Dallas Mavericks v Houston Rockets

The Mavericks likely envisioned Harrison Barnes becoming a go-to kind of offensive player in the future, but not even the team (or, maybe, even the player himself) could have seen the transition from role-player to leading scorer going so smoothly so early in the season.

Barnes scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds in last week’s season opener in Indianapolis, hitting a game-tying 3-pointer with two seconds left to cap off a late Mavs comeback and force overtime. Two nights later, he scored a career-high 31 points on 12-of-23 shooting against Houston, although the Mavs would fall, 106-98. After that performance, head coach Rick Carlisle showered his new forward with praise.

“I expected Barnes to play extremely well,” he said. “I think he has a chance to be a very special player. I’ve felt that all along.”

OK, but this soon? Through three games, Barnes is averaging 20.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game for the Mavericks, shooting 50.0 percent from the field, 45.5 percent from deep, and a perfect 7 of 7 at the free throw line. All this coming, too, with Barnes mostly playing power forward, with Dirk Nowitzki sidelined for the last two games as he recovers from an illness.

The 24-year-old is receiving an unprecedented volume of work early on with the Mavericks. Through three games, he’s taken 48 field goal attempts, and until Friday’s 23-shot outing, he’d never attempted at least 14 shots in two consecutive games in his entire career, per Basketball-Reference. That level of involvement means he needs to play differently than he has in years past.

“There’s a balance that I’m still learning in terms of when to make a play for others, when to be aggressive and not settle for a pull-up – get to the rack, get to the free throw line,” he said. “There are still things I have to learn in terms of being that kind of scorer.”

Not only does that expanded role increase his physical and technical demands — he’s got to pace himself and dig deep if he’s going to receive all those extra possessions — but it also heightens the mental requirements. You’ve got to out-think your opponent for 48 minutes in order to get the better of him.

Beginning with the preseason, you’ve seen Barnes carefully calculating in some situations, occasionally even passing up what would have been an open shot because he wants to try to make a play for a teammate or for himself. During one possession early in the season opener, he traded an open 3-pointer for a dribble-drive against Monta Ellis, whom Barnes thought was going to buy the shot fake. But Ellis stayed grounded and stripped the Mavs’ forward, resulting in two points the other way. That’s a five-point swing the Mavericks can’t afford. Other times, he’s in his own words settled for fadeaways or turnarounds in the post against smaller players, or pulled up for a jump shot against a slower defender, when he could have gotten closer to the rim instead.

One reason why he’s having to think so much? This is still new to him. He’s very good at this sport, of course, otherwise he wouldn’t be in the NBA. But he’s never been a go-to scorer in this league. For example, he’s already used 12 isolation possessions this season — 4.0 per game — while last season he didn’t even average one per game. (He’s scored 18 points in those situations, or 1.5 points per possession, which as of Monday was the top mark in the NBA, per Synergy Sports.)

Highlights: Mavs vs. Rockets

Wesley Matthews led the Mavericks with 25 points followed by J.J. Barea with 18 but it wasn’t enough as the Mavs fall to the Rockets 93-92.

Part of a player’s development into a featured piece is the ability to master a move, a counter-move, and a counter to the counter. What do you do against single coverage? What about against a double-team? A smaller player? A bigger player? When you’re iso’d, or when the defense is overloading the strong side, or when you’re at the top of the arc versus the baseline? That’s a lot of stuff on the plate for the brain to sort through while playing such a fast game.

One cure is to try to keep the game simple. The other, though, is to be aggressive and force the issue. Don’t wait to see what your opponent will do. Take the game right to him. So instead of doing this…

[wp_hyena imageurl=’https://www.mavs.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Barnes-pull-up.gif’ data_hyena='{“slate”:”300,0.10,15″,”player_fade_speed”:”500″,”control_opacity”:”0,0.9″,”fade_speed”:”250,250″,”style”:2}’]

…where he takes a couple dribbles before pulling up for a contested mid-range jumper, Barnes understands that he has the ability to do something different, even though the type and volume of possessions he’s receiving are different now than they were in Golden State.

“It’s some different looks, some isolation looks,” he said. “But the biggest thing is getting a good shot versus settling. Sometimes the wide-open shot’s there, sometimes you hesitate a little bit and you can get a shot. But trying to get to the rack, get to the free throw line, those are big things that we need because right now as a team we’re not shooting many free throws. That’s a big thing that I’m trying to work at, get better at.”

Barnes only took three free throws in his first two games. In Sunday night’s matchup against Houston, however, he attempted four, including a pair with just over a minute left.

That was perhaps the most encouraging possession Barnes has played so far as a Maverick, resulting in a trip to the charity stripe.

[wp_hyena imageurl=’https://www.mavs.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Barnes-dribble-drive-and-foul.gif’ data_hyena='{“slate”:”300,0.10,15″,”player_fade_speed”:”500″,”control_opacity”:”0,0.9″,”fade_speed”:”250,250″,”style”:2}’]

Barnes catches the ball on the wing with 16 seconds left in the shot clock, guarded by power forward Ryan Anderson, against whom he has a speed and quickness advantage. He takes a hard dribble to the right, then crosses to his left and rises for the shot, eventually drawing a foul. That’s an example of not settling, of forcing the issue, and of making the very complicated game of basketball easy simply by going right at the opponent. There’s no need for nuance in a situation when you have an advantage. (To be fair, he caught the ball at a different spot on the floor than in the first example, and the defense was set up a bit differently, but the point remains.)

As he plays more games and receives more looks, especially in clutch situations, everything he does will appear easier, smoother, and more comfortable. It’s a matter of repetition and mental mastery as much as it is anything else. Barnes clearly thinks the game well, and he has an understanding of what he’s got to do: attack, attack, attack. From a purely physical standpoint, Barnes has advantages over all types of players: He’s taller than every guard, stronger than many 3s, quicker than most 4s, and his long wingspan and explosive vertical help to negate height disadvantages against taller players.

That could make him a matchup nightmare if he can continue to develop so rapidly, especially in partnership with a walking mismatch in Dirk Nowitzki. In physical terms, many teams have a player who can guard one or the other, but not many have two players who can guard both. And that’s not even taking into consideration beefy 2-guard Wesley Matthews and clutch hero Deron Williams. The trick for the team is minimizing the external pressure on Barnes to quickly become that go-to guy while also utilizing his abilities as he continues to improve.

Barnes knows what he’s got to do to reach that next level as a player, so now the challenge is continuing to show it on the floor on a nightly basis. If he can do that, then between Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, Deron Williams, and Wesley Matthews, the Mavericks will be a tough team to take down, especially late in games — and Barnes is going to be a heck of a player.

Share and comment

More Mavs News