark, too many turnovers, not enough benefit), but it's hard to step up when you're locked away on the bench. It's even harder when the key is in Nellie's pocket.

This has happened before with Nellie's players--he falls in love one minute, coos over one of his baller's skills and what he could add to the Mavericks, then suddenly reverses his judgment and divorces himself from said player (like, for example, Danny Fortson, whom Nellie called "the key" to the Antawn Jamison trade before forgetting Fortson existed). On the one hand, it's hard to argue with the approach, because Nellie is widely revered for his coaching acumen (he has won more games than all but one other coach in NBA history). Plus, the Mavs are trying to win right now, and they have a chance to do so and go deep into the playoffs, so it's understandable that Nellie would be reluctant to allow Harris to grow up at the expense of potentially damaging the team's record. But there are other elements to consider here: such as the fact that the other two point guards, Armstrong and Terry, though they've played better of late, still haven't been anything close to spectacular. Armstrong, Terry, Harris--none of them has destroyed the opposition this year (the Mavs are last in the NBA in team assists, and none of their three point guards is in the top 30 individually), so why bury the rookie so quickly? And by doing so, by first trumpeting his talents and then saying that his play has been sour, don't you run the risk of screwing up the kid's head? Because that's what he is--a goofy-looking, paper-thin, next-door type who won't turn 22 until February but who has already been hailed and excoriated by his head coach in less than three months. Nellie is a lot of things--a fine strategist, a Hall of Famer, a first-rate wit and serviceable comedian--but he's not a nurturer, and he never will be.

Welcome to the NBA, young'un, where your expiration date changes hourly and no one apologizes for it.

"I can't worry about that," Nellie says. "When you're struggling and you have three guys who are inconsistent, that's just the way it is. I don't know when that will change, but for right now Devin is going to learn by watching. He's doing what he has to do. He's working hard in practice."

Ouch. The only way that could have been a bigger write-off of Harris is if Nellie had said "he's dead to me now" in his best Michael Corleone voice. So that's it for now. Who knows what tomorrow will hold for Harris, because Nellie is capable of anything--sitting him, starting him, trading him to Russia for a bottle of vodka.

"A lot of guys have told me to keep my head up--not just on our team, but some of the other teams we've played against," Harris says, trying to sound optimistic about his future. "Like, against Seattle, the guard came up to me and told me things would get better. Not Ray Allen, the backup. I forget his name."

A guy he couldn't remember, a backup, telling the fifth pick in the draft and a former starter to keep fighting. Now that's depressing.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez