NEW YORK -- Three weeks ago, Harrison Barnes was seen as a $94 million punchline. He was the guy who airballed wide-open jumpers in the NBA Finals as the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead, and he was the guy who sat on the end of the bench for much of Team USA's march to gold at the Rio Olympics. Barnes had been a starter for a transcendent team, but the Dallas Mavericks giving him a maximum contract represented the absurdity of the league's salary-cap spike.

The jokes multiplied with Barnes' poor play in the preseason, where he had trouble adjusting to his new surroundings. In seven exhibition games, he averaged 6.9 points and 3.3 rebounds while shooting 26.7 percent and 16.7 percent from 3-point range.

On ESPN's The Jump with Rachel Nichols, seven-time All-Star Tracy McGrady groused that he never signed a contract like Barnes' in his career. The segment was titled, "Harrison Barnes' awful preseason a bad sign?" SB Nation left no room for debate, publishing a story entitled, "Harrison Barnes' terrible preseason should scare Mavericks fans."

Barnes, though, wasn't worried. This was far from the first time he was under the microscope. When he was at North Carolina after being the top-ranked player in his high school class, critics chastised him for not being assertive enough on the court and for being too polished off it. In his second season with Golden State, he was labeled a disappointment when he struggled in Mark Jackson's isolation-heavy offense. He had to stay patient.

"A lot of the shots I was getting, they were good shots," Barnes said of his preseason struggles. "They were open 3s. They were uncontested pull-up jumpers. A lot of that for me was just saying, 'It's mental. Just makes and misses.' Now if I had been taking really tough, contested shots, bad shots, shooting over double teams and that type of stuff, now that I could reevaluate. But in the preseason, I was just saying, 'Look, stick with it, keep shooting, those shots will fall.'"

And fall they did, as soon as the regular season started. On opening night against the Indiana Pacers, Barnes scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, hitting the late 3-pointer that forced overtime. Two days later, he scored a career-high 31 points against the Houston Rockets. He has since eclipsed that mark with a 34-point effort against the Milwaukee Bucks, and he's averaging 22.3 points, 5.9 rebounds with a true shooting percentage of 57.1 percent.

With Dirk Nowitzki, Deron Williams and Devin Harris out of the lineup lately, Barnes has been forced into a starring role. The way he has accepted it, Dallas has no buyer's remorse.

"I love what I've seen," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. "Initially, he was being deferential and trying to fit in. And with D-Will and Dirk and Devin being down, our primary scorers, it was like, he has no choice. He knew he had to be that guy and he's been phenomenal. I mean, when we played the Warriors, he was getting triple-teamed and scoring. His footwork now, his shot, he's just been able to show so many things that we had not seen before."

Before his ninth regular-season game in a Mavs uniform, Barnes said that he feels more confident and comfortable every night. The question is no longer whether or not he can do more than he did in Golden State -- it's whether or not he can be what Dallas thinks he can be.

Harrison Barnes back at Oracle
Harrison Barnes' basketball life is a lot different with Dallas. USATSI

Cuban said that the front office looked back at Barnes' first season when making its big bet on him. In the 2013 playoffs, he had a couple of huge games against the Denver Nuggets in the first round and a couple more against the San Antonio Spurs in the second round.

"He was dominating," Cuban said. "He was their best player. We thought that was still there. We just had to create the opportunity to bring it out of him."

Part of it was the Mavericks seeing hidden talent. Part of it was them believing that he's the kind of guy who can harness it. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said Barnes is "one of the best workers I've ever been around in the NBA," and Cuban went further, saying that he has the characteristics necessary to be a franchise player.

"Harrison is mentally tough," Cuban said. "He definitely has that quality. He has that gene. He's focused, he's intense, he works hard. He works as hard as Dirk. I mean, I think, in the system he's played in, though, he's played to the system. And now he's gotta be the system in a lot of respects. And so that'll be his challenge: Does he have that f--- you in him?"

