On the Inside: Harrison Barnes

2016-17 Exit Interview: Harrison Barnes

Mavs F Harrison Barnes addresses the media for exit interviews.

Over the next several weeks, we will publish end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

In an age when efficiency is king in the NBA, and when you read all about it on this very site, the more statistically savvy basketball fan might not want to give Harrison Barnes the credit he deserves for his first season in Dallas.

Barnes finished tied for 81st in the NBA among qualified players in points per shot at 1.19, and 57th among them in free throw attempts per game. Those two stats are directly related, of course: If you replace shot attempts with free throws, you’ll naturally score more efficiently because you’re scoring points without taking a field goal. The 24-year-old Barnes clearly has room for improvement in that regard, and he’ll be the first to acknowledge that.

But too often the starting point for any smart Barnes discussion is “He’s played well, BUT…” ending that argument with a thought on efficiency, or too many mid-range attempts and not enough 3s, or that he needs to get to the free throw line.

Given his age and his relative lack of experience in this role, those complaints are a bit premature.

This was Barnes’ first-ever season as any type of focal point of an offense. His career usage rate in Golden State was just 16.3 percent; this year it soared up to 25.3 percent, meaning he was responsible for more than one-quarter of the Mavs’ possessions. After two seasons playing fifth fiddle for title-contending Golden State, when more than 60 percent of his field goal attempts were either 3s or layups, Barnes had to earn every shot this season as the go-to guy. We got to watch him figure it out for 79 games, and he did a heck of a job doing that. The guy is only 24 years old and he was taking game-winners on a brand-new, injury-ravaged team which, on most nights, started more undrafted players than those who were selected on draft night.

We all need to put his first Mavs season in context. Yes, in the future he ought to shoot more free throws, and hopefully he can turn 21-foot 2-point shots into 24-foot 3-point shots in order to score a little more efficiently. But we’re kind of splitting hairs here: For example, if next season he adds one point to his scoring average and attempts one fewer shot per game — that’s a very realistic possibility if he gets to the free throw line a little more often — he would have finished 37th in points per shot and he’d have had an incredibly efficient season. Heck, even taking one fewer shot while scoring the same points per game would vault him up more than 20 places. The statistical difference between ordinary and extraordinary is so extremely small that to base your entire assessment of a player on one number is kind of silly, especially in this situation. Efficiency is a process.

Barnes embraced what was for him an unprecedented role and performed at a high level for most of the season. With another summer of individual (and team-wide) improvement he could potentially enter the All-Star conversation should his numbers take a small step forward. He’s not far from being one of the top scorers in the NBA at this rate, and he’s come a long, long way in that regard since averaging 11.7 points per game a year ago for the Warriors. There’s so much potential left to tap that it’s hard to believe Barnes has plateaued as a player. This article is about how he’s scaled the mountain to this point, and also imagining what’s still ahead of him.

Shot creation

Barnes’ first responsibility was becoming the endpoint of an offense that for long stretches of the season without a veteran point guard. With Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, and Devin Harris all injured within the first three weeks of the season — and with no Dirk Nowitzki, either — head coach Rick Carlisle shifted the offense toward a more isolation-oriented system built around Barnes, who moved from small forward to power forward and saw a dramatic rise in touches.

It was a welcome challenge for the fifth-year pro, who wrote for Mavs.com in January that although his workload increased significantly from his time with the Warriors, in Dallas he at least knows what he’s going to get heading in to every game.

“Sometimes I would shoot five 3s, sometimes I’d get four post-ups, sometimes all my touches were in transition,” he wrote about his role in Golden State. “It was hard to be consistent that way. But here, I know what plays I’m gonna get, I know what shots I’ll have. It’s a routine now, and now that I have that consistency I can just focus on trying to get better at the things I want to improve on.”

That aside, Barnes’ job was still much more difficult this season. Instead of capitalizing on open 3s and extra space granted to him by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, Barnes assumed an initiator role for the Mavericks, relying almost exclusively on off-the-dribble shooting, post-ups, and isos. Even his catch-and-shoot attempts were less open: Last season, according to Synergy, more than 59 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts were unguarded, but this season that number sank down to 48.5 percent. To his credit, Barnes hit a higher percentage of both guarded and unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers this season than he did last season, jumping 1.7 and 6.4 percent, respectively.

Numbers like that do a much better job of telling you just how different Barnes’ season was, and visualizing just how much more dribbling he did this season tells you a lot, too. More than 64 percent of his field goal attempts followed at least one dribble.

You’ve got to remember Barnes is at the very beginning of this stage of his development. Until this year, he’s never done any of this stuff before. Below is a chart showing how much his workload changed from last season in Golden State to this season in Dallas. The numbers represent the percentage of his possessions by play type. Notice how dramatically his spot-up and transition touches decrease, while his iso touches rise extremely high.

