It would be an understatement to say Harrison Barnes has come a long way in his first season as a Maverick.
Remember when he shot 26 percent during the preseason? That feels like an awfully long time ago at this point. He’s had seven games this season with a scoring output higher than the percentage he shot during exhibition season.
Player development is not always linear; a player does not simply improve at every single facet of his game without ever taking a step back in a different area, and sometimes growth can take days, weeks, months, or years. Every case is different. In Barnes’, though, he has improved dramatically since signing as a Maverick. That, combined with a hugely increased workload over the one he carried during four seasons with the Golden State Warriors, has resulted in one of the most unexpected, pleasant surprises of the 2016-17 season: Barnes is averaging 20.7 points per game. Of the 32 other NBA players who can make that same claim, only eight are younger than him.
And while in most cases achieving mastery might not follow a linear progression, Barnes’ first season in Dallas has followed an extraordinarily linear path. This feels like the right time to look back at how far he’s come this season, for two reasons. The first: Tonight the Mavericks will play their 41st game, reaching the halfway point of the season, and that has at least some symbolic value. The second: With 40 games in the books, and having appeared (and scored in double-digits) in every game so far, it’s a really round number and makes looking back in time much more convenient.
So, without further ado, below is a chart displaying some of Barnes’ numbers during each 10-game segment of the 2016-17 campaign, as well as averages from both this season and his career before coming to Dallas.
|Series of Games
(Note: Effective field goal percentage, or eFG, measures a player’s field goal proficiency while factoring in the added value of the 3-point shot. True shooting percentage factors free throw attempts into the equation. Assist percentage measures the percentage of his teammates’ field goals he assisted while on the floor. Usage percentage, or USG, is an estimate of the percentage a player “used” while on the floor, meaning he took a shot, drew a foul, or turned the ball over. If each player had equal shares of the offense, their usage rate would each be 20 percent.)
Barnes more than doubling his per-game scoring average is what will be the thing that is most obvious of all to most fans. In half a season he’s gone from fourth option to 20-point scorer. He will set his single-season career-high for points scored with his first basket tonight.
But what is most striking and impressive about the season he’s had is that he’s increased his usage rate by more than 10 full percentage points while also maintaining higher effective field goal and true shooting percentages. What’s more, Barnes is playing a new position in the lineup, he’s taking mid-range shots more often than ever before, more of his shots have been contested, he’s consistently creating his own looks for the first time in his career, and he’s left behind three All-NBA teammates to become the lone 20-point scorer on his new team. And he’s hitting 3-pointers well below his career average. (What would his numbers look like if he was shooting 37 percent from 3, not 34 percent?) All of those factors should reduce efficiency. But they haven’t.
This is not common.
The next most impressive item to note is his upward-trending assist percentage from one 10-game set to the next. In his last 10 games, Barnes has assisted on more than 10 percent of his teammates’ makes while he’s been on the floor, and that’s particularly surprising because he had two zero-assist games during that stretch. They were balanced out, however, by two five-assist games, a mark that represents his career-high. He was never a fulcrum of the offense in Golden State, the player around which the entire offense revolved almost on a possession-by-possession basis, but that’s become the case in Dallas, especially late in games. He’s taken advantage of those opportunities lately both by scoring himself and distributing the ball to others.
It is extremely rare for a player to see such a dramatic increase in usage rate while maintaining similar (or better) shooting numbers than the season before. That’s typically because 20-point-caliber players very rarely ever change teams, especially after their rookie contract. But the circumstances of last summer led to significant roster overhaul in the Bay Area, and Dallas took advantage by scooping up Barnes in free agency.
His leap in involvement is on a scale not unlike James Harden’s first season in Houston, when he went from sixth man (yes, at one point The Beard was once only a sixth man) to essentially the Rockets’ point guard in one season. But his role in OKC’s offense was much larger than Barnes’ ever was with the Warriors; Harden had a 21.6 usage rate his final season with the Thunder before it jumped all the way up to 29.0 in his first season with his new team. Unlike Barnes, however, Harden’s efficiency went down significantly during that first campaign: His eFG percentage dropped from 58.2 in 2011-12 to 50.4 in 2012-13, and his true shooting dipped from 66.0 to 60.0. That doesn’t mean he was a failure that first season; in fact, those numbers are still quite good. It just means he was doing more stuff for the first time and needed some time to find his groove. Four years later, he’s averaging 28.4 points, 11.7 assists, and 8.3 rebounds per game with a 52.6 eFG percentage and an unbelievable 52.1 assist rate, and is contending for the MVP.
That isn’t to suggest Barnes will ever achieve those numbers, as they are practically unprecedented in NBA history. But Harden is one example of a player who changed teams and grew relatively seamlessly into his expanded role, and his team has enjoyed plenty of success since making that move, as well. The Rockets finished eighth in the West in his first season, losing to Harden’s old Thunder squad in the first round. They’ve since been to the Western Conference Finals and currently sit third in the West, on pace to approach 60 wins. Currently, the Mavericks are 3.5 games out of eighth place in the West in Barnes’ first season in town, with the club winning nine of its last 19 to get back into the playoff picture after starting just 4-17. Things are turning around after an injury-plagued start, but Barnes has been the constant all along.
Harden’s case is probably the most recent example of such a young player seeing a massive increase in workload from one season to the next with a new team, and he’s now one of the best players in the NBA. Barnes, three years his junior, could be the next one. As the first 40 games have shown, his game is certainly headed in an upward direction at a very rapid pace. How much better can he become? That will be revealed in the coming seasons.
It’s not unprecedented for players to succeed immediately in new teams. Steve Nash won the MVP in his first two seasons with the Phoenix Suns after leaving the Mavericks, but by then he was already 30 years old and fully in his prime. This is Barnes’ fifth season in the NBA, and he’s already experienced a lot in this league, but it’s easy to forget that he’s still only 24 years old. He’s younger than Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard, John Wall, C.J. McCollum, and Kyrie Irving, just to name a few of the newest faces toward the top of the player pyramid. That means he can still get a lot better.
Butler, against whom Barnes will play tonight, averaged just 13.1 points per game as a 24-year-old. He scored 20 a night for the first time the next season, and two years after that is now averaging 24.9 points per game as a 27-year-old.
In other words, we have barely seen anything. Barnes is just now scratching the surface of the player he can one day become in this league, especially if he can stay healthy and continue to work as hard to perfect his game as he has during the first year of his four-year contract. But we’ve seen enough to know that Barnes can really play, and there’s still plenty of room to grow. It could take months, yet more than likely will take years, but Barnes has proven in just 40 games that he can be a special talent in a league full of more starpower than maybe ever before. That could be where he’s headed, and we’re just going along for the ride.