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Harrison Barnes’ passing raises the Kings’ ceiling

In his ninth season, Barnes keeps finding ways to add to this game.

Sacramento Kings v Miami Heat Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Zach Lowe of ESPN called Harrison Barnes the most under-appreciated player in the NBA, saying that “There are a lot of NBA teams that would be better if Harrison Barnes were on their team.”

The Kings have certainly benefited from Barnes’ career year at age 28, and Lowe went in depth in his weekly 10 Things as to what Barnes has brought to the table this year to help the team: his passing.

He is dishing 3.6 dimes per game, double his career average. He’s seeing passes earlier, and making more advanced reads — kickouts to the player one link further down the chain than the defense expects.

He maintains the pace of Sacramento’s offense, and sometimes amps it up, with instant extra passes:

Need a pick-and-roll late in the shot clock? Barnes can do that — or screen for one of Sacramento’s guards. Want to exploit a mouse in the house? Barnes can do that, too.

The 3.6 assists that Barnes is averaging per game easily shatters his previous career high of 2.2. It’s not simply that he’s playing more minutes, though this is the highest minutes total of his career, because his assist percentage is also his best ever at 13.9. That means his passes directly lead to 13.9 percent of the team’s baskets when Barnes is on the floor.

Barnes has decreased his isolation and post up frequencies this year. Instead, he’s spending more time in situations where he can create for others, like as a pick-and-roll ball handler. The Kings score 1.14 points per possession when Barnes runs a pick-and-roll, which puts him in the 92nd percentile of ball handlers.

Barnes has also been good at finding his teammates in transition, which account for 20 percent of his possessions. Sacramento scores 1.30 points per possession on the break, and sometimes it’s as simple as Barnes leaving the ball for a trailing Buddy Hield instead of bullying his way into the post where there may not be advantage.

The connection between Barnes and Hield has been quite fruitful. 16 of Barnes’ 75 assists have gone to Hield, and the sharpshooter connects on 48.3 percent of his threes when Barnes passes to him, compared to 37.6 percent otherwise. Barnes has also assisted on 12 of Marvin Bagley’s field goals, and Bagley’s field-goal percentage increases 4.1 percent off of Barnes passes.

What’s great about Barnes’ growth as a passer is that his turnover rate is still manageable. He’s long been one of the least turnover-prone players in the league, but he still turns the ball over less frequently than 23 of forwards despite his increased distribution. Becoming more proficient as a passer also helps Barnes’ individual scoring efficiency because he isn’t forcing as many shots, as Barnes’ true-shooting percentage is a career-best.

Sacramento’s offense is 7.6 points per 100 possessions better with Barnes playing, the second-best margin among rotation players after Richaun Holmes. Barnes isn’t regularly making highlights like De’Aaron Fox or Tyrese Haliburton, but his impact is undeniable. The Kings offense needed more playmaking, and Barnes has been able to provide that through his individual improvement, an impressive feat at this point in his career.

There will be calls to trade Barnes considering his championship and his age relative to Sacramento’s young core, but for now it’s nice to watch him propel the Kings forward. As Lowe said, it’s overwhelmingly clear this team is better with Harrison Barnes on it.