(Originally posted at BballBreakdown)
After a disastrous sophomore campaign, Harrison Barnes is back on track, showing some of the same promise he flashed towards the end of his rookie season.
The Warriors are off to a 21-2 start, fueled by a starting lineup that has blitzed opponents and outscored them by 28 points per 100 possessions in 245 minutes, a league-best mark among lineups that have logged a minimum of 100 minutes, per NBA.com/stats/. Much of the attention has gone to Stephen Curry’s MVP-caliber performance, the changes Steve Kerr made to the offense and the emergence of Draymond Green as a high end contributor.
It is important to note that there has been no significant development to Barnes’s skill-set. I profiled Barnes in preseason, looking back at his first two seasons, and found that he showed flashes of ability in every facet of the game to go along with great physical tools. Barnes never lacked for talent. His spike in productivity can instead be explained by how his existent skill-set is being employed in a healthier ecosystem.
When the Warriors signed Andre Iguodala, previous head coach Mark Jackson immediately installed the veteran in the team’s top lineup and designated Barnes as the go-to option of his unproductive units built of five reserves. Barnes did well in the post but struggled attacking set defenses, especially recognizing the second line of help, often driving into crowds. This is still not a particularly strong area of the game for him; Barnes has a decent handle dribbling from side-to-side but does not attack with as much speed off the bounce when he does not have a live dribble, and has only so-so instincts passing out of dribble penetration. Golden State also did not have much passing and shooting in those lineups, except for Green – who last year was not the player that he is now.
Barnes is not the sort of player who can create for himself and others at this point, and he knew he was miscast in such a role, as he revealed to the Mercury News’s Marcus Thompson a couple of weeks ago. The combination of his limitations as a shot creator and the iffy talent around him resulted in Barnes shooting 27.8% in 97 shots in isolation and averaging only 0.62 points per possession on 97 pick-and-rolls, according to mysynergysports.com.
Kerr has solved this issue by inserting him back in lineups that feature Golden State’s best playmakers and shooters, which has freed Barnes to make better use of what he is good at; weak-side cutting and attacking closeouts. He has no ball-handling responsibilities any more (in part because the Warriors have a surplus of ball-handlers) and only gets isolated in the post in the flow of the offense, when a thinner player switches to him after he screens for the ball-handler. Those 1-3 pick-and-rolls have also been used to get Barnes other chances to attack off the catch with a live dribble, aside from defenders running him off the three-point line. He has shot 47.8% on 38 drives so far this season, an improvement from his 38% inefficiency on 223 such attempts last season. 29.5% of his two-point baskets have been dunks, and Barnes has shot 76% at the rim overall, per basketball-reference.
His interior scoring has been complemented by improved outside shooting, also best explained by context. Barnes logged just 42.1% of his minutes with both Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor in 2013-2014, a rate that has gone up to 58.7% in 2014-2015. The release in his shot is not any noticeably quicker, but by playing more time with two of the league’s most respected shooters, Barnes has been open more often and his efficiency on long-range looks have increased as a result. According to NBA.com’s SportVU tracking technology, he is taking roughly 57% of his shots with no defender within four feet of him, an increase of 10% in comparison to last season. With no ball-handling responsibilities and playing alongside a bunch of high end passers, he is taking 38.1% of shots off the catch, and has hit his 48 such three-point attempts at a 43.8% clip. Barnes has taken only four three-point attempts off the bounce and only three with a defender within four feet of him. Maybe only Tony Allen could do poorly with such a recipe.
Another area where his productivity has spiked is on the glass. David Lee has logged only seven minutes this season due to a strained left hamstring, and the bigger part of his playing time has gone to Green, with Barnes cast as a small-ball power forward whenever in alternate lineups and Marreese Speights logging 92% of his minutes as a center.
On the offensive glass, Barnes is taking advantage of a less-packed lane in Lee’s absence. Green is essentially a perimeter player when the Warriors have possession, developing into a much more willing and productive three-point shooter while also being utilized as a hub to initiate offense to enable Curry and Thompson to catch the ball with live dribbles. Very few players in his position can outrebound Barnes due to his leaping ability, and there are not that many big men who can successfully finish their box-outs on Barnes because he can bounce off the ground a consecutive time quicker than most of them, a term Jay Bilas has coined “second-jump-ability”. Barnes is playing with enough energy to transform those attributes into an asset, and his almost two rebounds per 36 minutes rank in the top 10 among position peers.
The understanding of Barnes’s rebounding numbers within a team concept is important here. Lee’s absence is a big factor – Green is a good rebounder despite his height disadvantage but he is not as good as Lee. The improved defense without Lee, however, is also a factor. Barnes’s improved numbers on the defensive glass are mostly a result of more rebounding chances being made available, in part due to opponents converting only 41.1% of their shots against Golden State, which leads the league in scoring allowed per possession.
While the Warriors do miss Lee to some extent, for his rebounding and scoring talents, it can be argued that they have climbed to the top of the defensive rankings specifically because he is out of the lineup. Golden State has become very flexible in switching on screens, in large part because of Barnes’s versatility. Against New Orleans last week, Barnes successfully defended power forward Ryan Anderson with his length in the post in one possession and contained point guard Austin Rivers’s dribble penetration with his 210-pound frame on the next. It was the sort of display that gave Kerr confidence to play him and Green as the two big men, with no true center, in the fourth quarter of the game against Houston, with great results.
Barnes is not the most important player on this elite Warriors team, but he is playing as a star role player at the moment, and has been a part of Golden State’s success. As a part of the right lineups and catching the ball at the right spots, he has been a far more productive and vital player than the one Warriors’ fans wanted to run out of town last season, even if his skill-set remains about the exact same. His breakout season is a testament to the values of coaching, systems and team work, rather than individual talents. He already had those.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.