NBA Saturday: Harrison Barnes Stepping Up To The Challenge

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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.