Dirk Nowitzki’s early-season injury woes paved way for Harrison Barnes’ breakout season

2016-17 Exit Interview: Dirk Nowitzki

Mavs F Dirk Nowitzki addresses the media for exit interviews.

DALLAS — Although it was an unfortunate right Achilles injury for 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki that led to his emergence as the Dallas Mavericks’ go-to scorer this season, versatile forward Harrison Barnes showed that he’s ready to take the torch from the future Hall of Famer moving forward.

Forced to miss 25 of the Mavericks’ first 30 games this season, Nowitzki watched helplessly as the team got off to a sluggish start without him. He also watched as Barnes was handed the bulk of the scoring responsibilities in his absence, speeding up the process of making the 24-year-old prized offseason addition the key building block for the future. And after seeing Barnes produce a breakout season, Nowitzki praised the budding star’s ability to put the team on his broad shoulders.

“I’m really, really proud of him,” Nowitzki said while applauding Barnes’ play after the season. “You know, with the amount of work he puts in, he’s a true professional. It felt like after that preseason just something clicked for him. Maybe it was even good for him that I got hurt and missed a lot of time. That was his time to really get the plays, and all those plays he took over. It felt like his confidence grew, and he was on a great roll there for a long, long time. He basically was a 20-point scorer in our league, which is hard to do, so I’m proud of him and proud of his development. Just how he handles himself on and off the court is A-class, and he’s definitely a great guy to build around.”

Admittedly struggling during the preseason, Barnes credits the added responsibility of shouldering the scoring load after Nowitzki went down for his quick turnaround. Barnes signed a reported four-year, $94 million maximum contract with the team last summer, hoping to learn from Nowitzki’s mentorship and grow into the lead role when the 7-footer steps away from the game. He was then thrust into performing as the Mavs’ No. 1 offensive option with Nowitzki sidelined, showing that he’s more than capable of operating in that role while setting a new franchise record by reaching double figures in the first 43 games to begin his tenure in Dallas. Still, after seeing the Mavericks miss out on the playoffs following a 33-49 campaign, Barnes knows he must do much more next season in order to lead his team to greater success.

“You know, (Nowitzki’s injury) definitely opened things up. It was a different style of playing that you wouldn’t have done had we had a lot of our veterans there, and I think I grew a lot of confidence from that,” Barnes explained. “I just tried out a lot of things in the preseason to get comfortable. And once the regular season was there, I felt like I was able to get my feet underneath me and just build.

2016-17 Exit Interview: Harrison Barnes

Mavs F Harrison Barnes addresses the media for exit interviews.

“I can be consistent,” he added. “That was the big knock on me when I first got here. You know, I could be good for a night or maybe a couple of games, but over the the course of 10-30 games that would be difficult. To finally be able to do that over the course of a season was great. But at the same time, not making the playoffs is tough, so I have to be better for our team to be better and for us to have a fighting chance.”

In addition to upping his scoring average after last season with Golden State from 11.7 points an outing to a career-best 19.2 this year, Barnes also played in the Mavericks’ first 79 games before being shut down to close the schedule. He also connected on 46.8 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from the three-point arc, clocking a career-high 35.5 minutes per outing.

Barnes led the Mavs in scoring 37 times this season after doing so with Golden State just six times in 307 games. He also posted seven 30-point performances this season after he reached 30 just once in four seasons with the Warriors. Still, according to Barnes, he can accomplish more next season with Nowitzki serving as his mentor. And with hopes of one day taking the reins from the league’s No. 6 all-time leading scorer, Barnes says he plans to continue his progression this summer towards becoming the Mavericks’ franchise player.

“Just consistency every single night. That’s a big thing,” Barnes explained. “You know, when you’re a role player, you’re able to have off nights and still able have other guys carry you. When you have more responsibility, you take the lion’s share of the shots and that type of stuff. And when you have a bad night, it’s going to be hard for your team to win. So, that’s the biggest thing, and it’s going to be a lot of motivation for me moving into next season.

“There’s a lot of different things that I can do to improve this summer, and I plan to do that. … You know, that’s something I will certainly be prepared for and be ready for when that time comes. But the most important thing this summer is just improving and continuing to develop my relationship with (Nowitzki). He’s been a great mentor to me, and he’s helping me with this transition. I owe a lot to him.”