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The one thing that could make Harrison Barnes a playmaker

Rick Carlisle thinks he just needs more opportunities, but Barnes thinks the answer lies in his rebounding.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

When Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones introduced Michael Irvin during Irvin’s Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, Jones said this about The Playmaker:

“Troy Aikman often said the greatest thing about Michael Irvin is you could throw him the ball when he was covered or you could throw him the ball when it was open, and the results were usually the same almost all the time. It was either a completion and most of the time it was for a first down.

Now, when you've got a quarterback that has that kind of confidence in your receiver, you can have some offense. That's how you earn the name Playmaker, and that's how you keep it.”

A playmaker is exactly what Mavericks need from Harrison Barnes this season, but questions remain as to whether Barnes can learn to channel his inner Michael Irvin. Will he be able to transform himself into a playmaker this season?

His ability to make the leap in another area of his game offers some hope. Last year, Harrison Barnes was tasked with being a number one option on the Dallas Mavericks, and with that came an offensive weight he had never carried before. In preparation for that assignment, he worked all summer on one much maligned aspect of his game: ball handling.

The work paid off. Eighty-four players averaged at least 30 minutes per game last season, and Barnes ranked 82nd in turnover percentage among those players. He also ranked highly among the best isolation players in the game. A high efficiency in isolation and a low turnover rate with a sizable usage percentage is the very definition of a player who handles the ball well.

Unfortunately, the counting stats paint a less optimistic picture when it comes to improvements in his playmaking. Barnes has never averaged more than 1.8 assists per game. Even with a bigger work load last season (almost five minutes more per game and a usage percentage that was 10 points higher than the previous season), Barnes only averaged 1.5 assists. In fact, he was the only player in the NBA to average 35 minutes per game or more and average less than two assists per game last year.

Assists aren’t everything, though. There are also potential assist stats that give credit to a player that makes a pass to a shooter who misses an otherwise assist-granting shot and secondary assists (so-called “hockey assists”) that credit the player who executes the pass before a player assists on a made basket.

Unfortunately, those numbers aren’t great, either. Barnes averaged 3.7 potential assists last year. To put that number in perspective, James Harden and Russell Westbrook averaged 21 and 19 potential assists per game, respectively. Barnes totaled 24 secondary assists over the entire 82-game season last year, a number that is basically inconsequential.

So what can Barnes do?

During his media day presser, Rick Carlisle listed the assortment of playmakers Dallas employs, and he finished his list by adding, “Barnes proved last year that he’s a playmaker.”

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Carlisle thinks he just needs more opportunities, so the coach has given his guards a mandate to find Barnes in transition:

“We’re encouraging [Barnes] to be a ball handler in transition. We’ve told our guards basically that if he’s in the middle—hit him. Even at the 3 or 4 position he can handle and make plays. That’s a good situation for him to attack, possibly get to the free-throw line a little more than last year.”

But playmaking isn’t exactly like shooting free throws. An empty gym, a ball, and 10,000 shots isn’t going to make him a better playmaker. Instead, the strategy is to focus on tangible skills, then build on those skills with education:

“The tangible skill to improve upon would be ball handling, just to be able to play out of the pick and roll and see different things like that.” Barnes explained. “But, it also comes down to film work. Seeing different angles, seeing when I’m driving ‘could I pass here, could I pass there?’ And, obviously a lot of talking with Coach Carlisle. ‘What actions I’m going to be in?’ Let me drill those every day so I get it comfortable with them, ‘okay, now I get it.’ I know when we’re playing pick up to do these things and then I can go from there.”

Ball handling, film work, drills, practice. It sounds doable for Harrison Barnes, a known grinder and a gym rat, but he believes the real key to unlocking his inner Michael Irvin lies elsewhere. As Barnes put it on a recent episode of the Locked On Mavericks podcast:

“I think for me it’s going to start with rebounding, the ability to get the ball up—to push it in transition. That’s going to create more opportunities to play-make in transition. I think that’s going to increase my ability to get to the free-throw line. I think it’s going to increase my chance to get easy buckets as well, potentially even transition threes. I think all of the criticisms can one way or another be linked to rebounding. I think that rebounding is the one thing that can be controlled via effort, via position. You don’t even have to have the ball in order to get the rebound. You just have to worry about everything else until the shot goes up. Those are things I can focus on.”

So can rebounding actually unlock everything that his game lacked last year? It seems too good to be true, but his points are valid.

Barnes was sorely lacking in free-throw attempts, three-point attempts, and assists last season. Driving into the paint in transition is another opportunity to get fouled and go to the free-throw line. Catching the defense off guard after a missed shot can lead to transition threes. And he’s right that it’s all controlled by effort.

Harrison Barnes is learning that at a certain level in an NBA player’s career, the player controls his own destiny. Barnes conquered the half-court and isolation game (to a degree) last year. This is just the next step.