Harrison Barnes isn’t the first guy you think of when it comes to the success of the Golden State Warriors, who are well on their way to becoming one of the best NBA teams of all time. That’s Stephen Curry, of course. Barnes probably isn’t the second, third, or fourth guy, either. That’s likely Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala.
But just because his contributions aren’t well known doesn’t mean they’re not important. Barnes’s ability to make the defense pay for leaving him open on one end, and operate within the Warriors’ switch-happy ecosystem at the other make him a player that is more valuable than he initially appears.
We talked with Barnes to discuss his contributions to the so-called death lineup, the progression of his offensive game, what it was like to come off the bench again after his ankle injury, and more. What follows is an edited transcript of that chat.
Jared Dubin: When you guys go to that small lineup, so much of the talk is about Draymond playing center, Steph and Klay shooting, Andre guarding the scorer. Your defense guarding bigger guys at the four usually isn’t one of the first things people mention. Do you feel like it’s a little bit overlooked?
Harrison Barnes: "This team is really not about attention. We don’t talk about what’s being overlooked. That unit, we work well together because we can switch out, we can guard a lot of positions, so that’s the biggest thing we try to do."
JD: Was defending bigger guys something you had already done, or was that ability discovered when you were sort of pushed into it when David Lee got hurt in the playoffs a couple years ago?
HB: "I really had no experience playing the four until that point, so it was pretty good to play it and have some success. And now we’ve gone to it consistently for two years."
JD: How do you feel about it? Do you like it? Do you just tolerate it?
HB: "It’s something that you just have to go in there with the mentality to battle. You’re going up against bigger guys, trying to be aggressive on the offensive rebounds, playing defense, banging bodies every single time, running and setting screens. So it’s something that I’ve gotten used to."
JD: When other teams go small to match you guys with that lineup, do you feel like that plays into your hands a bit?
HB: "Yeah, because going small is what we usually do. We feel comfortable with it and a lot of teams, they don’t play small lineups a lot, because a lot of teams in the NBA, they don’t play small. We feel like when we can get a team to change their game to suit ours, it’s an advantage."
JD: On the other side of the ball, it seemed like last year you narrowed your focus a bit to taking spot-up jumpers, working in some cuts and post-ups. In previous years you’d been asked to do more offensively while you were coming off the bench. How do you think that narrowing of focus and then expanding helped your game?
HB: "You always want to have the building blocks. You want to know what you do best. You want to, not master those things, but become proficient at them and then build from there. So whether that’s posting up, more stuff off the dribble, bringing it up in transition, whatever it is. I’m just trying to do more things."
JD: Was it a conscious decision to narrow your game down to a few things and then expand it this year?
HB: "Yeah. You look at last year in the playoffs, we had a lot of success being small. But teams this year are going to be different. They’re going to come at us differently in a playoff scenario, so the more things I can do, it’s just more variables that we, as a team, have."
JD: A lot of times I feel like you surprise teams with your athleticism. They think you’re the guy just spotting up in the corner and then all of a sudden you throw down a hammer dunk. Do you think guys are surprised that you can get up?
HB: "(Laughs) Yeah, I haven’t really had too many spectacular plays since I came back from injury but I feel like, definitely, getting up at the rim is something I always try to do. Just because I shoot a lot of threes doesn’t mean I can’t still get up. It’s fun to do it."
JD: What was the transition like when you came back from the injury since you came off the bench and then moved back into the starting lineup?
HB: "It wasn’t bad. The biggest thing has just been getting the ankle right while I’m playing. It wasn’t a specific rehab period where I was like, ‘I’m going to play and practice in this many games.’ It’s like, ‘In this game, you’ll play 20 minutes. How does it feel?’ … ‘Eh, it didn’t feel too great.’ Next night, we’ll play you 22 minutes. And we just kind of go that way. The toughest part has been the rehabbing, but it’s getting there."
JD: When you guys go to the bench unit, you’ll often be the starter that stays on the floor. How does your role shift from when you play with Steph, Klay, Draymond, and Bogut to when you’re playing with the bench guys?
HB: "I go a lot to the four. So defensively you’re going from more of just locking in on your man and hearing the screen coverage to actually calling out the screen coverage, being the help side guy, being the guy that corrects a mistake. So that’s a big challenge. And offensively, just setting screens, spacing, and just being aggressive."
JD: What’s it like being put into a situation where you have to act as the rim protector when you’re at the four? Is that weird for you to be in that position?
HB: "That’s something I definitely need to improve on. I’ve gotten better but it’s a different type of mentality. You’re kind of always just roaming and trying to protect."
JD: How do you work on that? Do you just pull Bogut aside and say, ‘Tell me how to protect the rim?’
HB: "You watch a lot of tape. You try to do different things when you’re out there. If you’re on a guy that isn’t much of a shooter, you can help in more. If you’re guarding a guy like Carmelo, obviously you have to stay close to him because he can get hot."
JD: When it comes to working with the ball in your hands, you’re doing more posting this year, running a few more pick and rolls. How do you feel like you’re coming along with it?
HB: "I’ve improved my ballhandling. I’m just making that progression, always trying to make the right reads, and just have more confidence to continue to do that type of thing."
JD: When you played at Carolina, it was a similar sort of free-flowing system. What’s the biggest difference for you here as opposed to when you were in college?
HB: "The roles are different. I was needed a lot more for scoring. Defensively, we had two of the best bigs in college basketball that would just protect the rim and could just literally sit there at the rim. So we played much differently. Here, it’s a lot of ball movement. Everyone knows their roles. And obviously when you’re playing with the MVP of the league, it makes things a lot easier."