Knowledge is power. And in this case, Harrison Barnes has harnessed the power of math to launch perhaps the best stretch of offensive basketball he’s played since joining the Mavericks last season.
In his last 15 games, Barnes is averaging 21.7 points on 45.0 percent shooting from the field, a sizzling 43.8 percent from beyond the arc, and 83.6 percent on 4.9 free throw attempts per contest. He’s adding 2.8 assists, which is nearly a full assist higher than his season average and nearly double his mark from last season.
The secret? The fact that three is greater than two. Barnes and head coach Rick Carlisle watched film recently and discovered that too often Barnes was settling for inefficient jumpers.
“We looked at a bunch of shots, and it’s like the 3 was there and I’m taking shots one step inside the arc,” Barnes said. “It’s like the longest 2 possible. (Coach told me), ‘Instead of doing all this work to grind for a hard 2, just take a step back and shoot more of those 3s.'”
Throughout his first two seasons in Dallas, we have witnessed Barnes improve dramatically in isolation and in the post. Even if you shoot it great from 2, though, you’re selling yourself short. For example, were Barnes to hit 40 percent of his long 2s, he’d need 10 shots just to get to eight points. If he can take one step back and still hit 40 percent, those same 10 shots would produce 12 points. It’s simple math: Three points are worth more than two points.
Barnes’ recent hot streak has coincided with a gradual shift toward more minutes at small forward. He’s spending less time banging with bigs on the block and more time on the perimeter, where he can orchestrate pick-and-rolls. His success has almost been immediate: In 131 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler this season, Barnes is scoring 0.939 points per possession, which ranks in the 81st percentile league-wide. He scores more efficiently in those situations than All-Stars DeMar DeRozan, Victor Oladipo, and James Harden, albeit with a smaller sample size. That play type also puts him in a position to read the floor and make passes, which isn’t as easy to do in isolation or in the post.
“Last year and the first half of this year, we were still grinding him into mid-range areas, and trying to get him a few good looks at 3s. But now we’re moving away from that,” Carlisle said after Barnes scored 30 points on 19 shots and dished out five assists in Cleveland on Sunday. “I think he’s in a good place in terms of being able to create from the mid-range and the post, but we’ve got to be able to get him experienced with the playmaking stuff.”
Spending more time on the outside has also given Barnes the freedom to show off the latest addition to his arsenal: the pull-up 3-pointer. He’s hit better than 38 percent of them for the season and has hit 50 percent of them in his last 15 games, including knocking down 4 of 9 against Cleveland.
“I think (the pull-up 3 is) a shot in this league that’s high-value,” Barnes said. “A lot of these teams now are playing pace and space, getting out running, getting 3s and layups. That’s where the league is going. So the ability to be able to shoot the 3 off the dribble is huge, and if I can get that into my game, it’ll just give us another option and way to score that’s less grinding and less pounding over the course of the game.”
Less grinding should certainly help Barnes, who shares forward duties with Dirk Nowitzki and typically takes on the tougher matchup, even if that means occasionally guarding bigger guys. Before the All-Star break, in particular, Barnes still spent more than half his time playing power forward. That beating can sap your legs quickly. Barnes has hit a solid 38.7 percent of his 3-pointers in the first quarter this season, per NBA Stats, but just 31.0 percent in the fourth quarter.
Now that he’s guarding 3s more and 4s less, though, his legs stay fresher throughout the course of a game. The way Barnes sees it, if the defense is going to consistently go under screens, why not just calmly step into the shot and take an open 3?
One side effect: Defenders could be forced to respect this shot, which will change the way they cover pick-and-rolls. You can’t go under a screen against a plus shooter.
“It’s just getting in that rhythm of trying to master that shot,” Barnes said. “I think if I can hit that shot consistently, the defense will have to press up, and it’ll allow me to get to the basket.”
Barnes is shooting 3s at a rate foreign to his game before this moment. He’s taken at least seven 3s four times in the last five games — before that, he’d attempted 7+ treys only 13 times in his entire career. The Mavericks are tinkering with things down the stretch, and encouraging their centerpiece to expand his range has been a huge point of focus.
This simple buy-in to math isn’t Barnes’ first foray into the world of analytics. He spent four seasons with Golden State, one of the most revolutionary NBA teams this decade, where he played with the leader of the pull-up 3 movement in Steph Curry. Last summer, a Mavs staffer saw Barnes working on his finishing around the rim and told him his scoring efficiency, or points per possession, was higher on drives when he spun than when he took any other kind of shot. Barnes immediately integrated the spin as his go-to move on drives, and it’s proven to be a reliable way to both score and also draw fouls.
He’s scoring more efficiently in isolation this season, as well, up to 0.971 points per possession from 0.932 in 2016-17. His driving has played a huge role in his improving percentages; rather than settling for a contested 18-footer, he’s getting to the rim and forcing contact. He’s drawing free throws more than 13 percent of the time this year, whereas last season he only drew a trip to the line less than 9 percent of the time. And then, of course, there’s the pull-up 3. You knock down a few of those in isolation and your efficiency is going to shoot through the roof — Barnes is scoring more points per possession in iso this season than LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Anthony Davis, among several others, and on more possessions than all but three players in the entire league.
There are times with certain players when you look at their per-game stats and don’t notice anything’s changed. Barnes is averaging 18.9 points per game this season, down 0.3 from last year. He’s only averaging 0.5 more assists and 0.5 more free throw attempts and is shooting a lower percentage from the field.
Simply looking at those numbers doesn’t tell you the whole story, though. It doesn’t tell you that Barnes has transformed into almost an entirely different player. Last season, more than 28 percent of his points came from mid-range jumpers and fewer than 16 percent came on 3s. This season, only 17.6 percent of his points have come from the mid-range while more than 24 percent have come from beyond the arc. Zero in on this latest run and you’ll find that mid-range buckets constitute only 13 percent of his scoring output, while 3s account for a gigantic 30 percent slice of that pie.
Part of that is simply from playing off of Dennis Smith Jr. more and having to create in isolation less. But you can’t discount his willingness to step out further from the basket and take 3s, including those that come off the bounce. He’s turning his iso fadeaways into iso 3s. He was really good in iso before, but now he’s taken another step forward. In a matter of months, Barnes has transitioned from early-2000s standout to a model of modern hoops.
“He really made some big progress (against Cleveland) in a couple of different areas with the 3-point shooting,” Carlisle said. “I’m very pleased with, conceptually, some of the things we’re working on.”
Barnes’ 3-point shooting might not stay above 43 percent forever, and he’ll likely never connect on 50 percent of his pull-ups for an entire season. But even if he can hit 40 percent of them, it’s going to bolster his scoring efficiency and change the way defenders play him. It will open up the Mavericks’ offense from the wing and unlock a more modern approach to the game for his entire team.
This is still the early stages of the development process for Barnes, who won’t turn 26 until May. Although he now has six seasons under his belt, he’s still only scratching the surface of the kind of player he can become. At this time last year, we were fantasizing about what would happen if he could shoot an extra free throw per game. Now, we’re seeing a big wing operating in the pick-and-roll and effectively pulling up from 25 feet. Barnes has the drive, work ethic, and smarts to buy in to coaching and math and to continue developing his game. That, combined with his considerable talent, can take him a long way.