Two games into the 2016-17 NBA season, a great deal of the work the Dallas Mavericks did over the off-season had to be quickly altered.
That’s because superstar forward Dirk Nowitzki strained his right Achilles, thus accelerating the Mavericks’ thought process for the long-range development of Harrison Barnes, their newly-minted off-season acquisition.
Despite outside skepticism, the Mavericks viewed Barnes as a player who could potentially step in and carry the No. 1 go-to mantel when Nowitzki decides to retire. So when Nowitzki was injured in the season opener at Indiana — forcing him to miss 24 of the ensuing 28 games — that afforded the Mavericks the opportunity to show why they signed Barnes to a four-year, $94 million free agent contract last summer.
In the 24 games Nowitzki missed, Barnes scored at least 20 points 14 times, including at least 30 on three occasions. Watching Barnes total 48 points in seven preseason games and 19 more during the season-opening overtime loss to Indiana, Nowitzki noticed a shift in the five-year veteran’s game.
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“It felt like after that preseason something clicked for him,” Nowitzki said. “Maybe it was even good for him that I got hurt and missed a lot of time.
“That was his time to really get the plays, and all those plays he took over and it felt like his confidence grew. And he was on a roll there for a great time.”
A lot of the plays were the exact plays usually called for Nowitzki. But there was Barnes, setting up shop on the left or right wing, and dropping in one fadeaway jumper after another and admitting how he benefited from Nowitzki’s injury.
“It definitely opened us up to a different style of play that we wouldn’t have done had we had a lot of our veterans there,” Barnes said. “And I get a lot of confidence from them.”
Barnes acknowledged that “everything mostly” clicked for him once the regular season started.
“We were just trying out a lot of different things in preseason and just trying to get comfortable,” he said. “And then once the regular season was there, I just felt like I was able to kind of get my feet underneath me.”
This was a transition season in many other ways, too. The 6-foot-8, 225-pounder played more minutes and attempted more field goals and 3-pointers than in any of his previous four seasons with the Golden State Warriors.
In 79 games this season Barnes played 2,803 minutes, eclipsing his previous high of 2,318 during the Warriors’ 2014-15 world championship season. He also attempted 1,280 shots this season, nearly doubling the 679 shots from 2013-14, his second NBA season.
Going from a role player with the Warriors to a go-to player with the Mavericks had a multitude of challenges.
“Just consistency every single night, that’s the biggest thing,” Barnes said. “When you’re a role player you’re able to have off nights and still able to have other guys carry you.
“When you have more responsibilities, you take more of the lion’s share of the shots. ... And when you have a bad night it’s going to be hard for your team to win. So that’s the biggest thing, and a lot of motivation for me moving into next season.”
As the season progressed, Barnes was able to prove that he could carry a team on a consistent basis. And also prove that he wasn’t just some guy playing in the shadows of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green during his tenure with the Warriors.
“That was the big knock on me when I first got here, that I can be good for a night — maybe a couple of games — but over the course of 10, 20, 30 games, that would be difficult,” Barnes said. “To finally be able to do that over the course of a season was great.
“But at the same time, not making the playoffs is tough. So I have to be better for our team to be better and for us to have a fighting chance.”
Likely to be the Mavericks’ centerpiece once Nowitzki retires, Barnes averaged a team-high 19.2 points this season to go with five rebounds per game. However, the veteran wants to improve his rebounding skills, playmaking abilities and increase his trips to the free throw line, where he made 86 percent of his 281 attempts.
“I try to take good care of my body in general,” said Barnes, who averaged a career-high 35.5 minutes in 79 games this season. “So to be able to play as many games as I did this season with the increase in minutes, I felt good.
“I definitely want to try to increase my conditioning base moving forward this summer just so I can have the ability just to do more on the court next year.”
Barnes, 24, won an NBA title in 2015 and an Olympic gold medal last summer in Rio.
“Sometimes me and coach [Rick Carlisle] talk and I’ve got to remind him that I’m not 32,” Barnes said. “He talks about me like, ‘You’re the only old vet out there getting it done.’
“And I’m like: ‘Actually, I’m just a year older than some of these rookies.’ ”
Nowitzki heaped praise on Barnes.
“I’m really, really proud of him,” said Nowitzki, who turns 39 on June 19. “The amount of work he puts in, he’s a true professional, and he basically is a 20-point scorer in our league, which is hard to do.
“So I’m proud of him, proud of his development, and just how he handles himself on and off the court is A class. He’s definitely a great guy to build around.”