Play Type 2015-16 Volume 2016-17 Volume
Isolation 8.7% 24.5%
Post-Up 12.7% 17.8%
Spot-Up 29.5% 14.8%
Transition 19.1% 5.8%

Isolation is considered a less-efficient means of scoring than operating out of the pick-and-roll, simply because it’s difficult to beat a guy one-on-one and when you clear out an entire side of the floor, it’s likely to inhibit ball movement that could lead to an open shot elsewhere. But because Barnes played so many minutes at the 4 in an offense that targets mismatches, he was able to put the ball on the floor against bigger, slower players and get to the rim at will, especially as the season wore on.

And before the Nerlens Noel trade, while the Mavs were committed to a small-ball lineup with Barnes at 4 and Dirk Nowitzki at 5, Dallas was able to run some creative Barnes/Nowitzki actions to force even more switches. The clip below does a great job of illustrating the difficult choice that demands the defense to make: Dirk sets a pin-down screen for Barnes and then they almost run a pick-and-roll, and by then the defense must switch. Utah’s problem is Derrick Favors is a center, not a modern power forward, and Barnes has a significant quickness advantage against him. The result is an and-1 layup, as he’s strong enough to finish through the contact. The Mavs kept going back to that mismatch all night long Barnes finished with 31 points on 12-of-20 shooting, one of his finest performances of the season.

Barnes scored 0.932 points per possession in isolation, per Synergy Sports, and he used more iso possessions (369) than all but four players in the NBA. Considering the offensive boom the league has enjoyed in recent years, you’d like to see higher than 0.932, but again: This was Barnes’ first season doing this sort of thing, and he still compares favorably in isolation to some of the best players in the league. Kawhi Leonard scored 0.939, for example, and Paul George scored .940. Jimmy Butler, meanwhile, scored just 0.872, and John Wall averaged only 0.807 PPP. All of those players were top-20 in isolation possessions per game, and Barnes was more efficient than several of those high-usage players.

More encouragingly, Barnes increased his isolation PPP by more than 0.1 points per possession this season from last, and he also improved his efficiency in the post. That suggests he’s got the potential to keep improving as he continues to work on those areas of his game.

The key to being a great isolation scorer is developing one or two reliable moves and then complementing them with counter-moves. For example, Barnes typically would catch the ball on the wing and size up his defender before making a move. Occasionally, though, he’d make a quick dribble move to go baseline immediately and attack the basket. That in itself is a counter-move.

Those decisive attacks are particularly important against long wings like Andre Roberson, as those are the guys who tend to give Barnes the most trouble. He was great against bigger and smaller players, but like-sized guys have the length and foot speed to stay in front of him and still contest his shot.

But what happens if he tries to attack yet the wing beats him to the spot? What’s his counter move? Does he have the ball-handling ability and body control to make a move in traffic and still finish? Earlier in the season he tried to beat Luc Richard Mbah Moute off the bounce during the final possession of a game in L.A. Barnes actually lost control of the ball but recovered in time to get up and hit a game-winner. You don’t want to try repeating that. As the season went on, however, he gained better control of the ball and was able to make sharper moves. This sequence, from a game played on March 19, shows how much Barnes improved as a ball-handler and as a patient, scoring-minded player.

He faces up against his defender, the similarly sized Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, before decisively attacking baseline. Hollis-Jefferson beats him to the spot and cuts off his drive, so Barnes responds by spinning middle and rising up for the shot. He then finishes athletically through traffic to put his team up six points with less than 30 seconds to go. That’s a big-time bucket against a really nice defender.

Playmaking vs. Turnovers

The key to Barnes’ game is his ability to avoid turnovers. According to Synergy Sports, of the 166 players who averaged 10+ possessions per game and appeared in at least 10 contests, Barnes finished with the sixth-lowest turnover percentage, giving it away just 6.8 percent of the time. He had a self-admitted ball-handling weakness upon arriving to Dallas, but his daily work with player development coach God Shammgod clearly paid off in that regard. Barnes primarily played one-on-one basketball, so for him to turn it over as rarely as he did is a testament to the work he put in and his basketball IQ. He generally doesn’t make any silly plays with the ball, which is tough to do when you’re the center of the defense’s attention.

That doesn’t mean it was always an easy process. Iso ball is about identifying and getting to your spot. Barnes worked from the elbow or top of the key a majority of the time this season, and one of his favorite moves was taking one or two hard dribbles, then bumping his defender to create some space before stepping back and rising for a 16-footer. A layup is the better shot, of course, but sometimes trying to force something better can actually be a bad thing.

