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Harrison Barnes has to get to the free throw line more often

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Compared to the best wings in the NBA, Barnes is shooting very few free throws. Why?

Dallas Mavericks v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Harrison Barnes doesn’t shoot enough free throws. That may sound like a relatively minor complaint, but Barnes is struggling so badly to get to the line that it may prevent him from ever truly becoming a star player.

Free-throw rate, one of Dean Oliver’s famed “Four Factors,” is the number of free throw attempts a player earns per field goal attempt. Although Barnes showed promise on this measure as a rookie, his rate has declined most years since. This season, he’s drawing only slightly more fouls than he was at the end of his tenure in Golden State, and it’s a problem Barnes will need to fix if he’s ever going to become an All-Star-caliber player. The best wings in the NBA get between four and five free throw attempts for every ten field goal attempts; Barnes gets just over two.

So why doesn’t Harrison Barnes get to the free-throw line? And what can he do to improve?

Harrison Barnes versus the NBA

The first question you may ask is whether free throws are relevant to a player’s success. In other words, how does free-throw rate compare to a player’s capacity to be the lead scorer on a team?

We looked at a number of wing players whose trajectories Barnes could follow and compared their free-throw rates. The key takeaway? If the player was a successful lead scorer for an offense, his free-throw rate was nearly twice as high as Barnes’ this season.

Two of the most illuminating comparisons are Nicolas Batum and Kawhi Leonard, illustrating two different offensive roles Barnes could evolve into:

Free Throw Rates for Players Comparable to Harrison Barnes (through first five seasons)

Season Nicolas Batum Kawhi Leonard Harrison Barnes
Season Nicolas Batum Kawhi Leonard Harrison Barnes
1 0.144 0.218 0.303
2 0.19 0.24 0.267
3 0.203 0.195 0.229
4 0.248 0.307 0.212
5 0.252 0.306 0.218*
*Current data from basketball-reference, through March 14, 2017

Still other wings who have become lead scorers, including Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap, and Jimmy Butler, have consistently had free-throw rates above .350, with their best seasons above the .400 mark. Kawhi Leonard, on his inexorable march to MVP contention is (not coincidentally) up to a .416 rate this year, the highest of his career.

Why doesn’t Harrison Barnes get to the line?

Ruling out three-pointers

Barnes started out with a promising rate his rookie year, so what happened? To answer that question, we first need to understand where free throws come from. We know that free throws are most likely to be generated on shots at the rim. According to research from 82games that looked at free-throw rates on all areas of the floor, the free-throw rate in the paint is 0.46, far above the NBA average of 0.28 and much higher than any other part of the floor.

So, one immediate thought is that perhaps Barnes has shifted to more three-pointers, resulting in fewer opportunities to draw fouls. But upon further investigation, that relationship is spotty. For example, his three-point attempt rate this season is the lowest of his career, down below one out of every five shots, but his free-throw rate is also quite low. That hypothesis doesn’t really check out!

Looking deeper at shot selection

Heading back to the Synergy drawing board, we noticed a few things about Barnes:

First, Barnes shoots a ton of jumpers and post fade-aways, shots that don’t tend to draw fouls. But, many other players with higher free-throw rates take as high or higher percentages of jump shots and non-drives, so we can’t attribute his lack of free throws to his shot selection alone (Leonard, for example, takes 68 percent of his shots as jumpers compared to Barnes’ 54 percent).

Second, he finishes 25.1 percent of his possessions in isolation, the second highest percentage in the league, behind only Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers (he also has the lowest free throw rate on those possessions of anyone in the top 10).

Looking at these facts in combination yields something interesting: compared to other players, Barnes is taking a lot of jump shots out of isolation in plays where the defense is set.

Why does that matter? Because fouls occur when defenders are out of position, and defenders get out of position when you force them to react to motion on multiple fronts, to navigate screens, and to help from one side to another. When Dallas gets Barnes open, he often holds the ball to survey the floor after catching.

Look for the difference in how long he waits to attack on these two plays. One leads to free throws, and one leads to nothing.

Seeking contact

Another theory is that Barnes doesn’t have the instinct to seek contact that many stars have developed. He is often heralded for his even-keeled stoicism, but does that consistency mean he lacks the fire or drive to attack and draw fouls?

He certainly has a ferocious ability to attack the rim when he wants to, but why does it appear so rarely? Watch below as he goes on the catch so the defense isn’t set, drives past Taj Gibson, but then does everything in his power to avoid contact with Steven Adams instead of getting to the rim.

This is the type of play Barnes has to finish at the rim, with contact. Barnes has been learning and growing a ton in his first season with the Mavericks. If he’s going to be the type of player who makes an All-NBA team, he’ll need to spend more time at the free-throw line. Only time will tell if he can learn how to get there.