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Harrison Barnes could thrive in a smaller but still important role

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Year Three in Dallas for Barnes will be critical as the team looks to make a playoff push

NBA: Dallas Mavericks-Media Day Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When Harrison Barnes signed his four year, $94 million deal with the Dallas Mavericks back in very distant past of 2016, it wasn’t entirely clear what kind of role Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks foresaw for Barnes in Dallas, even if the dollar amount might have suggested something.

Barnes was a pedigreed high school and college scorer, but in the NBA he had been primarily a 4th or 5th option, if perhaps one who occasionally hinted at being capable of more. Barnes joined a Maverick team that retained the top two scorers from the 2014-15 season, and there was reason to think the 24 year old might be somewhat deferential to a largely veteran group led by Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams.

Instead, the bottom fell out of the roster, and suddenly Barnes wasn’t simply the new guy, but the focal point of the offense. To his credit, Harrison has taken that task seriously and has worked extremely hard to justify the Mavericks’ investment in him. Barnes has averaged 19 points a game in each of the last two seasons, with a lot of his offense being generated in isolation situations. Now 26, Barnes may find that last part changes this upcoming season, as the Mavericks have added a second high draft pick in Luka Doncic, as well as another high priced free agent in DeAndre Jordan.

Biggest Question

As I mentioned already, Barnes has got a lot of his looks in isolation plays. 21.9 percent of his plays came in isolation, in fact, which was fifth highest among qualified NBA players last season, behind LeBron James, John Wall, and the Houston Rocket duo of James Harden and Chris Paul.

Part of that is surely by design, as Barnes has always been most comfortable in the sort of mid-range catch-and-hold situations that Dirk dominated in for years with Dallas. Barnes really likes the one or two dribble pull up from 16 feet out to the three-point line, and he’s also worked a lot with assistant coach God Shammgod to improve his ball-handling and footwork, which he’s used to generate more drives to the lane, playing off the threat of the jumper.

The other, perhaps bigger reason Barnes was iso-ing so much, though, is that Mavericks have struggled to put multiple quality play makers on the floor at the same time. Last season, the starting lineup featured a rookie point guard, Barnes, Wes Matthews and Dirk. That left a lot of play making responsibilities up to Barnes, an area that quite simply isn’t a strength for him, and likely never will be. His assist numbers actually rose from the previous year but were still bottom tier for a high-volume wing.

The insertion of Luka Doncic into the starting lineup changes things, or at least it should. Barnes will still get plenty of mid-high post touches, I’m sure, but expect to see him a lot more playing off-ball, spotting up or cutting to the basket. When Wes Matthews talked at media day about expanding his range out to several feet behind the three-point line, he wasn’t just trying to become a better H-O-R-S-E player; the idea is that shooting that far out will pull the defenders even farther from the middle of the floor, giving Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. as much room as possible to operate.

So, just how well will Barnes adjust to a smaller-yet-still-vitally-important role? That answer should go a long way toward dictating what happens once Barnes’ deal runs out, whether that’s next summer (where he can opt out of the final year of his contract) or the following one.

Best Case Scenario

In fairness, Barnes already saw a solid gain in his three-point attempts from his first season in Dallas to his second, as he took fewer of the dreaded “long twos” and more shots from behind the line. If that number grows, and he’s able to shoot a percentage closer to the kind he did his final two seasons in Golden State (when he shot 40 and 38 percent from three), Barnes could see his efficiency jump.

At the other end, Barnes should be a compliment to Doncic, as Barnes can take the tougher match up at forward, whether it requires chasing a quicker player around on the perimeter, or banging down low against a big, which Barnes is surprisingly adept at thanks to a deceptively strong base. With Matthews also in the starting lineup, Dallas should be covered in terms of reducing the defensive workload on Doncic, who has the tools to be successful but as a rookie may have some bumps in the road sticking with NBA quality athletes laterally.

A “best case” season for Barnes would probably see him maintain his 17-18 point per game scoring average, but on fewer attempts, giving him a jump in his true-shooting percentage (he’s been around 54 percent as a Maverick, a middling number you’d probably like to see improve from a guy making $25 million a year). Barnes went from 5.75 2 point attempts for every three-point attempt in 2016-17 to 3.62 2 point attempts for every three-point attempt; ideally, that number would be even smaller, and close to a 2-1 ratio.

If Harrison Barnes can continue to evolve his game to fit as best as possible with the spread pick-and-roll game Rick Carlisle wants, the questions from skeptics about how much the team should commit to him going forward will fade.

Worst Case Scenario

Harrison Barnes is by most accounts a great teammate, a great locker room presence, and a hard worker, but the question he’s yet to answer in Dallas is can he be one of the two or three best players on a legitimate contender? Obviously, as a person, one is hard-pressed to find fault, but his play style on the court is a bit too Andrew Wiggins at times. He can score, but not in an especially efficient way, and if he’s not scoring, it’s not clear how much he really helps teams win games.

He’s not a passing threat — at all — and he’s not quite a good enough rebounder to be a full-time 4, even if this era of small ball. His defense is solid, but the data hardly paints him as a game-wrecker or shutdown guy. There are many, many guys worse than Harrison in the league, to be sure, but as I alluded to already, most of them don’t make max money.

If Barnes can’t thrive as more of a spot-up shooter, and his game doesn’t progress in other areas (and usually after six years in the league there’s a cap on that type of progression), the Dallas Mavericks may have a tough decision ahead of them when the time comes to re-sign him. With young building blocks on the roster, the Mavericks will have to be careful not to tie up too much cap space in players who don’t fit their play-style or timeline for contention.