Monday night in San Antonio, the heavily shorthanded Mavericks set a franchise record by starting four undrafted players. Of the 10 available to head coach Rick Carlisle, six were not selected in the NBA Draft, and two more were taken in the second round.
You wouldn’t think, then, that the Mavs’ most heavily scrutinized player would be the one drafted highest of them all, No. 7 in 2012. But that’s been the way things have gone for Harrison Barnes. In a summer full of extraordinary spending, his contract was considered by Sports Illustrated to be one of the worst signed in the offseason by any team. His four-year, $94 million deal with the Mavericks has been named by Fox Sports as the second-worst in the NBA.
“You won’t fool me with a handful of 30-point games, Mr. Barnes,” the author offers.
Barnes’ success, unforeseen by many, has been met with similar skepticism across the league. The media went from destroying the deal to now not believing it’s something he can sustain. Many fans, on the other hand, probably still refuse to believe Barnes is worth the deal, asking not if a stat line of 21.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game can get better, but believing it ought to. Either attitude is unpleasant to adopt and, if Barnes has his way, both will likely prove to be wrong.
Independent from who he is, where he came from, and his role on the best regular season team in NBA history, Barnes is a young former supporting player growing into a significant role with a new team. This isn’t a completely unheard-of development in NBA history, despite what social media might have you believe. Purely from a basketball standpoint, the 6-foot-8 wing has been a resounding success in Dallas through 13 games. More than 300 regular season games remain on his contract, however, so there’s still plenty of work to be done.
This is the story of what he’s done to succeed so far in Dallas and how he can continue to take his game to new heights.
Reporters gather around Carlisle on a Tuesday afternoon, asking questions about Dirk Nowitzki’s Achilles, Andrew Bogut’s status for the next game, and how the Mavs can turn their record around. In the background you can hear a thud, thud, thud.
Twenty, 30 minutes after practice is over, Harrison Barnes is still on the floor, working with player development coach God Shammgod on his ball-handling. He dribbles through cones with the ball never getting higher than just a couple inches off the ground. Then he dribble-drives to the rim, absorbing contact from Shammgod and finishing through the contact. He then repeats.
“There’s a difference between work and accomplishment,” he tells Mavs.com. Every drill he does is designed to improve one facet of his game or another, whether it’s driving to the basket, tightening his crossover, or ironing out his jump shot. In other words, he’s not sweating and staying late just to send a message to his teammates. He wants to get better.
“There’s always a ball-handling segment in there because that was a big weakness of mine, coming (to Dallas),” he tells Mavs.com. “It’s almost been a label that I’ve carried for years, the fact that I can’t dribble the ball.”
Wait a minute: An athlete who cashes million-dollar checks and has both a championship ring and an Olympic gold medal will admit he has a weakness? Who is this guy?
Humility is an increasingly rare commodity in the world of professional sports these days, but Barnes is not among those who believe they are impervious to struggles. He’ll admit that his 35.2 percent shooting performance in the 2016 NBA Finals wasn’t near his standard. He’ll also admit it was awkward to play on the same Olympic team with Kyrie Irving, who hit what would be the game-winning shot in Game 7, and Kevin Durant, the player who replaced him in Golden State.
By then, Barnes had already signed with the Mavericks, and even more criticism was flowing in. One article’s headline: “Is Harrison Barnes the Worst Pro Basketball Olympian of All-Time?” New York Knicks backup point guard Brandon Jennings, who’s averaged 6.7 points per game this season after recovering from an Achilles injury two seasons ago, poked fun at Barnes’ lack of playing time in Rio. But none of that noise seemed to find its way to Barnes.
“It was just great to just be playing basketball in a different country, away from everything, and just kind of focusing on that,” he tells Mavs.com. Shortly after Rio, he proposed to his now-fiancée and moved to Dallas.
Even signing with the Mavericks proved to be more difficult than Barnes had hoped it would be. At the beginning of free agency, Barnes says he and his agent reached out to the Mavericks in an effort to set up a meeting. But at the time Dallas was pursuing other players on the market and wasn’t showing a high level of interest. “And I’m thinking, ‘This is just a great start for me,'” Barnes says. Soon after, however, the Mavericks reached out once again and the two sides quickly struck a deal.
