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Harrison Barnes showed he can score like a No. 1, now says he must be playmaker

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Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban looks like Nostradamus on Harrison Barnes.

“I think he can do a lot more than he’s been asked to do, and that’s what we expect to see,” Cuban said after signing Barnes to a four-year, $94 million max contract last summer. That was a deal signed on the heels of a dismal playoff performance from Barnes where his shot was off, and he overcompensated by trying to do more than his catch-and-shoot role — then struggled mightily with that. He got benched.

The doubters were plentiful back in July. “You saw him in the playoffs and then you gave him $94 million? He’s the face of the franchise after Dirk Nowitzki?”

Barnes has silenced them all — 20.4 points per game, a solid 53.3 true shooting percentage, he has stayed efficient while his usage rate has jumped to a career high 26.4, he’s had to create more in isolation than ever before, and he’s doing it well.

But he knows playmaking is the next step.

“This has been the largest role I think I’ve ever had,” Barnes told NBC Sports during an interview, which you can hear all of on the most recent PBT Podcast. “I think being able to score consistently, that’s the big first step. Now it’s playmaking, knowing when to get other guys involved, knowing when to score, making that decision.”

The playmaking process is more mental — he can go to the gym in the summer and work on his handles, but playmaking is something learned in game.

“Now that I’ve shown I can score consistently, teams are going to send more help, there’s going to be different schemes and situations that I’m going to see,” said Barnes, who has signed on as an endorser of McDavid Hex and Shock Doctor to help him deal with the physicality he deals with now. “So making sure that I can deliver the ball to the open guy, get my teammates shots, just kind of knowing when to pass…

“You just have to learn it in game. I mean I watch a lot of film, trying to learn that way as much as I can, but it just has to be a feel thing. You just have to be playing, you have to be in games, you have to see it, do it multiple times. And that’s where the organization has been great with me, just having the patience, my teammates have been patient, just understanding that I am getting better.”

A lot of things have been a mental shift in Dallas for Barnes, he admitted. In Steve Kerr’s offense he was an off-the-ball threat, a corner three guy who could also kill teams in transition and defend well. Rick Carlisle is asking a lot of different things from Barnes — things some around the league were not convinced he could do. That starts in isolation — 29.4 percent of Barnes’ plays come that way, according to Synergy Sports, and with passes the Mavs score at a very good .957 points per possession pace on those sets. When Barnes shoots in isolation he hits 50.9 percent.

“One of the biggest adjustments I had to make in my mentality, being a go-to guy, was free throws. There’s so much more on you too, one, get your team into the bonus quicker, or two, to get to the free throw line. And the only way to do that is to get to the paint. It’s hard to get to the free throw line shooting threes.

“The game has become so much more physical, so much more aggressive, That’s why I like wearing the McDavid Hex protective arm and leg sleeves – I know I am protected. And I prefer Shock Doctor’s Basketball mouthguard because it fits like a custom mouthguard, so I don’t even know it’s there,” said Barnes of his new business partner. “Just because any type of injury, any type of bumps and bruises, that can have an opportunity to take you out. And one of the biggest things you lose when you get out is your rhythm, and that’s one of the hardest things to get back.”

With that massive contract, Barnes becomes the guy in line to take over as the face of the Mavericks’ franchise once Dirk Nowitzki steps away (which could be at the end of this season). Nowitzki has only been on the court for three games this campaign, but Barnes said one of the reasons he signed in Dallas was to learn from the future Hall of Famer, and the big German has not disappointed as a mentor.

“He’s on every single day. He’s loud, he’s vocal, off the court one of the funniest teammates I’ve ever been around,” Barnes said. “The biggest thing he’s helped me with is just kind of where to get my shots, how to get into a flow, how to be aggressive. A lot of my plays are plays he’s been in for years. He knows the system better than anybody, he knows how to get his shot off better than anybody, so he’s been helping along through this process and he’s been a great mentor.”

The change for Barnes this year has also been cultural — and we don’t mean moving from the Bay Area to Dallas (although that is different, too). Rather, it’s the change from Steve Kerr to Rick Carlisle.

“What they do that’s similar is they are both great basketball minds…” Barnes said. “What I’m experiencing now, it’s a system that’s far more regimented. It’s very black-and-white what’s going to happen, just in terms of how we play and what’s expected. Compared to Coach Kerr, he was just a lot more read and react, we just played off each other, there were not a whole lot of set calls, not a lot of set rules, we just all knew how to play and play off each other.”

The other big basketball adjustment has been losing — Barnes has never been on a team that lost half its games (the lowest winning percentage of any of his teams, including high school, was 57 percent). Dallas is 7-18. Maybe when Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut get healthy the Mavericks will win a few more games, but this is not a team bound for the playoffs.

“It’s tough. You have a lot of pride as a winner, you’ve won a championship and been to the playoffs and all that kind of stuff…” Barnes said. “The biggest thing I’m trying to do is encourage the young guys to keep developing, keep working. For those guys, they haven’t necessarily experienced all those things, you need to not get discouraged, you need to be hard on yourself, you need to be your own worst critic. I’m telling them we just need to continue to grind every single day, get better, and if we continue to do that we’ll start to win some games and see what happens.”

What happens could be interesting a few seasons down the line, as Barnes becomes the centerpiece of a team about to rebuild for a post-Nowitzki era.

Whatever it is, Barnes is ready to put in the work and be there.

