On Feb. 23 of last season, Shaquille Harrison made his NBA debut with the Phoenix Suns on a 10-day contract. He wound up playing in 23 games for Phoenix in 2017-18, averaging 6.6 points and 2.4 assists in a mostly reserve role, and is now the current presumptive favorite to be the starting point guard for the 2018-19 Suns. Wait, that can’t be right…can it?
Ordinarily no, but nothing screams Phoenix Suns basketball quite like the unknown hustle guy from last season playing reasonably well in Summer League and immediately being thrust into the starting lineup of a super-duper-pinky-swear not-tanking team. So let’s get to know the guy who, barring a trade for a world-beater like Cory Joseph, will be seeing a lot of court time this upcoming season.
Harrison, whom Suns broadcaster Eddie Johnson is fond of calling a poor man’s Russell Westbrook, will be 25 years old when the season tips on Oct. 17, which is old for a second-year player but understandable for a four-year college product who went undrafted in 2016 and paid his dues in the G League before landing in Phoenix. It does make him somewhat unique on the roster in that he is simultaneously one of the team’s older players and one of its least experienced. But Phoenix is entering the season with five rookies on its roster, placing experience of any sort at a premium.
Considering the number of question marks with this squad, Harrison offers the team something as certain as death and taxes — his calling card bulldog defense. From his first game with Phoenix, when he recorded four steals, through the end of Summer League, ranking eighth in steals per game in Las Vegas, Harrison has embraced the gritty and unglamorous side of the sport.
During the 2017-18 season, Harrison was one of the few Suns players to hold his defensive assignments below their usual shooting percentages. Of players who finished the season with the Suns, Harrison ranked second best at containing his man, holding opponents a full two percentage points below their field goal percentage. Only T.J. Warren was better at -2.2. He also finished tied with Elfrid Payton for the team lead in deflections per game (2.1) and owned a defensive rating of 109 — behind only Alan Williams on the end-of-season roster.
Harrison is a rangy 6’4 with good speed, quickness, and elevation, and his defensive work impressed head coach Igor Kokoskov during the five-game Summer League stint. It was a major factor in earning a small guarantee in his contract this summer and why he has an opportunity to earn a larger guarantee and a regular-season roster spot during the preseason.
The biggest area for growth in Harrison’s game is his offense, which is heavily predicated on slashing to the bucket. He’s a bit like Archie Goodwin’s defensive-minded twin. Of his 5.4 shot attempts per game last season, four would come from less than five feet of the basket. That’s 74.1 percent for the non-human abacus sect. In a way, that’s a positive. He shot only 6 of 26 from behind the arc (23.1 percent), meaning he recognized the limitations in his game and did not settle for shots he struggled to make. Still, an improved 3-point shot is practically a requirement for his progression as an NBA player, and to that end, his Summer League play provided a glimmer of encouragement. Albeit a small sample size, Harrison shot 4 of 9 from behind the arc (44.4 percent).
Summer League also allowed Harrison to work on getting his teammates more involved. He averaged 2.4 assists per game and 5.2 per 36 minutes last season but raised those averages to 6.6 per game and 8.7 per 36 while running the show in Vegas.
It will be important for Harrison to prove he has rounded out his game because while the Suns don’t have a player heavily favored to start at point, there will be competition.
Isaiah Canaan, whose left ankle did a spot-on impression of an owl’s neck on Jan. 31, is back for training camp and was arguably the team’s best point guard last season as well as one of the team’s best perimeter defenders, although his play had started to dip a week before his season-ending injury. Meanwhile, rookies Elie Okobo and De’Anthony Melton will also be vying for the job, with the recently acquired Melton possessing a number of the same strengths (and weaknesses) as Harrison.
But Harrison has an advantage the other three don’t. He has already played a significant role under Kokoskov, learning the new system under game conditions in Summer League and ingratiating himself to his new coach with his effort. That will count for something.
Once training camp starts on Sept. 25, the questions will begin to get sorted. Can Harrison use his head start to run away from his competition and secure the starting gig? Can he transition his multifaceted Summer League play to the big show? Can he be more than a solid reserve?
And of course the Suns could always trade for another point guard, rendering this discussion about starter battles moot. But until a move comes to fruition, this is what the Suns have in front of them, and no one is better primed to capitalize on the situation than Harrison.