You appreciate Barnes’ patience, because the first shot isn’t always the best shot, but he could have taken that little step-back jumper and gotten it off just fine. Instead, he crossed over again against Solomon Hill in an effort to get into the paint but just couldn’t create any separation, and ultimately he turned it over because he dribbled too much. When a guy is in your face like that, you’ve got to get to your most comfortable spot and take the shot. Don’t over-complicate things, because that’s exactly what the defender wants you to do. (If he wants an even better look, this is where a reliable counter-move would come in handy. For example, Nowitzki is notorious for pump-faking defenders if he can’t create enough separation, and usually he ends up forcing enough contact to earn a whistle.)

That game was played on Dec. 26. By April 2, Barnes was much more comfortable getting to his spot and shooting without thinking. That comfort level is the perfect antidote for an over-aggressive defender, especially one facing a size disadvantage. Barnes takes the time to read the floor then makes a quick 1-2 dribble to get inside the arc, and takes one more hard dribble into Matthew Dellavedova to create some room. At that point it’s church.

In the clip above, Barnes looks so much more comfortable making that move than he did against Hill more than three months earlier. And he should: He developed throughout the year and worked on that exact move every single day for 100 days and eventually got it down to a science. It almost looks like the defender isn’t even there. That’s the mark of a really good one-on-one player. Similarly, Dirk’s been doing it for years.

By now, Barnes can consistently generate good looks for himself, but the next step for him is to create looks for his teammates as well. He turns it over at a historically low level — just 8.8 percent of the time, which would be 14th-best in NBA history if he had enough minutes to qualify (he’s another season or so away) — but he doesn’t record many assists. For as well as he avoided turnovers this season, Barnes still had just a 1.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

As mentioned before, it’s difficult to generate assists when you’re playing a lot of isolation. He’s not a prolific pick-and-roll ball-handler at this point, so that’s an element you’d like to see him add. It’s tough for him to do much of that at the 4 position, though, because there’s only one player, the center, to screen for him. The Mavs like to swing the ball side-to-side and run multiple pick-and-rolls, and usually the 4’s job is to set those screens. Asking only the center to set screens for 30+ minutes a night would be physically taxing and could make the offense a bit too one-dimensional.

As defenses show him more respect, though, Barnes will have an opportunity to move the ball even when trying to play one-on-one. When the Mavs visited San Antonio on Nov. 21, Barnes saw his first double-team in the post. You could tell the experience was new to him.

But by the end of the season, he was more comfortable moving the ball as defenses threw more guys his way.

This doesn’t mean he was perfect — he turned it over against double-teams in April, too — but he took strides forward. As he was presented with new problems, he found ways to solve them.

It’s very difficult to send double-teams against a player working in the middle of the floor, so if defenses are brave enough to do so, Barnes has got to make them pay by accepting those additional defenders and moving the ball to the newly open man.

In those two plays above, he has no intention to shoot the ball when he puts it on the floor. He understands the defense is going to swarm him, but he’s absorbing all of that extra attention in order to create a good look for his teammate. He doesn’t need to hand out five assists per game, but stepping up to 2-3 could really open things up for the rest of the offense and force defenses into tough positions. Do they continue doubling him at the risk of giving up a 3-pointer, or do they let him work on an island and score efficiently one-on-one? It’s a tough choice.

Improving efficiency

While Barnes could stand to become more efficient — and very well could based on natural progression that happens in a player’s mid-20s — he took steps forward in the middle of the season. For example, he shot 35.1 percent from beyond the arc in 2016-17, but just 28.6 percent from 3 in his first 16 appearances. During that time, the Mavericks were without their three best ball-handlers and Dirk Nowitzki. Across his final 63 games, when the team was much healthier, he shot 37.0 percent from deep.

He also attacked the basket more often later in the season. After driving the lane just 3.7 times per game from December through February, Barnes averaged 4.6 drives per game in the month of March, per SportVU. That resulted in an uptick in free throw attempts, as well: From the beginning of the season through Feb. 25, he averaged just 3.3 free throw attempts per game. Between Feb. 27-April 2 he averaged 4.5 per game, according to Basketball-Reference. Interestingly, that corresponded with him playing more minutes at small forward once the team had acquired Nerlens Noel. You would think Barnes would have an easier time attacking the basket at 4 than 3, although he still played plenty of minutes at the bigger forward spot after that deal.

You’re beginning to see the type of player Barnes can become. Next season, if he maintains that 37.0 percent 3-point shooting clip and can get to the free throw line five times per game instead of three, and does everything else the exact same, all of a sudden he’s averaging close to 21 points per game instead of 19.2. Now, let’s say he averages six free throw attempts, or maybe he improves in isolation, and he’s up to 22. And if he takes what Rick Carlisle calls a “quantum leap” and attempts 7-8 free throws and really solidifies that elbow isolation game? At that point he’s one of the premier scorers in the league.

This is only the beginning for Barnes. He’s a good player today, but with plenty of room for improvement. If he can realize that potential, he’s got the chance to be an excellent scorer for many years.