Andrew Bogut remembers walking into the Warriors locker room four years ago and not knowing what to expect of their rookie small forward. Barnes had a lot of hype coming out of high school, and in college an article in The Atlantic did him no favors when it came to his reputation -- he told the magazine that part of the reason he returned to UNC for a second season was that it would help him build his personal brand.

"Out of college, he had an asshole rep," Bogut said. "People said he was arrogant and he was an ass. But I had the same rep with people that don't know me. So, when I met him, it was like, he's pretty similar to me. People think it for whatever reason -- it's the complete opposite. He's a very genuine guy. Very well engaged with what's going on in the world. You can talk to him about different things. He's a great dude. He's a man of principle."

Justin Anderson already sees his new, 24-year-old teammate as a leader. After Barnes signed with the Mavericks, he called Anderson to offer advice for summer league. He told Anderson to dominate in Las Vegas, but the story he shared was more significant. With the Warriors, Barnes thought he was being pushed into the background when they signed Andre Iguodala in the summer of 2013. It took him a while to realize that Iguodala wasn't there to replace him, and they could both be successful.

Barnes wanted Anderson to know that they needed to work with each other, and the younger swingman shouldn't be afraid to reach out and talk. Anderson said it has been "a pleasure to play alongside" Barnes, adding that he hopes they can develop together.

"Why wouldn't that be a guy that you want to build around and start something with?" Anderson said.

Harrison Barnes warms up
The Mavs love Harrison Barnes' work ethic. USATSI

Barnes started strong against the Knicks on Monday, getting the best of his matchup with a 7-foot-3 unicorn. First he hit a jumper over Kristaps Porzingis, then blew past him for a dunk. When Carmelo Anthony matched up with him, Barnes used a rip-through move to draw a foul. At halftime he had a game-high 16 points and the undermanned Mavs held a slight lead.

In the second half, though, New York's small lineup broke the game open. Barnes' former Warriors teammate, Justin Holiday, slowed him down defensively -- he scored just four points after halftime. When he couldn't get good looks, Dallas' offense died down.

The 93-77 loss put the Mavs at 2-7 on the season. Afterward, Barnes was in no mood to talk about his individual play.

"Losing sucks," Barnes said. "There's no joy in that."

For now, this is the trade-off. Instead of being a complementary piece on a championship contender, he's being featured -- and challenged -- on a team that is going to have to fight just to have a chance at making the playoffs.

Teams are starting to focus their game plans on Barnes, and he's going to have to deal with double-teams that he never saw in Golden State. Barnes said it's easier to find his rhythm now, though, as he's getting more touches and he knows where they're coming from.

"He's definitely driven," Bogut said. "That's why he wanted this opportunity to be on a team where he's the No. 1, No. 2 option. He's relishing that opportunity so far. He's the only guy that's really putting the ball in the hole for us on a consistent basis from the start of the season. He's putting the work in when you guys aren't here and he's putting the work in when the lights are off."

That work is most obvious when you look at what he's doing off the dribble and inside the arc. Barnes has made 29 of his 51 attempts from 15 feet out to the 3-point line. He praised new Mavs player development coach God Shammgod for helping him with his ballhandling, and Carlisle for practicing with purpose, preparing him for situations he'll encounter in games.

"I've always liked the mid-range," Barnes said. "I got killed early on in my first couple years just because people were saying it's not an efficient shot -- 3s and dunks, that's what you're supposed to do. It's been good that I've been able to continue to work on that. Coach is supportive of the mid-range shot. He's not a 3-or-dunk type of person. And I've been able to make 'em."

Typically, those are the kind of shots that only superstars like Nowitzki make at a high volume. Unable to share the court with Barnes much yet because of an injury, the future Hall of Famer has been impressed by his approach and his work ethic. "We gotta lock him out of the gym at times," Nowitzki said, adding that the two of them will need to figure out how to play off each other when he returns.

None of this means Barnes will necessarily reach stardom, live up to his contract and be the face of the franchise when Nowitzki retires. For now, Carlisle will simply say he has a chance to be one of the Mavericks' pillars, and he wants as much responsibility as Dallas can give him. Make or miss, Barnes knows that he must keep firing away.