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NBA Saturday: Harrison Barnes Stepping Up To The Challenge

Harrison Barnes is proving his critics wrong and is justifying the investment Dallas made in him last offseason.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Dallas Mavericks have been decimated by injuries this season and currently have the worst record in the NBA. It’s been a rough campaign for a franchise that has made the playoffs 15 times in the last 16 seasons.

Though we haven’t even reached December yet, it looks as though this will be a lost season for the Mavericks. However, among the disappointment of not having Dirk Nowitzki, Deron Williams, Devin Harris or J.J. Barea healthy, there has been one glowing positive development for the Mavericks this season – the development of Harrison Barnes.

The Mavericks signed Barnes to a four-year, $94.4 million contract this offseason banking on the idea that he could develop into a go-to scoring option and a building block in Dallas. There was a lot of skepticism and second-guessing from people in and around the NBA in response to the size of the contract and it’s not hard to understand why.

Barnes was drafted seventh overall in the 2012 NBA Draft and was expected to be a very versatile small forward who would quickly make an impact on both ends of the court. However, Barnes ended up as one of many pieces for a loaded Golden State Warriors team. His role was mostly limited to playing off the ball, setting screens for others, standing in the corner for spot-up three-point attempts, or cutting to the basket as a secondary action to a set play for someone else. Playing for such a deep team, Barnes has been limited in what he could contribute on both ends of the court. That isn’t the case anymore.

“This is what every player wants and dreams of, being in that position where you get that responsibility and you have a chance to grow every single night,” Barnes told ESPN on Monday after losing to the San Antonio Spurs.

Last season, Barnes was a fourth, maybe even fifth option for a historically-great Warriors squad. Now, Barnes is one of just a handful of players who were drafted in the first round or have ever been rotational players for a competitive NBA team. While Barnes surely would prefer to be winning consistently, it’s clear that he still finds value in competing each night and working on his own development.

“In any adversity, there is opportunity,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said recently. “That is one of the opportunities he has here: to really experience this at its most difficult, without the key personnel, without the great shooting [around him], and to be able to produce and be a leader at that position and to continue to get better.”

The biggest omission from the Mavericks’ lineup has been Nowitzki. Dallas’ plan was to bring in Barnes and allow him to adapt to an increased role over time while Nowitzki got closer and closer to retirement. An Achilles injury has kept that plan from being enacted for the most part this season, which means Barnes has had to take on a bigger workload than anticipated. Fortunately for the Mavericks, Barnes views this as more of an opportunity than an obstacle or bump in the road.

“It’s definitely fast-forwarded my development,” Barnes said on The Post Up podcast recently. “At the beginning of the season, the biggest thing coach was telling me was, [Dirk is] gonna take a lot of pressure off you. Just go out there, relax, and be yourself.’ And then he’s not out there anymore.”

With so many players sidelined by injuries, including Nowitzki, Barnes is averaging 20.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and one assist per game, while shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 28.9 percent from distance. While Barnes’ scoring and rebounding is up, he is averaging a career-low in assists and his three-point shooting is well below his 37.1 percent career average. However, those numbers will likely regress closer to Barnes’ career averages once he is playing alongside more NBA talent. For now, Dallas should simply be happy to know that the young small forward they invested nearly $100 million in looks confident, aggressive and happy to be the go-to-guy for the first time in his NBA career.

“I love the approach,” Carlisle said in regards to how much the Mavericks are relying on Barnes to create offense in late-game situations. “He wanted the ball, and this kind of experience is invaluable for a guy like that.

“It’s not easy,” Carlisle said. “He’s embraced the opportunity. We talked about this going back to early July when we signed him, that there were going to be situations like this in this new situation for him where the load was going to be heavier and he should look forward to it and prepare for it. And he has, and he’s done well with it so far.”

Another thing Dallas should be happy about is the fact that Barnes seems to have a grounded perspective on his development. He was a highly touted prospect coming out of college, yet his relatively slow start in the NBA reinforced the idea that he has to keep working hard on his game to get to where he wants to go. Reports suggest that Barnes works extremely hard on his game and is often times the last person on the court after practices and shootarounds. He is also working on his ball-handling skills, which has always been a weaker part of his overall game. The hope is that Barnes can improve in the weaker parts of his game so that he can keep taking positive steps forward and become the player Dallas envisioned when they signed him last offseason.

“At the beginning of the season, it was: Can you score consistently? Can you knock down an open shot?” Barnes said. “I think we’ve moved much more beyond that. It’s great. You have a better appreciation for the superstars in this league who you’ve seen do it every single night at a high level, deep into the playoffs, winning championships. You have a different appreciation for it now being on this side, kind of learning from the ground up.”

Barnes still has a long way to go in his development. While he has been one of the better isolation scorers in the league this season, he needs to work on his ability to be a facilitator with the ball in his hands. He also needs to improve his three-point accuracy so that defenses will play him closely out to the three-point line, which will allow him to utilize his improving ball-handling skills to attack the basket. If all of those things come together, Barnes could turn himself into a top-level isolation scorer like DeMar DeRozan, but with three-point range and a more consistent defensive-impact. That would be a valuable addition for the Mavericks and would more than justify the large investment they made in Barnes this offseason.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs

The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.

Joel Brigham

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Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.

Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.

“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”

Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”

Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”

That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.

“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”

In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.

“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”

That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.

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