Harrison Barnes must answer three key questions if he's going to reach his All-Star potential.
The biggest news of the Mavericks offseason was their free agent signing of Harrison Barnes, who was replaced by Kevin Durant on the Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors.
He will be the key for Mavericks lineups that go big (Andrew Bogut-Dirk Nowitzki-Barnes frontcourt) and lineups that go small (Justin Anderson-Barnes-Dirk frontcourt). He can be the swingman through whom the second team offense flows, and he can be the lynchpin of a staunch defensive unit alongside Bogut, a developing Anderson, and the recovered Wes Matthews.
With the potential to do all of these things, why has the signing been so scrutinized?
Barnes is mostly potential. He has all these tools, all these possibilities, but was oft-maligned in the Bay Area because he never quite fully tapped into the potential that made him the #1 recruit in his class (ahead of Kyrie Irving and others) coming out of high school. He’s got some positive NBA comparables as well, most notably Nicolas Batum and Hedo Turkoglu. Each of those swingmen has early success—like Barnes, who made the all-rookie team and improved his second year in a larger role—but then got lost, behind other players and smaller roles. Each of them ended up on a new team a few years into their career, and we saw what happened. Batum was part of an incredible Charlotte season and earned a massive contract, and Turkoglu became one of the most important pieces of a perennial contender and eventual Eastern Conference champion.
Dallas obviously has a lot else to take care of, but it’s tough to find stars in the NBA. You need a high draft pick, a huge free agent, or an underrated free agent or trade acquisition. Barnes could be in that final category. Here are the three key questions that Barnes must answer this year to determine whether or not he can capitalize on his all-star tools and turn them into all-star play.
Can Barnes be a successful secondary creator as the pick and roll ballhandler, and maintain scoring efficiency without Golden State’s perfect spacing?
Although he was often criticized as “just” a spot up shooter. Aside from the fact that spot up shooting is one of the currently highest valued and most sought-after skills in the NBA, Barnes was more than that. He was in the 80th percentile of the NBA on spot-ups, which includes both shots and drives at a defender closing out.1 Per Synergy, Barnes spotted up roughly 30% of the time. With the rest of his possessions, he was, among other things, an excellent scorer in the pick and roll. He was in the 89th percentile of pick and roll scoring at 0.94 points per possession.
Those pick and rolls made up just under 5% of his usage. If Barnes is going to maximize his potential, he has to be able to score in the pick and roll at a similar level on a much higher usage. Additionally, he was not an additive passer. Running the pick and roll more often, Barnes will need to continue finishing plays at a high clip and start opening up scoring opportunities for others with developing vision. If he can continue his history of decreasing turnovers while making more passes, he could unlock a whole new avenue of opportunities.
Can Barnes punish opposing teams, especially second units, in the post?
The Mavericks have had a great bench in recent years, but trades and free agent misses have depleted their reserves. No longer are Vince Carter, Brandan Wright, Al-Farouq Aminu and others waiting in the wings with J.J. Barea and the ever-fragile Devin Harris. Barnes will have to be the staggered starter, perhaps with Anderon and/or Matthews, if the second unit is going to stay afloat on offense when Dirk is out. A large part of this will be whether Barnes answers the first question, but more important with second units will be his ability to post up. He was 70th percentile in post-up efficiency at 0.91 points per possession last season, but he had the luxury of picking only the best spots.
Second units are often less coordinated defensively and are (obviously) less talented than starter-loaded units. Against these players, post ups can be much more effective (see Al Jefferson in Charlotte). If Barnes can develop a keen passing eye and punish mismatches relentlessly, he may just be enough to keep the Dallas bench near the top of the league.
Can Barnes learn to close out effectively and join the NBA’s top tier of wing defenders?
Barnes has incredible defensive tools. He’s got length, vertical, quickness, speed—every form of athleticism you want in a defender. He’s stout against post ups and defending the pick and roll, as Synergy shows he was in the 89th percentile of defensive efficiency in both categories. He gives up no ground at all when bigger opponents, such as LaMarcus Aldridge or Zach Randolph at various points last year, try to put him on the block. He can stay right in a ballhandler’s hip pocket and get over screens with grace and speed, bothering shots, clogging lanes, and tipping passes.
His one issue?
He struggles mightily to close out on shooters when he helps and recovers. He finished in only the 14th percentile of defensive efficiency, also per Synergy, when he was defending a player who spotted up. He constantly closed out too fast, didn’t chop his steps, and got driven right to the basket by whichever player caught the ball with an advantage. If Barnes can develop in this area, he could eventually take the top scoring threat on opposing teams night in and night out.
Harrison Barnes is going to be good. He’s the type of guy who could be able to handle 35 minutes a night and bridge the gaps between Dirk’s early substitution and return, unlock efficient offensive lineups, and hold down monster defensive lineups. He can be a key to closing games on both ends of the floor for Dallas, and I won’t be surprised if he makes an all-star team by the end of this contract. He’s not nearly the offensive player James Harden is, but he could experience a similar level of acclaim as he takes on a larger role with a new team.