Reports: Phil Jackson attending Shaq statue ceremony, Magic Johnson missing it to scout UCLA-Kentucky

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The Lakers are formally unveiling Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside their arena tonight. Also tonight: UCLA-Kentucky in the Sweet 16, which features NBA prospects Lonzo Ball, Ike Anigbogu, T.J. Leaf, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.

That makes an interesting choice for the NBA’s two highest-profile team presidents – the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Knicks’ Phil Jackson (who coached Shaq in Los Angeles), both of whose teams are headed toward a high picks in the upcoming draft.

And the front-office heads are going different directions.

Arash Markazi of ESPN:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Watching a single game in person is unlikely to swing anything. Both Johnson and Jackson could send scouts to watch UCLA-Kentucky live and then the presidents could watch video later.

But attending in person is ideal, and there are already questions about Jackson’s work ethic. This will only fuel them.

If nothing else, this is an opportunity for Johnson, new on the job, to establish an image. He can clearly juxtapose himself with the failing Jackson and establish himself as a diligent alternative. The Lakers hired Johnson at least in part due to his high profile, but that needn’t stop him from grinding now that he has the position. Anyone doubting him would respect that.

Tyreke Evans: Giannis Antetokounmpo is like a taller me

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Giannis Antetokounmpo torched the Kings for 32 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals in the Bucks’ 18-point win Wednesday.

Afterward, Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans paid the Greek Freak the ultimate compliment.

Sean Cunningham of ABC 10:

Do you see many players like Antetokounmpo? Evans:

Nah. He like me, but 6-7 – I mean like almost 6-8, 6-7, whatever height he is. He just long, athletic. He get to where he want to go. He got good handle for his size, and he athletic. Once he get around the rim, he can finish.

If only you were an inch taller? Evans:

That’d be a problem. I mean, it’s still a problem, I think, for me to get where I want. But just the athleticism he have and the way he get up off the ground – he got quick bounce. He pretty good at it.

Antetokounmpo is listed at 6-foot-11, Evans 6-foot-6.

This isn’t totally unreasonable. Make Evans five inches taller and add none of the dexterity awkwardness that tends to accompany growth, and he might look a lot like Antetokounmpo. Both are usually slotted at forward while possessing point-guard skills.

But Evans isn’t 6-foot-11, and most 6-foot-11 players can’t move like Antetokounmpo. That fluidity for his size is a big part of what makes Antetokounmpo special. If Evans grew up to be 6-foot-11, he likely would have developed a different skill set than he has now.

Antetokounmpo is the rare player with both the height of a big man and skills of a guard. Evans didn’t miss out on that just because his genes kept him from growing another five inches.

This discussion is also silly for another reason. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s 6-foot-1 and certain he’d be as good as Evans if only he were five inches taller.

Rumor: Blake Griffin increasingly believed to be open to leaving Clippers in free agency

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The Clippers were rumored to have already verbally agreed to terms with pending unrestricted free agents Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

But with formal contract extensions unviable, L.A. was always going to have to play out the season and hope those players remained committed into July.

There might be a hitch in that plan.

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

That Griffin would also stay and reap the biggest payday he can seems likely, too—in theory. But more and more people around the league believe he would be open to a fresh start—perhaps with the Lakers or the Boston Celtics, who have coveted Griffin for years and would offer a new chance to win.

Does Ding have credible information to suggest Griffin could join the Lakers or Celtics, or is that just speculation on the writer’s part about potential fits? It’s unclear. This is already fairly loosely sourced.

But we should gather more information quickly once free agency begins. Griffin reportedly planned to re-sign quickly. If he shows the faintest hint of exploring the market, that could open the floodgates.

Griffin had been frequently linked to his home-state Thunder, but Oklahoma City would interfere with his burgeoning Hollywood connections.* The same issue would exist with Boston, though obviously not the Lakers. That said, the Celtics are WAY better than the Lakers – and maybe soon the Clippers and Thunder, considering those Nets picks headed to Boston.

*Oklahoma City also since nuked its cap space with contract extensions for Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo, though trades could always clear room if Griffin wants to come home.

The Clippers are in a bad place right now. One one hand, that forebodes another disappointing end to the season. On the other hand, there’s still time to overcome and send Griffin into free agency on a more positive note.

These are dangerous times for the Clippers, who wouldn’t have cap space to adequately replace Griffin, Paul or Redick if one leaves. So, if one bolts, the others seems more likely to follow. Interpersonal relationships matter, but the Clippers’ primary selling points were always going to be money and winning (with Hollywood proximity a bonus). Winning gets harder if talent walks.

They can still offer the most money, and they’re not leaving L.A. But the Clippers better win more to help avoid what could be a tenser-than-expected summer.

Suns use youngest starting lineup in NBA history

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The Suns have shut down their veterans or been shut down by their veterans with two goals in mind – developing young talent and tanking.

Incidentally, Phoenix also made history.

Against the Nets last night, the Suns started:

ESPN:

Elias on ESPN:

The previous youngest was the Clippers’ starting five consisting of guards Eric Bledsoe and Eric Gordon, forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Blake Griffin, and center DeAndre Jordan, who averaged 21 years and 143 days old in a matchup with the Nets on November 15, 2010.

The young Suns gained quality experience – and helped their team to an important loss, 126-98 to Brooklyn.

Phoenix is still 1.5 games “behind” the Lakers for the No. 2 seed in the lottery, but the Suns are within striking distance in case the Lakers screw up and win too much down the stretch.