Kawhi Leonard has officially become a superstar; here’s what Harrison Barnes could learn from Leonard’s growth.
There were a lot of concerns about Harrison Barnes’ ability to grow out of role player status when he left the lofty cushions of the dynastic Golden State Warriors and took his talents south to the Dallas Mavericks.
Despite being a lottery pick, seventh overall in 2012, and being seen by some as an athletic scorer capable of becoming an All-Star, he was utilized mainly as a spot-up shooter and versatile defending, small ball power forward on the Warriors. He rarely got the chance to demonstrate his skills in isolation or in the pick and roll — when he did he rarely committed to his options and often fell back onto a jumper.
As Zach Lowe said on Grantland, there was a time when people “envision[ed] a Barnes-centric offense as a hail of midrange jumpers — a low-efficiency clunker.”
But you’d be hard-pressed to find many doubters now. Barnes has successfully become the number-one option in Dallas, providing much needed aid to the aging, yet still effective shoulders of local legend Dirk Nowitzki.
Barnes has essentially doubled his scoring output, from 11.7 points per game in 2015-2016 to 20.1 this year, while maintaining a similar level of efficiency (from 46.6 to 47.4% FG%). He is doing all of this while taking much more difficult shots; he no longer has a Stephen Curry or a Klay Thompson or a Draymond Green high pick and roll to occupy the defense. Now he occupies the defense. Oh, and those midrange jumpers that used to seem like botched possessions? Those are the shots Barnes is now living on.
He’s averaging most of his shot attempts from the midrange, making 3.1 per game (enough for top 10 in the NBA) on 43% shooting. In an age when the midrange jumper is being slowly left behind, he, along with names such as DeMar DeRozan and Evan Turner, are definitive throwbacks. While he doesn’t have the footwork and jazz of DeRozan, or the herky-jerky shiftiness of Turner, Barnes does have a deliberateness to his midrange game that is as aesthetic as it is effective. He generally keeps his moves short and sweet, sticking to a few dribbles and jab steps, elbows high, into a fadeaway jumper, à la Carmelo Anthony.
The precision with which he operates belies both a confidence in his own growing abilities and an awareness of his own limitations. Barnes isn’t going to dance around the perimeter, waltz around screens, and settle into an elbow jumper like Chris Paul is. He’s not a good enough ball handler yet to play with that weaving freedom, that unencumbered brilliance of a savant like Paul.
For now, Barnes gets to his spots and goes to work with no wasted motions, unlike the previous clip of him in a Warriors uniform showed. If he has space he’ll go straight up for a shot. If not, he’ll stop and with each tick of the shot clock he’ll prod, he’ll jab, he’ll push his shoulders into his defender one, two times, and then he’ll make his move. Watching him operate feels like watching a scripted, methodical reproduction of practice moves; there’s little appearance of improvisation in his game. It’s a calculated approach that reminds me a lot of another role player turned star — Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs.
Leonard’s meteoric rise was foreseen by few, if any. His focused lack of expression, baritone voice, and machine-like efficiency has led to a unique and endearing brand of superstardom. Each year it grows, and each year he adds something new to his game. The beta version of Leonard was drafted just outside the lottery, 15th overall in 2011, as a defensive stopper with a jump shot that needed tweaking. Then he became a spot-up shooter who defended LeBron James in the NBA Finals, where he also casually won a Finals MVP award. As the Spurs’ Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker aged, his next upgrade had him become an absolute sharpshooter with offensive versatility to accompany his two-time defensive player of the year status. Now, he is the focal point of the Spurs offense.
Despite Leonard having bonafide superstar status, he shares, or shared, several aspects of his game with Barnes. Like Barnes, Leonard started out as a defender and spot-up shooter before becoming a midrange assassin. Like Barnes, Leonard is becoming better and better at driving to the rim and drawing fouls. Like Barnes, Leonard has an upright posture in his rigid, mechanical shooting motion. Like Barnes, Leonard has a penchant for quick, deliberate movements into fadeaway jumpers over helpless defenders.
Per DraftExpress, Barnes is 6’8 with a 6’11.25 wingspan. Leonard stands at 6’7 with a massive 7’3 wingspan (he has gigantic metal claws on the end of that, too). Their ideal small forward size allows them to perfectly utilize a part of the court few others do: the midrange. While Barnes is averaging 3.1 midrange makes a game, Leonard is right behind him at 3.0 this season on 47.1% shooting.
They both have a decent arsenal of moves they use to create just the slightest amount of separation from their defender. Leonard seems more likely to dribble into horizontal movement and fade into a jumper — it’s a joy to watch him start on the right side and then fade left into the lane for a shot. Barnes is bit more stoic, content to jab step and head fake an opponent to sleep and just pull up over him.
