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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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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, currently 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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