There were six men smiling on stage, each stretching a white Brooklyn Nets jersey with their last name and chosen number stitched in black. There was a former top overall pick, an international sensation and a first-round choice from the 2016 NBA draft. And there was new Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks, who spent that July assembling his very first roster as a lead executive of his own front office.

Anthony Bennett’s Nets career would last only 23 games. Just five appearances into his three-year, $36 million deal, Jeremy Lin’s hamstring came up limp, and it wasn’t long before Brooklyn offloaded his contract and injury woes elsewhere. Caris LeVert ultimately exited Marks’ rebuild when the Nets pried James Harden from the Houston Rockets, a necessary cost of conducting superstar business.

Since then, five of those six players have departed the franchise, disappearing from the photograph all together. The 24-year-old in the blue blazer, the second-round pick who’d been traded and waived and found himself balancing atop the league’s outer edge, Joe Harris wasn’t cast as a franchise mainstay. The locker room around him has only changed, both with different faces and literal interior design, swapping a black-and-wood color scheme for a sleeker, silver look, as the upstart morphed into a juggernaut rife with headlines. Yet here Harris remains, on the other side of 30, the last stitch of these Nets’ original fabric, and a connective tissue so vital to this Brooklyn iteration’s contending aspirations.

However large a footprint he’s left on this organization, Nets staffers felt his absence throughout their troubled 2021-22 campaign. A November ankle injury and rehab complications left Brooklyn’s best floor spacer, a career 43.6% marksman from distance, sidelined for the remainder of the season. No matter how well Harden or Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving can freelance with the basketball, any team, any super-team, will feel the visceral gravity suck from losing one of the league’s sharpest shooters. And as their first-round series slipped away against the Boston Celtics, a common refrain among Nets personnel simply highlighted how much everybody missed Joe.

Things are pointing up for Joe Harris in his return to the Nets. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

“You lose, so everybody wants to be like, ‘Oh, why did we lose?’ This and that, certain guys were out or banged up, whatever it might have been,” Harris told Yahoo Sports. “I think had our momentum been a little bit different going into the playoffs, it probably would have been a different situation.”

His eventual return that season was supposed to function as some form of catalyst. Harris opted against full reconstructive surgery that fall, clinging to any hope he could return to Brooklyn’s star-studded lineup. Even for 10 or 15 minutes each night. But the joint never regained its full range of motion. Bone was grinding against bone. He tried four or five different custom ankle braces, yet no modification allowed Harris to move at the speed of which an NBA game requires. You can’t scurry around the perimeter, slingshotting around screens, with a wobbly tire.

“It’s taxing. I thought that I could get back, when the reality was that my ankle was not in a good spot,” Harris said. “I exhausted basically every single option that I could. Pretty much anything you could possibly think of to get me back on the floor.”

He’s there now, returning for Brooklyn’s second game this season and back into the Nets’ starting lineup by Halloween. His release remains as smooth as ever, even if Harris hasn’t quite yet rediscovered his league-best efficiency from beyond the arc. He still squares and rises as if the image from a shooting manual has come to life. He spent last season on the bench honing in on opponents who rivaled his approach: always on the move and whirring at a pace that kept pressing against his teammates’ defensive principles. One split-second difference can turn a routine cut into a devastating dash to the rim. “I’m not gonna come back from ankle surgery and be, like, a facilitator,” Harris said.

He has, though, reemerged as a more charismatic presence. Harris is happy to speak, thoughtful and empathetic, except he’s not brimming with junk to talk and a chest ready to be puffed. Yet the emotion this season, flowing from his elbow up through the flick of his wrist, often releasing a primal yell when his shot splashes through iron, has been born far more out of necessity than unadulterated thrill from being back on the court.

“It’s just kind of a thing amongst us right now. You gotta, you know, sometimes fabricate your own energy,” Harris said. “Because we’ve gone through just some rough points in our season so far, even though it’s been really early.”

The team has responded to Jacque Vaughn’s emboldened voice, officially named Brooklyn’s head coach last Wednesday. Irving is still serving a suspension, tangled in a complex web of accountability and growth. These active Nets are simply willing a collective spirit amid it all.

“Sometimes you fake it until you make it, but you gotta have energy when you play and throughout the course of the season, otherwise it makes it really tough,” Harris said. “And, you know, we just kinda collectively talk about it as a group just making sure that everybody’s bringing energy and the right sort of energy, too. It’s easy to go the opposite direction and not enjoy it.”

But these are men playing a child’s game for millions, one may observe.

“I think it’s one of those things, it’s easy when you’re a college player or a high school player, that sort of stuff is kinda built in because it’s an enforced thing. In the NBA, it’s not quite as a consistent thing,” Harris said. “Certainly, if you’re winning, team’s playing well, there’s a good jell, it’s good. But we got a new group, a lot of guys are unfamiliar playing with each other. You might know each other off the court, but playing together is different. Especially with some of the experiences that we’ve had here early on, it can affect the energy of the group. Whether you admit it or not. So it’s all just trying to be positive with one another and just try to make sure everybody’s enjoying playing. That’s why we play basketball. We love it.”

Harris cracked a smile. “So if you’re not liking it, it makes it really hard when you play 82 times a year.”

And boy, are the Nets happy Harris is playing any games at all.

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