In addition to their midrange game, both have grown into potent post players. Leonard is incredibly lethal from the left block. On a per possession basis, the Spurs score more efficiently when he’s posting up on the left block than when he’s in transition (which is nuts), per Zach Harper of FanRag. Barnes is also fond of the spot; the left side is by far his favorite area of the court to get a jump shot off. Posting up, they both have the strength to back defenders down enough to turn over their strong side and transition into a nifty running hook shot.
If we take a look at the shot charts, per statmuse.com, of Leonard in 2015-2016 (before his newest add-on altered his shot selection slightly) and Barnes in 2016-2017, we can see all of what was stated above. Both players make great use of all areas of the midrange. Both are excellent on the left block, with it being Barnes’ favorite slice of the court (the darker the color, the better they shoot compared to the league average from that spot). Also, the difference in their three-point shooting is very apparent here. Leonard has become elite at all spots on the three-point line, including the corners where a spot up shooter should excel. Barnes isn’t even close in this department.While their distance shooting is one dissimilarity, the biggest difference between the two, and where Barnes could improve the most, is in playmaking. Barnes rarely ran the pick and roll before as a ball handler and continues to rarely do it today. He was actually the roll man more often than not in Golden State. Leonard, on the other hand, has become one of the league’s best pick and roll players seemingly out of nowhere. His newest patch has him running it as a ball handler more often than longtime starting point guard Tony Parker is, and his efficiency is in the league’s 95th percentile. His passing has improved and the pick allows him to either take a shot at the top of the arc, an area he’s expanded his use of, or penetrate into the lane where he has excelled with little runners and fadeaways.
When the Spurs picked up LaMarcus Aldridge, their starting lineup moved on from the free-flowing, shooting offense that helped them win a championship in 2014 to one that was slower and more focused on getting Leonard and Aldridge isolations and post-ups in the spots they liked. Nowadays, their offense, especially if Aldridge is struggling, can feel a bit stagnant, breathless even. But Leonard is usually there to bail them out. Sometimes, watching them play makes me think Kawhi has become the Spurs’ motion. He’s now the one weaving through traffic, receiving hand-off passes, and executing pick and rolls.
Barnes will have to learn to do the same if he wants to approach the levels of stardom some thought him capable of. He doesn’t have to become LeBron James overnight, but he must create movement for his team. It doesn’t have to be Warriors-esque, constant off-ball motion, but for now Barnes is mostly an isolation player. His next step will be to involve his teammates more in his actions. And learning how to utilize the pick and roll will help him help them.
Even if he never becomes an elite pick and roll player, his versatility opens up interesting possibilities for his usage. Despite being similar sizes, Leonard has played the vast majority of his career as a small forward. Barnes, however, has played more power forward than small forward this year and has learned to relish it. Barnes playing up a position started when he was used as a versatile defender, capable of guarding the four spot, in small ball Warriors lineups and has actually increased as a Dallas Maverick. The Mavericks have experimented more and more with the aging Nowitzki at center, leaving Barnes to deal with bigger but slower fours. However, it’s yet to be seen how their recent trade for Nerlens Noel might change that.
While Barnes’ quickness allows him to attack lumbering bigs off the dribble, his size allows him to take advantage of smaller players. He has no issues backing down guards and shooting over them. Putting him in pick and rolls offers him these mismatches and he’s quick to exploit them. Here, a relaxed pick has a guard, Raymond Felton of the Los Angeles Clippers, switch onto Barnes, where he makes the most of his size advantage by simply pulling up over the shorter Felton.
Even as a big, though, he can still learn to become a capable pick and roll ball handler. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving have shown us a multitude of ways to attack the pick and roll with the big as the ball handler. While James is an all-time great passer, a title Barnes likely will never attain, Barnes does have a very effective midrange game that could be facilitated by a screen, as we showed Leonard doing earlier.
Coming into the league, Barnes was far more hyped than Leonard, who would eventually just kind of pop out onto the court as a quietly destructive terminator. Yet despite the differences in their draft expectations, they ended up being similar in their movements and approach to the game. Both are the opposite of ball-pounding guards. Both operate on short timetables with quick and surgically precise fadeaway jumpers. And both dominate the area between the three-point line and the paint with robotic efficiency.
But Barnes still has a lot to learn before he reaches Leonard’s tier. Leonard is still a better shooter from distance, on top of being a two-time defensive player of the year. In addition, the latest model of Kawhi Leonard, Kawhi-bot 2.0 is boasting elite pick and roll play, a glamorous new feature. If Barnes could emulate some of the movement Leonard creates out of the pick and roll, he might finally reach the level of play people thought he was capable of so long ago.
All stats courtesy of stats.nba.com and basketball-reference.com
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