Cavs Rookie Took Road Less Traveled to NBA Finals

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The Cleveland Cavaliers have been following one path the entire season: to the NBA Finals. For the team’s lone rookie, Joe Harris, his first year has taken a different route.

Playing opportunities are limited on a veteran title contender. Short of injuries or breaks for rest, minutes are accounted for by the starters and core reserves. In order for Harris to grow as a player in his rookie season, he had to make a few detours. The stop: the Canton Charge of the NBA Development League.

Harris, the 33rd pick in the 2014 draft, was assigned to the Charge over 10 times. He averaged double digit minutes per game in the first two months of the season, but those dropped after the roster changed. In January, he began what would be frequent trips to Canton.

“I’ve been busy,” Harris recalled with a laugh.

Harris’ situation was unique given the frequency of his assignments. Since the drive from Cleveland to Canton is less than an hour, he was able to easily go back and forth between the teams. He found himself pulling double duty on many occasions.

“You’re practicing in the morning with the Cavs and playing at night with Canton, or practicing in the morning with Canton and playing at night with the Cavs,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I did that multiple times.”

Harris went into his rookie season open to playing in Canton. The Cavaliers first discussed the possibility of the D-League with Harris shortly after drafting him and outlined the Charge’s schedule at the start of the season. The Cavaliers also gave Harris a day or two notice to let him know which team he’d be playing for in upcoming games. The assignments would vary depending on injuries and other factors affecting the roster, but they all had the same objective.

“The Cavs organization, they have good ties with the D-League team and use it pretty well as a developmental team,” said Harris. “They try to take advantage of it with the younger guys. They talk to you like, ‘We’ve invested in you and want you to be developing and working.’ You can’t simulate playing 35 minutes in an actual game in an individual workout with your coaches.”

The difference in playing opportunities between the Cavs and Charge was significant. Harris played 11 games for the Charge, averaging 14.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 31.5 minutes. In contrast, he averaged 2.7 points, 0.8 rebounds and 0.5 assists in 9.7 minutes in 51 games for the Cavs.

Instead of searching for minutes in the NBA, Harris found himself with a jam-packed schedule between the two leagues during the season.

“We played the Celtics on a Sunday (April 12) in Boston, I played two games in Sioux Falls with Canton (April 13 and 14), and I played another game against the Wizards in Cleveland (April 15),” Harris said. “I was in three different cities playing games. It was crazy.”

With the back and forth comes changes in lifestyle, too. The Cavs fly team charter whereas the Charge fly commercial, with travel dependent on weather delays and flight options. Unlike traveling direct routes with the Cavs, the Charge would have to make multiple stops to get from Canton to Sioux Falls, for example.

On the road, the Cavaliers stay in five-star hotels; the Charge stay at Marriotts and DoubleTree locations. The Cavs also have a team chef whereas the Charge eat on their own when they travel.

Harris didn’t complain.

“I think the D-League has helped me out a lot,” he said. “Just to get into a game rhythm, game experience, that stuff is really good for you when you go through lulls when you’re not playing too much. It’s good to get out on the floor and actually play. I’ll get reps in practice because guys will be resting, but to actually get put in the game is really valuable. It’s extremely valuable going forward too because you don’t want to take half a year off when you’re not really playing a whole lot.”

Harris is back with the Cavaliers for the postseason. He continues to learn even when watching the game from the sidelines, one of the best views of the NBA Finals. Being around players like LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love has given him a unique look into how to be successful in the league.

“You’re playing with the best players in the world,” he said of the Cavs. “Whether it’s taking little stuff from them in practice or stuff you see during the games, you can learn a lot just by watching, observing, tendencies. There are even things off the court, like how guys take care of their bodies, eat well, get the right sleep. You see what it means to be a professional being around guys who have been in the NBA for so long.”

From the Cavaliers to the Charge, the Charge to the Cavaliers, Harris’ life has been constantly changing his rookie season. One thing that hasn’t altered is how he views himself, whether he is in the NBA or the D-League.

“I don’t even know if there’s really an identification,” he said. “You just consider yourself a pro basketball player.”