Harrison Barnes sometimes seems like a luxury.i

Golden State’s 21 year-old wing was due for a major role change this season after the Warriors acquired Andre Iguodala over the summer. The initial debate was whether or not he’d assume his place in the starting lineup for 2013-2014, but the more important one was how often he’d play nominal power forward in the small-ball lineups that spurred Golden State to so much success in the playoffs last spring.Prevailing notions were that Barnes would both come off the bench and spend nearly as much time playing with traditional units as downsized ones. The unique versatility he offers is best utilized as an in-game adjustment, the thinking went, and Iguodala – a shaky shooter his entire career – would be most comfortable playing with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. But then training camp opened and everything changed.

After giving hints all offseason that Barnes would be the Warriors sixth man, Mark Jackson began the preseason with him in the starting lineup and Thompson on the bench. David Lee, incumbent power forward and main small-ball deterrent, showed up at Golden State headquarters in fantastic shape and talked of remaking his game on both ends of the floor. And though the Warriors hardly showed the kind of dominance in early October they’ve exhibited throughout the regular season’s first three weeks, Jackson’s surprising plan seemed a sustainable one.

Injuries force modification, though, and Barnes’ vexing foot ailment cost him more court-time than anyone anticipated. He played in only two preseason games, starting each, and missed the first four of the regular season, too. After a 3-1 start that saw Thompson pour in 22.5 points per game on 60% from the field, Jackson’s hand was basically forced – why fix what isn’t broken? Barnes, true to expectation after all, would be coming off the bench for the foreseeable future. The question now was how he’d be integrated into the Golden State rotation and adjust to his new role as reserve-lineup scoring hub.

Eight games into Barnes’s regular season, we’re beginning to glean some answers.

After a fast start in his debut against Minnesota on October 6th, Barnes struggled. He totaled just 17 points in his next three games, looking uncomfortable in isolation situations and failing to find seams in the open-court. Worse, Barnes made just one three-pointer over that stretch and took only two free throws. The latter development was especially concerning; those that assumed Thompson would come off the bench pointed to Barnes’s likely struggle as a primary option for prime justification behind that thinking. A mere two free throw attempts in three games – both missed – only confirmed those suspicions.

But Barnes spoiled us that first night in Minnesota, thriving in transition, showing improved ballhandling skills, and playing typically stellar defense after almost a month riding the pine. Players deserve a grace period after missing time due to injury. Now that he’s had it, Barnes is playing well: he’s scored 34 total points and notched double-figures each time out over these three most recent games, including a season-high 17-point showing in last night’s win over Utah.

That kind of impact is what most expected of Barnes this season after his breakout performance in last year’s playoffs, but that ignores crucial context. Extenuating circumstances last spring – small-ball, Lee’s injury, specific matchups – painted an unrealistically optimistic portrayal of Barnes’s rookie season. He was more ancillary piece than offensive fulcrum for the Warriors during 2012-2013’s majority, and some would argue struggled more than thrived on the whole. Expectations were out of whack for Barnes coming into this year, even assuming he’d play a fair amount of time at the 4. That he hasn’t yet – Barnes has played just 8 minutes this season with the Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Bogut quartet, three more than the second most utilized Barnes-centric small-ball lineup – calls for revised predictions for his sophomore campaign, just as his standing as bench player does, too.

Barnes’s present reality lies somewhere in between the bisected nature of these last six games – it’s not as good as the last three and not as bad as the first three. That’s evident once you dig into the stats. Barnes is clearly adjusting to his new role, and rightfully so; it’s a stark contrast from those he played during his rookie year.

Below is a breakdown of how Barnes has scored this season compared to last season. Numbers from 2013-2014 are succeeded by those from 2012-2013.

  • Baskets assisted: 46.9% vs. 63.4%
  • Points via mid-range: 26.7% vs. 10.2%
  • Points via three-pointers: 20% vs. 20.9%
  • Points via painted area: 45.% vs. 49.7%
  • Points via free throws: 8% vs. 19.3%
  • Points via fast-break: 20% vs. 17.8%

The small sample size caveat applies here; Barnes has played just eight games this season, after all. But there’s a disconnect in the data that speaks to his current limitations as an offensive crux. That he’s dramatically decreased his percentage of baskets assisted and increased his amount of points from mid-range are corollaries of his new role; both are strong indications that Barnes is operating far more as a primary scorer this season than he did last season. But ideally, a steep uptick in made free throws would accompany those developments. On the contrary, Barnes has drawn shooting fouls far less frequently so far this year, confirming he has major room to grow as a creator off the bounce.

The film validates the overall numbers and that specific critique. Barnes is working from the mid-post as an isolation option more than ever, and has enjoyed success in doing so when backing down his defender and shooting over the top. It’s when he tries to blow by the defense with several lateral dribbles that he runs into trouble. The fluidity exhibited by Curry, Iguodala, and even Thompson – Klay has really progressed with the ball in his hands this season, especially in the pick-and-roll – is absent in Barnes, but that’s not a death-knell: it’s still very early in his career! The guy is just 21! Barnes will develop a better floor-game in time, and this kind of trial by fire could be instrumental in that eventual improvement. But he’s being stretched a bit thin right now, hence the early downs and ups of his season.

This augmented perception of Barnes hardly changes the longterm outlook of his career; he’s still one of basketball’s brightest two-way wing prospects. Players with his combination of size, touch, athletic ability, and defensive nature are very, very valuable. But Barnes spoiled us in the playoffs last year, and elements beyond his control – the foot injury and Jackson’s present aversion to smaller lineups – haven’t given him a fair chance to satisfy heightened expectations gleaned from that performance. And to be honest, whether or not he does – again, it’s a tall, tall task – is almost irrelevant. The Warriors are good enough to allow Barnes to grow at a measured pace, a fortunate byproduct of his new and surprising role.

*Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com/stats.

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