No one doubts that Harrison Barnes is a quality starting forward in the NBA, but a $94 million contract brings expectations that exceed that. The question that will follow him for the next four years is whether he’ll be able to live up to expectations that price tag brings. There’s a reason this play stood out so much from the Mavericks’ preseason opener last Saturday against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Let’s talk about it.
1. I’ve watched Barnes a good deal in his four years with the Warriors and this was a move I’m not sure I’ve ever seen. His defender overplayed the screen, and there was never a moment of hesitation for Barnes after that on the around-the-back dribble or the confident pull-up three that he buried.
2. We can agree that in Golden State, Barnes didn’t shoot these shots, but he also didn’t need to shoot them. His first couple years under Mark Jackson, it happened here and there, where Barnes would initiate pick-and-rolls or play isolation. By the time Steve Kerr came along, Stephen Curry became Steph and the Warriors decided to win 140 regular season games in two seasons, Barnes was relegated to a pure role player.
It’s a bit dishonest to say the only reason Barnes didn’t shoot these shots was because of the wealth of talent around him, though. He wasn’t an efficient isolation player, and he wasn’t good with the ball in his hands, which played directly into him being discouraged from doing either. Or is it possible it was the other way around, an ultimate chicken-or-the-egg debate? That’s what the Mavericks are here to find out.
3. Making a single shot in preseason, especially when he followed it up with a 1-of-10 shooting performance in the team’s second game on Monday, doesn’t mean jack. This type of move also might not ever appear for Barnes again all season. Stephen Curry has moves he’ll practice all offseason and never use in a game because he’s not 100 percent comfortable with them. Dirk Nowitzki has worked on a hook shot for years, and we see it twice a season if we’re lucky. This is a little bit different — an around-the-back dribble into a pull-up three is a lot simpler than the stuff Curry’s trainer is talking about in that link. But preseason is the time to try stuff out and that’s what Barnes was doing.
4. I liked what MMB’s own Austin Ngaruiya said about Barnes on Monday.
barnes is the only player i've ever categorized as smart, but not instinctive.— Austin (@garooya) October 4, 2016
The thing preventing Barnes from being a player who could average 20 points is that everything he does is mechanical. If a defender is closing on him, he can take a dribble to the right and hit a pull-up jumper confidently. But you’re not confident that if the defense doesn’t rotate right, and there’s a path to the lane, that Barnes will easily adjust out of that pull-up jumper and take two more dribbles for a dunk. He has the pull-up jumper planned out, and he hasn’t shown the instincts to change his plans in a split second. It’s not because he isn’t smart — he’s incredibly intelligent both in general and about basketball. But the great scorers have that instinct, and Barnes hasn’t shown it.
5. That said, the around-the-back dribble was instinctive. Barnes is planning to use the screen, and when the defender jumps over it early, him pulling the ball back around happens with a split second decision. That’s really cool to see, along with the confident stroke immediately after.
6. What if Barnes’ biggest problems in Golden State was psychological? It’s stupid to compare NBA players to myself, but I’m going to do it anyway. The same thing happens for me in pick-up games — my offensive game when there’s two or three players clearly better than me on my team (so, like, 90 percent of the time) vs. when no one else on my team is a scorer is dramatically different. How could it not be? Maybe Rick Carlisle’s coaching and Mark Cuban’s support helps Barnes fall back into his instincts more and feel confident taking more difficult shots that he’s able to make, but hasn’t felt comfortable taking.
Psychology doesn’t suddenly turn Barnes into Michael Jordan, but there’s surely some level of his game held back because of his situation in Golden State. The question is how much.
7. This is one play in preseason for a game that wasn’t even televised. It’s illustrative of Harrison Barnes’ biggest question as a Maverick. It doesn’t really mean anything in itself, despite me writing nearly 800 words on it. Sorry about that. Keep an eye out for moves like this from Barnes in the coming months, successful or not, and that will determine if he could ever be more than a very serviceable starting forward.