Circling back to the start here, Barnes’ deal was met with a certain level of skepticism, which is fair. He never averaged more than 11.7 points per game in four seasons with the Warriors, which made the Mavs’ max contract offer a bit of a gamble, at least in terms of past production. Dallas was betting big that Barnes would flourish in a larger role. His talent, however, was never in question, according to Mavs owner Mark Cuban.
“The only question was: Was he willing to take a team and lead it, take on that responsibility?” he tells me. “That was the question. It wasn’t skill, it wasn’t athleticism, it wasn’t the ability to shoot. It was really just: Could he lead? And we’re starting to see that.”
Is there any way to know if a player has that quality before he plays for your team?
“It’s not something you can know about a guy before you have him,” Cuban responds. “You have to see him every day to really gain an understanding of his psyche, what makes him tick, and the effect he has on his teammates.”
So it was a pretty big gamble, then.
“There’s risk involved, but like you hear me say a lot, it’s a calculated risk. You’ve got to spend the money somewhere. And having three guys for $7 million isn’t gonna put you over the top.”
Carlisle has spent more time with Barnes than anyone, and after a couple months working together, he’s confirmed what he’d suspected about Barnes all along.
“I expected him to be like he is: a great worker, a guy that really wants to get better, and guy who if put in a position where he could be taught certain things, could be a guy that could become a dependable producer,” Carlisle told Matt Mosley and me on the Post Up podcast.
How much evidence was on hand to suggest Barnes could thrive in more of a go-to role for the Mavericks? Or was there any? Given his limited role, especially in his last two seasons in Oakland, the Mavs had to search for examples of what Barnes could achieve as a central figure in the offense.
The first example Cuban cites is Barnes’ strong performance in the Warriors’ second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 playoffs. In Games 4 and 5 of that series, Barnes averaged 25.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on 43.2 percent shooting from the field and 50.0 percent from deep. He reached the free throw line 11 times.
You can see in the video above some of the elements of Barnes’ game that he’s starting to flaunt more and more in Dallas. He was able to drive around bigger players, attack smaller mismatches in the post, and his athletic superiority gave him a distinct advantage over most rim protectors when attacking the basket.
One might think it’s a stretch to use a player’s rookie season as an example of why he could become a dominant go-to player, but it’s important to remember that Barnes’ situation in Golden State was completely unique. When Steve Kerr took over as head coach for Mark Jackson following the 2013-14 season, he totally revamped the Warriors’ offense, shifting toward a free-flowing, fast-paced style that favored ball movement and constant motion and highlighting the team’s unrivaled 3-point shooting ability. That philosophical shift didn’t favor Barnes’ game, which at this point is much more of a slow-down, patient style. He had the ball in his hands less and drove to the basket much less often when Kerr took over in 2014-15.
And a much higher percentage of his shots came without taking a single dribble. For each of the last two seasons, roughly 60 percent of Barnes’ field goal attempts were essentially of the catch-and-shoot variety, and he rarely if ever had the time or freedom to create his own shot. This season in Dallas, however, about 65 percent of his attempts have come after taking at least one bounce of the ball, and almost 30 percent have come after taking at least three dribbles.
What’s most impressive is he’s doing all of this ball-handling and creating without turning the ball over. Of the 49 qualified players with a usage rate of 25 percent or higher — usage rate calculates the volume of possessions a player “used” while on the floor — Barnes’ 7.2 turnover percentage is the lowest in the NBA, as he gives the ball away just 7.2 times per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference. Sure, many of his attempts are coming from the mid-range and not in situations where turnovers are naturally more likely to occur, but the same could be said of players like Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, DeMar DeRozan, and other stars. They all turn the ball over more often than Barnes.
The Mavs’ young rising star shares that quality in common with Dirk Nowitzki, who for years has been one of the least turnover-prone players in basketball, despite constantly facing double-teams or extra defensive attention, particularly in the post and late in games. Barnes says he’s talked with the German legend about numerous basketball-related topics but doesn’t disclose any specifics. As the 24-year-old faces more attention more often, though, it’s safe to assume he’ll rely on Nowitzki for tips and tricks for avoiding catastrophic giveaways. It’s a learning process, to be sure.
