Inside Harrison Barnes’ effort to move closer to ‘elite category’ of free throw-shooting wings

Harrison Barnes did something very unusual Sunday in Milwaukee: He took 10 free throws. In the fourth quarter.

Attempting 10 in an entire game is an uncommon feat in the NBA. Only Houston’s James Harden averages more than 9.2 trips to the line per game, according to NBA.com. Barnes, meanwhile, sits on a season average of just 3.4 free throw attempts per game, which ties for 57th. As a team, the Mavs attempt the fewest in the league.

In his last 20 games, however, he’s up to 4.3 attempts per game. During that time, in addition to his 10 attempts against the Bucks, Barnes attempted a career-high 14 against Phoenix. But even considering the improvement, that’s not an acceptable average to a perfectionist like Barnes.

“I’m just trying to be aggressive and get to the rim,” he told Mavs.com. “That’s the one consistent thing with great scorers: They always get to the free throw line. That’s something that I’ve struggled with doing this season. I’m definitely now just still trying to figure out ways, whether it’s attacking, trying to get to the line somehow.”

In general, most forwards don’t shoot a ton of free throws. Jimmy Butler leads them all with 9.0 attempts per game, and only eight other NBA forwards average even six attempts, according to NBA.com. Barnes is currently 21st in that group, but he’s eyeing a huge leap in the near future.

“If you can get six to eight, that’s the elite category,” he told Mavs.com.

To be clear, Barnes has demonstrated he has what it takes to become a great scorer. His per-game average hovered around 20 points all season long until the last few weeks, when the Mavericks have begun to scale back playing time for the heavy-minutes guys when possible in an effort to give more to the young players. And that’s without hardly getting to the line at all, and while enduring a poor start to the season from beyond the arc. (Barnes, however, has turned it around in that category since the All-Star break, shooting 38.9 percent from deep since the respite.) Maintain that 3-point efficiency and bump up his free throw attempts, and suddenly his average could jump three or even four points per game.

The 24-year-old has proven in his first season with the Mavericks that he’s a maniacal worker, obsessed with improving the most fundamental aspects of his game. The first thing he did upon signing with the Mavs last summer was work with Rick Carlisle in an empty gym in Ames to develop his footwork. He’s embraced the mid-post game that made Dirk Nowitzki famous and helped bring a title to Dallas. Barnes has also accepted the responsibility that comes with being the budding face of the franchise, ready to take over whenever his legendary teammate decides to hang ’em up for good.

If his past — albeit brief — track record in Dallas is any indication, rest assured that earning more free throws is toward the front of Barnes’ mind.

“He’s had a great year, and he’s responded to everything,” Carlisle said. “He wants to be one of the very best players in the league, and he does all the things that you need to do to get there. He’s committed, he’s very disciplined.”

For a player like Barnes, who relies more on technique and craft than blazing speed when attacking the basket, footwork is of the utmost importance. His balance makes his turnaround fadeaways and off-balance runner work, and that’s not something all scorers can do.

But the best of the best know how to turn potential disadvantageous situations into trips to the free throw line. Whether it takes supreme footwork or just sheer aggression to force a whistle, they find a way to get it done. For Barnes, that means turning a play like this:

Into something like this.

And instead of using more of a finesse finish against a smaller guard (like this):

Barnes can quickly feign a bully-ball back-down and get right to the basket.

“He’s learned to drive the ball very well this year, which is something he didn’t do a lot of at Golden State,” Carlisle said. “And he’s a great free throw shooter, and he’s proven he’s a clutch player. Him at the free throw line, which we saw a lot of down the stretch of the Milwaukee game, is a great situation for the Mavericks.”

There are many reasons why attempting more free throws and fewer contested 2s can be beneficial for a player. First, obviously, there’s the purely mathematical advantage: If Barnes, who shoots 86 percent from the line, can get to the free throw line four or five more times per game, that means four free points for the Mavericks. Those add up across an entire season.

“Four more free throws per game, just for the Mavs, and we’re in the sixth seed,” owner Mark Cuban said. “If we shoot five more, six more free throws per game, that’s basically five net-effective points, and we’re a completely different team.”

Then there’s the Xs-and-Os benefit. Barnes has already shown he can score in the mid-range, but if he can consistently both knock down 3s and drive the lane, he becomes a much more difficult player to defend off the ball. Do you close out hard on him? Do you let him shoot? Or do you try to do something in between?

And as he’s continued to develop confidence in his rim-attacking ability, Barnes has recently shown a willingness to pass up a potentially open 3-pointer in favor of a drive to the basket in search of contact.

Finally, free throws can have a psychological benefit to a player who’s missed a few straight shots.

“If you’re getting those (every) night, that can help you when you’re in a slump, when you’re trying to find some rhythm, knowing that you’re gonna get to the the free throw line and see two go in, and then move on from there,” Barnes told Mavs.com.

One of Dirk Nowitzki’s most legendary performances came in Game 1 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals, when he hit an NBA-record 24 free throws without a miss en route to scoring 48 points on just 15 field goal attempts. The Thunder simply did not have an answer for him that night.

In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win against Milwaukee, Barnes did his best Nowitzki impression, scoring 15 points in the frame on only two attempts. Obviously, there’s a massive difference between the regular season and conference finals, but Barnes’ 31 points on 13 shots overall that day stands out as one of the most efficient performances by anyone this season, and probably his best game as a Maverick.

The Mavericks hope their young star has plenty more where that came from moving forward, particularly in crunch time.

“Whether he wants it or not, he’s getting it,” Carlisle said. “He’s our guy. He was our guy earlier in the year, and we’re at a point now where the ball’s gonna touch his hands first in most situations, unless we got somebody else that’s really clear-cut hot, or some other good situation going.”

He’ll have several more chances in the near future to take over a game the way he did against the Bucks, especially if he can continue to create and knock down fadeaways reminiscent of the unguardable 38-year-old in the next locker over. But Barnes knows the best way to do it might just be forcing himself to take shots that no one can defend, and those come at the free throw line.

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