The Harrison Barnes Conundrum: The Difficult Valuation of a Young Role Player

Harrison Barnes was an important member of the champion Warriors, but how valuable is he exactly? Role player or future star?

Golden State Warriors wing Harrison Barnes might be the toughest player in the NBA to evaluate.

On one hand, you have a  Basketball Reference query like this:

Click here for larger chart

Look at that list! Only four players ever have matched what Barnes did last season with Golden State – playing a ton of minutes but also being incredibly efficient in his role.

However, then you look at his usage rate last year -- 14.9% -- and it’s not fair to group him in with those guys, who have accomplished those statistical feats while also using a very high number of plays and being “the man” on an offense. That’s a big caveat.

But you then have to balance that with the fact that Barnes hasn’t been the only player in history to be in an optimal situation as the fourth guy on a really good team. However, he was the only one ever to put up those numbers.

You see here, the problem with evaluating Barnes -- he’s probably the best-ever fourth option on a team in NBA history. But what does that mean for the future? What happens if he’s suddenly not the fourth option? Golden State locked up Draymond Green this offseason, but what happens if Barnes has to take on an increased role?

The reason this is important is because of James Harden.

The Thunder-Rockets trade has gone down as the biggest, most important, or whatever you want to call it, trade in NBA history. Harden is a superstar now – he was legitimately one of the best two or three players in the world last year – and the Rockets got him before everyone realized this fact. Harden was playing behind already-superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City and the same sort of “what is he exactly?” evaluation problem existed.

Both have pedigree -- Barnes was the number-one player going into his freshman season at UNC and still was drafted in the top-10 by the Warriors despite two underwhelming seasons in Chapel Hill. Harden wasn’t as highly recruited but put together an All-American season at Arizona State that led to the Thunder taking him in the top five of the draft.

The question for Barnes -- and this is what makes superstars superstars -- is whether he can ramp up his usage without sacrificing too much efficiency. You can say that is the definition of a star, put simply -- LeBron James is able to finish a laughable amount of possessions and still remain even kind-of efficient. People bashed on James for his inefficiency in the past NBA Finals, but when you juxtapose that with his 40.8% usage rate -- again, laughably high -- it’s amazing he was able to even sniff a .500 true-shooting percentage (TS%).

Can Barnes increase his usage without killing the efficiency that made him so valuable this past season? Let’s look at Barnes’ numbers without Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, per

Barnes SplitsUsage%True Shooting%
'14-'15 Total14.957.3
Curry off16.954.6
Curry & Thompson off17.953.7

As you’d expect, usage increases and efficiency decreases. However, how far would it fall if Barnes had the usage of a first- or second-option player? There were 26 players last season who had a usage rate of at least 25.0% and played at least 2,000 minutes. By the way, Barnes’ teammate in Curry was the top of the list, posting a true-shooting percentage of .638 despite a high usage rate of 28.9%.

If we used the numbers in the table above to estimate Barnes’ true-shooting percentage at 25.0% usage -- I know, it’s a small sample size, but let’s just roll with it for a second -- Barnes would have a TS% of approximately .449. Out of the 26 players that posted a 25.0% usage rate or higher, that would rank dead last, behind DeMar DeRozan, Monta Ellis, Tyreke Evans, Kemba Walker, and Michael Carter-Williams.

We also have to factor in that things get harder if you’re the first option against starters. When Curry and Thompson are both off the floor and Barnes sees a higher usage rate, it’s generally against back up units. So perhaps that true-shooting number would dip even more against starting defenders.

Again, this is not an exact science -- the Thunder incorrectly evaluated Harden and I could very well be incorrectly evaluating Barnes. He was the best fourth option of all time last year by the data, but I think there are legitimate questions about what happens if the responsibility increases. He probably will get the opportunity this year, as the Warriors could try to get a little more rest this year for Curry and Thompson after blitzing the league last season.

Plugged-in writers have clamored that Barnes will get a lot of money when he hits free agency. And it’s deserved -- again, look at the Basketball Reference picture above! This article is less about questioning Barnes and more about showing how tough it is to evaluate a player. In basketball, player values are so incredibly entangled. An All-Star on one team is perhaps a detriment on another.

Is Barnes an outstanding role player or a budding star? I’m not sure anyone knows.