What do Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, and Harrison Barnes all have in common?
They each average 20+ points per game but, more importantly, they’re all top-10 in the NBA in points per touch, at least among heavy-usage guys.
Of the top 112 NBA players in frontcourt touches per game — roughly about the top-quarter of the league — Barnes ranks 10th in points per touch, at 0.372. That leads the Mavericks by a massive margin, as well, with the next-best player, Dirk Nowitzki, clocking in at 0.298, though climbing quickly as of late. Barnes is averaging a career-best 20.1 points per game and receiving a career-high number of frontcourt touches and touches overall; with the Warriors, he’d never touched it more than 29.2 times per game in the frontcourt.
There’s an important distinction to be made, for the purposes of this article, between overall touches and frontcourt touches. As you’d expect, a frontcourt touch comes once the ball has crossed midcourt and a team is running offense. The league leaders in overall touches are always point guards or play initiators who bring the ball up the floor — for example, James Harden leads the NBA at more than 100 touches per game. But frontcourt touch numbers are a little lower — Russell Westbrook leads the league with 83.6, and only one other player touches it more than 80 times per game in the frontcourt. Only about one-quarter of NBA players touch it at least 35 times in those situations.
For that reason, point guard points-per-touch numbers are naturally going to be deflated a little bit. For example, John Wall is scoring a career-high 22.8 points per game this season, but he averages just .253 points per touch because he passes the ball so much. That’s fine for the purpose of this ranking, though: We are trying to find the best players at scoring points themselves, not necessarily generating them for others. Moving and sharing the ball is important, but at the end of the possession someone’s gotta shoot it. We celebrate them here.
With all that in mind, here’s the top-10:
|Player||Total Touches/gm||Frontcourt Touches/gm||Points/gm||Points per Touch|
That’s pretty impressive company for Barnes, who this season has become a go-to kind of scorer for the first time in his career. If you’re among names like Leonard, Durant, and Anthony on a list having anything to do with putting the ball in the bucket, you know you’re doing something right. Barnes sits just ahead of players like Paul George and Anthony Davis, too.
What’s interesting about this particular ranking is it brings together players whose games aren’t necessarily similar to one another. Klay Thompson and Bradley Beal can do plenty off the dribble, but those two have more established reputations as two of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA. Lou Williams, meanwhile, is a microwave combo guard. If you had to compare Barnes to any of his contemporaries, he does fit the Carmelo Anthony/DeMar DeRozan mold of big-bodied players who prefer the mid-range and can overwhelm smaller players with strength.
Dirk Nowitzki remains an increasingly involved player in the Mavs’ offense now that he appears to be back at full strength, which means Barnes’ touches could go down. If he can maintain this level of efficiency, though, he’s going to continue scoring in bunches. That’s an extremely impressive scoring rate.
The next step for the 24-year-old is to improve as a playmaker who can create for others within the offense. Barnes has averaged just 1.7 assists per game since Nowitzki’s return to action on Dec. 23, which coincided with the Mavs returning to their free-flowing, super-spread offense and moving away from the iso-heavy style they’d played previously. For comparison’s sake, Kawhi Leonard is averaging 3.3 dimes this season, but three seasons ago he averaged only 2.0. It can take young players time to add that element to their game while they’re still so new to handling increased scoring responsibilities.
But that’s for this offseason and the future, frankly. It’s unlikely that Barnes will end this season averaging more than a couple assists per game, but that’s OK for now, as it isn’t really his duty to share the ball quite yet, at least until opponents begin paying more attention to him. He’s demonstrated he can pass out of double-teams and move the ball against a tilted defense, but that’s really straying far from the point of this ranking, which has more to do with a player’s scoring mindset than creating ability.
Barnes has proven he can flat-out score the ball when the Mavs need him to, which at points this season has been far more than he thought it’d be when he signed with Dallas this summer. His points per touch number shows that he’s been able to maximize his opportunities when they’ve come, evidence that suggests as his workload possibly expands in the coming seasons, we can expect his per-game scoring numbers to climb much higher.
In the meantime, Barnes might not exactly be Kevin Durant, but he’s been scoring almost as efficiently as him, and the Mavs will happily take that.