Harrison Barnes has been a completely different player with the Dallas Mavericks. Once used primarily as a spot-up shooter in Golden State, he has gone from having his hands on 16.3 percent of his team’s offensive possessions to Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony levels at 26.3 percent. He has even adjusted well to his new role as a go-to scorer in Dallas with averages of 21.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game on 46.3 percent shooting from the field.
Few thought Barnes was ever capable of carrying this sort of workload at any point of his career. Not only did he struggle to make open shots in the NBA Finals when the Golden State Warriors needed him most, we’re talking about someone who has gone from being assisted on over 70 percent of his baskets to now being one of the league leaders in isolation plays.
Some of his success screams small sample size — it’s hard to believe Barnes is actually a better isolation scorer than James Harden — but Rick Carlisle has found the perfect way to maximize his strengths by basically making him a Dirk Nowitzki clone.
To be clear, it’s less about Carlisle trying to turn Barnes into the second coming of Nowitzki and more about using him in a similar role on offense. For example, sets like “Flex Thunder” that the Mavericks tend to run for Nowitzki…
…are now being reserved for Barnes, who has gone from being used mainly as a small forward in Golden State to being almost a full-time power forward in Nowitzki’s absence.
Here’s another example, with a guard setting a baseline screen on Nowitzki for a quick post-up…
…becoming one of the primary ways Carlisle isolates Barnes close to the basket.
The way Nowitzki and Barnes capitalize on those opportunities is obviously different, but the sets at least put them in the same scoring positions. There are even some similarities in how they go about scoring with both being good mid-range shooters who have a size advantage over most defenders they matchup with. Nowitzki is more of a unicorn as a 7-footer with the ability to shoot fadeaways and step out to the 3-point line, but Barnes is just as comfortable facing-up to the basket and shooting over most small forwards and power forwards.
Watch Barnes rise up over the 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis from just inside the 3-point line. Barnes doesn’t hesitate, either, which forces opponents to guard him a little closer than they have grown accustomed to in years past.
While we didn’t see Barnes isolate much from inside the 3-point line as a member of the Warriors, he has made 42.3 of those looks in his NBA career on a decent sample size. The ability to knock down 16-footers opens up a lot for him in the half court because teams have to respect him from that distance. That makes them susceptible to pump fakes and opens the door for dribble drives or pull-ups when the defense least expects it.
Barnes is a very capable pull-up shooter, too. He converted 43.8 percent (60-137) of his pull-up attempts last season, which put him at the same level as traditional shooters such as J.J. Redick, Kyrie Irving and Ryan Anderson, albeit on a smaller sample size. When defenders do close out on him aggressively, he’s shown a knack for putting the ball on the floor and stopping on a dime for a jumper.
Once again, his height advantage as a 6-foot-8 forward allows Barnes to comfortably shoot over most wings.
The other way the Mavericks use Barnes like Nowitzki is by putting him in the pick-and-roll. Because Nowitzki is one of the most efficient post scorers in NBA history — he ranked in the 89.7 percentile last season with 1.02 points per possession — the Mavericks often have him pop as a way to force the defense to switch. From there, he can take them to the block and simply shoot over his opponent when he gets close enough to the basket.
It’s somewhat surprising Barnes hasn’t been posting up with greater frequency this season when compared to last season, but he’s doing the bulk of his scoring in that vicinity by isolating himself 16-feet from the basket. It’s why the numbers show Barnes posting-up far less than Nowitzki and isolating himself far more despite the sets creating similar shots. As someone who is comfortable popping to the perimeter, Barnes also forces defenses to make the tough decision between helping out on the ball handler, standing pat or switching assignments in the pick-and-roll.
If they hedge like the Milwaukee Bucks do here, Barnes is a threat to put the ball on the floor and attack closeouts for explosive finishes at the rim.
If they are a step slow on the closeout, Barnes can pop for a midrange shot in rhythm.
If they decide to switch, Barnes can take the smaller player to the post and shoot over them when he’s within a comfortable range.
Like Nowitzki, Barnes doesn’t always have to touch the ball to make a difference in those situations, either. Notice how the entire Los Angeles Lakers defense shifts over in an effort to prevent Barnes from posting up the much smaller D’Angelo Russell on the switch in the possession below. A simple cross-court pass from J.J. Barea to Seth Curry is all it takes for the Mavericks to create an open 3-pointer.
Some of what Barnes is doing — like shooting around 50 percent from between 16-feet and the 3-point line — isn’t sustainable for an entire season, but it doesn’t change how he’s putting together the best stretch of his career in a role perfectly suited for his skill set. Before this season, Barnes had scored 20 or more points in only 19 games. In his first 13 games with the Mavericks, he’s already reached that mark seven times. That includes two games of 30 or more points, by the way, which he’s only done one other time in his career.
For a 24-year-old who is getting a chance to spread his wings for the first time in his career, that’s an encouraging start to what the Mavericks had in mind when they signed him to a $95 million contract in the offseason. He won’t ever come close to replacing what Nowitzki has done for the franchise, but Barnes is showing us why using him in a similar way gives them something positive to build around.