by Jake Appleman /@JakeAppleman

The best things a student can do–aside from taking a class called “The History of Baseball”–is study abroad. Study abroad provides a different set of challenges and experiences that expand one’s worldview, usually without much of the stress associated with normal, everyday existence. If anything, the stress is in the adjustment.

One day you’re binge drinking because security will shut down your party by 2 a.m.Devin Harris without fail; the next you’re learning that a party is a marathon, not a sprint, as you stumble out of a discoteca at 7AM into the blinding glare of the morning sun. One day you’re just another student surrounded by top notch academics; the next you’re the brightest kid in the room, working on projects with kids that take weekend buses to Lisbon looking for the Portuguese equivalent of Burning Man. One day you’re watching a mascot shoot tee shirts into a crowd with a strange gun; the next you’re listening to fans bounce up down, chanting something that roughly translates to, “if you’re not bouncing with us, you’re not a real fan.”

This idea in mind, now consider Devin Harris, a student of the game. Despite his All-Star status and rapidly improving game, never before has Harris, as a pro, been the best in his given uniform. Even last season, as he celebrated Thanksgiving with 81 points in back to back games on the road, and turned crunch time into his own House of FlyingDaggers, his star was still obscured by Vince Carter’s shadow. Sure Harris was the Nets’ top performer last year. That doesn’t mean it was his team.

The reason it’s apt to compare Devin’s upcoming season to a study abroad experience is three fold: 1) It’ll be a very long time before he plays with a less talented cast of characters. Heck, he might never suit up with a group like this again. His role has been, and will be in the future, an excellent cog on very good teams. It took a year and a half but the role reversal is finally complete. 2) Never again will less be expected of the Nets from fans and pundits. The point of this year for Devin and his teammates is to grow and learn. They need to try new things and have fun trying them. 3) The knowledge and experience gleaned will need to be applied when things get a lot more serous in 2010-11.

Taking a closer look at these three talking points is revealing

Uno: Being the unquestioned leader of this 82 game trip will challenge Devin Harris in ways he’s never experienced. Not only will he have to lead the troops statistically and emotionally, he’ll need to figure out how to better cohorts not known for creating their own shots. For a point guard that’s never averaged over seven assists a game, this will push him to grow in a way that he might not have necessarily needed to before.

Pretend you’re Devin Harris for a minute. What are you thinking about? Try, How do I consistently get Brook Lopez the ball in advantageous post positions with opposing teams gunning for him? Or, How do I hit Courtney Lee with a bullet in a catch-and-shoot situation while trying to see over three guys? Even, How do I stay healthy when numerous late shot clock situations dissolve into me barreling into the lane to draw contract from 7-footers? And most importantly, How do I communicate to a young group that will need extra on-court instruction?

Communication. Muy importante.

Dos: Everything is in flux. Some people are on their way in. Some people are on their way out. Learning Russian won’t hurt. Bill Clinton wanted to build a bridge to the 21st century. Assuming the blueprints we’ve seen actually do turn into something that looks a futuristic airport terminal, Devin Harris needs to be the on-court bridge between the New Jersey Nets and the Brooklyn Nets. It won’t be easy, playing in front of empty seats and an inordinate number of reversible jerseys, but the experience needs to be worthwhile and rewarding. No quitting, no apathy, just good hard fun from a good group that, based on all reports, enjoys playing together. That starts at the top of the key with #34, the ball in his hands.

If that means becoming a team that gets buckets in transition, so be it. Run. Devin should test drive the early version of this fast break, so that when the rest of the horses arrive, he’s ready.

Tres: In conjunction with enhancing his distribution skills, Harris is going to need to score more to try and keep the Nets competitive this year. This will be no small feat with opposing defenses gunning for him. An improved jumper and more unpredictability attacking the basket will help. Moreover, improving these facets of his offensive game will make him all the more dangerous on an improved team (the Nets have oodles of cap space in 2010 and two more first rounders).

Last year Harris proved that he can adjust–he shot out of the gate for over 26 a game in November and overcame December and January’s dip in production by going for 25 per in February–and he’ll need the same kind of resiliency this year, adjusting to the way opponents defend him as the unquestioned primary option.

The bumps and lumps taken this year should only make him more efficient as he enters his prime, looking to help lead the Nets to NBA prominence, a return to the contending environment that he’s long been accustomed to.

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.