Top 5 Plays of the Week

Dennis Smith Jr. dazzled in his first week as a pro. Check out which of the rook's highlights made Top 5 Plays of the Week!

Standing at his locker after a game in which he scored a season-high 25 points, Harrison Barnes had no interest in talking about what he did right. He was only focused on what he didn’t do at all.

“It was nice to make some shots,” he said, “but at the same time I didn’t get to the free throw line. There has to be balance.”

Barnes entered Saturday night’s game against Philadelphia shooting just 5 of 23 from beyond the arc. A few days earlier, he would’ve told you it’s something he’s got to work on. But hitting 7 of 12 against the Sixers to lift his season shooting clip to 34.3 percent didn’t represent the solution to a problem. Instead, he turned his attention to the fact that, for the first time all season, he didn’t attempt a free throw.

The six-year pro is beginning only his second season as a primary focal point within an offense. Not only is he learning how to be The Guy, but he’s also playing power forward more often than ever while still getting comfortable playing next to Dirk Nowitzki, who he played with in only 52 games last season. Oh yeah, and he’s the 19-year-old rookie point guard’s security blanket. That’s a lot of responsibility for one player, especially one who still has so far to go in his own development.

I’m just a guy sitting at a desk writing this article, so I’m really in no position to cross-examine a pro basketball player’s personality. It’s tricky to maintain a comfortable distance from the psychology of a perfectionist’s self-assessment, but when talking about Barnes’ development it’s an integral piece to the puzzle. The 25-year-old is up-front about his shortcomings. He’s described his own ball-handling ability as a major weakness — “It’s almost been a label that I’ve carried for years, the fact that I can’t dribble the ball,” he went so far as to say in his diary for — and he’s since moved the goal posts to the 3-point line, the defensive glass, and, most recently, the free throw line.

Highlights: Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes scores 25 points and four rebounds in the Mavericks loss to the Sixers.

Pro athletes aren’t commonly so open about their own weaknesses, which is perfectly fine. It’s uncomfortable to admit you’re not great at something. Barnes is a smart guy, though, so he might be aware of stats like this one: Of the 43 players last season who attempted at least 10 2-point shots per game, only three players attempted fewer free throws per 36 minutes than Barnes. The only player who averaged at least 19 points per game to take fewer free throws per game in 2016-17 was Klay Thompson, who barely ever attacks the basket.

“It was an emphasis for him this summer, something we talked about after the season last year as being an area where he can make real progress because of his improved ability to drive the ball,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “With his mid-range shooting and 3-point shooting as good as it was last year, people were coming out on him, and he’s got to make that vertical attack and make people pay.”

Simply put, Barnes realizes he needs to shoot more free throws, and the best way to do that is to make one move and go.

“Sometimes I feel like we over-pass, we over-think, we try to make too much of the ‘right plays,'” he said. “Sometimes the right play is just being aggressive, whatever your matchup is, whenever you have the ball.”

Part of what made what he said after that Sixers game resonate so much was the fact that Barnes has indeed done a much better job of getting to the basket this season, especially as it relates to drawing fouls. He’s attempted nine-plus free throws in three different games already this season, nearly matching his total of four all of last season. After attempting just 3.2 free throws per 100 possessions in 2015-16, he improved to 5.2 in 2016-17 and was sitting at 7.2 this year as of Monday. That’s real progress in a short period of time.

It’s especially notable this season after a subtle shift this offseason in rule interpretation. Officials are now granting fewer continuation whistles on drives to the basket — a player must already have gathered the ball and be on his way up for the shot in order for the foul to be considered a shooting foul, whereas in the past he only need to establish momentum toward the basket and could still be without complete control of the ball. The goal is to quicken games and reduce the amount of free throws given to players like James Harden, who’s mastered drawing contact well before he rises for the shot. Barnes’ increase in attempts, then, tells you that he’s drawing the right kind of contact.

Barnes Finishes Through Contact

Harrison Barnes drives past his defender and muscles through a jump ball tie up attempt to finish with a floater plus the foul.

“There’s just been a greater emphasis on eliminating the touch fouls,” Carlisle said. “You’re seeing a lot of fouls before the shot, so there aren’t people marching to the free throw line the way they were.

“To average 9 in the first two games, that was a big feat,” he added. “I don’t know if 9 a game is a realistic possibility, but I do know he’s gonna stay aggressive.”

Before you get to the line, though, you’ve got to get the ball. Last season it wasn’t easy for the Mavs to get the ball to Barnes early in the shot clock because for a majority of the time there was only one true ball-handler on the floor. When Dallas would grab a rebound, the player would have to collect the ball, locate the point guard, send him the outlet pass, and lumber down the floor to get into the play. Sometimes that whole process can take 10 or 15 seconds, which gives the defense plenty of time to get set.

This season, however, Carlisle has taken the reins off and is encouraging wings to attack the glass and bring the ball up themselves. That saves the Mavericks a few seconds and allows Barnes to gain a full head of steam heading down the court, where he can attack an unbalanced defense relatively unimpeded.

“With our guards and the ability to push it to Dennis and he can attack … it allows us to get into the offense quicker instead of every time finding the guard, going down, getting into the set offense,” Barnes said. “You lose that kind of momentum from the stop.”

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In 2016-17 Barnes was able to make hay driving the lane against bigger power forwards but sometimes struggled to shake off similarly sized defenders, resulting in dreaded long 2s. A summer’s worth of early-morning ball-handling drills at the practice facility has given Barnes more confidence and competence with his dribble game, though, which has allowed him to beat smaller, quicker guys to the basket — benefiting him not only in transition, but within the halfcourt as well.

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The results are undeniable: Barnes has driven the ball to the rim 7.9 times per game this season, per SportVU, up from 4.0 drives per game in 2016-17. It’s been only seven games, but the early returns are encouraging. It’s also opened up the passing game for him to a degree. He’s currently at 1.9 per game, up from 1.5 last season. He’s had just one dime in his last two games combined, though, which I’m sure he’s aware of.

“If your best player can also be a playmaker, it’s a great advantage,” Carlisle said. “At 4 or at 3, having a guy like him with that kind of strength, first step, long-range shooting ability, mid-range shooting ability, finishing ability at the rim, it just makes him a more potent weapon and it makes him more valuable to our team.”

It’s not easy to score 20 points in an NBA game, and it’s even harder to do it efficiently. Moreover, it’s impossible for a player who didn’t light the league on fire throughout his rookie contract to later on develop into a go-to guy. Barnes has happily accepted that challenge, however, putting in countless hours working on the most fundamental concepts in the game — things like rhythmic dribbling around cones at 6 a.m. and literally shooting layups for 20 minutes after a team practice.

To steal one of his phrases, he’s embarked on a quest to discover his “right play,” and it seems like he’s found it. Now it’s all about doing whatever he can, day after day, to drill into his conscience what he’s got to do in order to make the right play without thinking 25 times per night, no exceptions. It’s great if he hits 3s, but not if he doesn’t shoot a free throw. If he shoots nine of those, it doesn’t mean anything if he doesn’t hand out three assists. He’s his own harshest critic, but he’s approached the impossible mission in front of him with the belief that he can accomplish it.

“As long as I can try to continue to find ways to challenge myself, that will prevent me from plateauing,” he said.

If you watched Barnes play for Golden State and pay attention to his game now, you’ll likely marvel at how far he’s come. But if you ask him about it, he’ll tell you how much further he can still go.

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