The biggest story about Barnes’ performance this season isn’t so much about his production as much as it is about his efficiency. He’s already had more 20-point games this season (seven) than he’s had any other year of his career, and his streak of 13 consecutive games in double-figures is the longest of his career as well. But any NBA player can score in bunches if he’s getting two dozen shots per game. Barnes is doing it efficiently, as well.
He’s scoring a career-best 1.108 points per post-up possession, according to Synergy Sports, and his 1.023 PPP rate in isolation ranks toward the very top of the league among the high-volume one-on-one players, company that includes Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul, among others. His efficiency in isolation is particularly notable because, in the last two seasons, just about 8.5 percent of his total possessions have come in isolation, per Synergy. The season he scored a career-best 1.062 PPP in iso, just 8.1 percent of his possessions came in those situations.
That’s a stark contrast from what is normally expected of players transitioning from a fourth or fifth option to an alpha dog in the offense. Typically efficiency will drop off, even slightly, as usage takes such a leap. That hasn’t been the case so far.
He was never a featured player with the Warriors, and he very well never might have been, had he re-signed there. An overwhelming majority of his possessions in Golden State came either as a spot-up shooter or in transition. With Dallas, however, he’s getting the ball in spots he’s comfortable, and he’s getting it much more often.
“It’s a totally different thought process, as opposed to coming into a game and saying I’m gonna get seven, eight shots,” Barnes said on the Post Up podcast. “Three or four of them are gonna be corner 3s. There’s not really any decision-making involved. It’s just catch-and-shoot, and a couple transition dunks.”
Nowitzki missing so much time with a sore Achilles has heaped even more responsibility on Barnes’ shoulders, but he doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, unexpectedly playing so much without the German might have kicked his development into high-gear.
“It’s definitely fast-forwarded my development,” Barnes said on the podcast. “At the beginning of the season, the biggest thing coach was telling me was, ’41’s gonna take a lot of pressure off you. Just go out there, relax, and be yourself.’ And then he’s not out there anymore.”
No Dirk means more fourth-quarter touches for Barnes, and to this point he’s produced in those situations, averaging 5.4 points in 7.7 fourth-quarter minutes per game this season, per NBA.com, including shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 60.0 percent from the 3-point line. In final frame, his usage rate climbs to 28.8 percent. That’s a far-cry from his involvement last season, when he averaged just 2.9 field goal attempts and 3.6 points per fourth quarter, and nearly half his total attempts in the final frame were catch-and-shoot 3s.
While the rest of the basketball world might be shocked to see Barnes’ numbers, and many were certainly wrong about his Dallas tenure, even just 13 games in, it doesn’t seem like anyone in the Mavs facility is in disbelief. It actually feels like business as usual, almost as if this was the plan the whole time.
“I’m not surprised. I know a lot of people are. I’m just not,” Carlisle said on the podcast. “From afar, I saw a guy that was very professional, who was a hard worker, and his reputation is one that he’s a guy that wants to be the best possible player, and he lives in the gym. He’s done all those things.”
Barnes has certainly made significant contributions to the Mavs in terms of quality and production. But perhaps the biggest thing the organization has given him is the green light. Barnes has license to do what he wants, because he’s already shown he has the maturity to handle that responsibility.
His coaches have confidence in him. So does the owner, and so do his teammates. And, clearly, Barnes has confidence in himself, and that remained true even as he suffered through a poor preseason, averaging 6.9 points on just 26.7 percent shooting from the field. That was when the noise was the loudest.
But there was never any doubt that he’d be the starter, or that he’d play major minutes, or that his number might be called in a big moment. On opening night, Barnes hit a game-tying shot late in regulation in Indiana, symbolically putting to rest any notion that maybe this thing won’t work out. One game later he had a career scoring night. The rest has been history, but with hopefully much more to come.
“During the preseason when I wasn’t playing well and I couldn’t throw it in the ocean, I just kept telling myself to keep working because everything will come around full-circle. Things have so far,” Barnes tells Mavs.com. “All the panic and all the worrying about making open shots, and is it a mental thing, is out the window. I’m glad to move on from that, just be free, and just play basketball.”