“Scouts have compared him to Kobe Bryant.”
“…they called him the most complete player to come out of high school in years.”
“It’s been several years since I’ve compared a player to Kobe Bryant. Barnes is as close as you’re going to get.”
The above are excerpts from Harrison Barnes’ prospect profile on ESPN.com circa fall 2010, courtesy of noted NBA draft expert Chad Ford. Going into his freshman season at North Carolina, few players in history had ever been touted like Barnes. 6’8” with an advanced set of offensive skills, near-elite athleticism, and an ideal on-court/off-court disposition, he was the first ever freshman to be named a preseason all-american by the Associated Press.
Just under two years and relatively underwhelming seasons at Chapel Hill later, Barnes – a once surefire top pick – slipped to seventh on draft day 2012. The Warriors gladly ended his mini-slide down the board, netting a player whose production and pedigree belied those of several prospects taken before him. Given the outsized and heretofore unseen hype he received as a high-schooler and freshman, some believed Barnes was underrated.
He wasn’t Kobe Bryant and never would be, but the notion went that Barnes was still a superior prospect to guys like Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters, Thomas Robinson, and Damian Lillard – the quartet of players drafted directly before him.
Fast forward six months and almost halfway through his rookie season to the present day, and Barnes still confounds. He’s a starter for an impending playoff team, showing flashes of the two-way stardom that evoked the frequent Bryant comparisons but also the invisible, passive stretches that resulted in his reputation going from can’t-miss to disappointing.
Look no farther than this two-game stretch in mid-December: 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting in a road win over the surging Atlanta Hawks followed by a 19 minute scoreless performance in another win against the New Orleans Hornets.
That type of mind-numbing inconsistency has been commonplace for Barnes thus far in 2012-2013 as he tries to find his footing for a team with myriad offensive options like Golden State. Steph Curry and David Lee are playing at an All-Star level, Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry are two of the league’s best reserves, and Klay Thompson gets his share shots and touches, too.
There’s only so much ball to go around in The Bay, obviously, but the Warriors are a team that values quick movement and spacing as much as any other in the league. If Barnes isn’t playing aggressively it only hurts Golden State, allowing the opposition to put its primary focus on an especially effective high pick-and-roll or chasing Curry and Thompson off the three-point line.
Barnes has often struggled to find the right balance between picking his spots and forcing the issue in his rookie season, passing up open shots and driving lanes when available or getting tunnel vision while backing his man down in the mid-post. It’s a progression and nuance that takes time to learn, and the Warriors knew Barnes – team-first attitude and hard working ways not withstanding – would face an adjustment period like any other rookie. Still, one assumes they’d prefer a steady upward climb as the season wears on as opposed to the high peaks and low valleys Barnes has walked so far in his young career.
With caution, there’s recent reason to believe he might be figuring it out.
Prior to a December 22nd overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Barnes averaged 8.6 points on 40.4% from the field and 31.5% from beyond the arc, pulling down 4.1 rebounds in his 25.9 minutes per game. In the nine games since? He’s gone comparatively gangbusters, averaging 12.2 points per game with red-hot numbers from the floor (54.4%) and deep (56.5%) while grabbing .7 more rebounds in 1.3 minutes fewer on average. He’s scored in double-figures every game but two during this stretch and enjoyed a career-best performance in last night’s loss at Denver, totaling 21 points (8-11 FG, 5-6 3PT) and six rebounds in 29 minutes.
More interesting than this run of sustained offensive success, though, is how Barnes is going about it. He’s been assisted on 74.4% of his baskets since December 21st after a mark of just 58.1% prior to then, and has scored a larger chunk of his points via three-pointers (35.5% to 22.0%) and smaller piece off mid-range jumpers (3.6% to 14.7%), too.
The takeaway? Barnes is learning to score through his teammates as opposed to himself, moving to open spots and finding space for jumpers instead of putting the ball on the floor and stagnating ball movement. That realization can glean both positive and negative reactions depending on supposition
If Barnes still carried the weight of Kobe Bryant/superstar comparisons and expectations, that he’s become a glorified role player on offense would be disappointing; primary scorers, even as rookies, function that way from the beginning. But as the seventh pick in a weak draft with legitimate ‘three-and-D plus’ potential? Barnes is suddenly ahead of schedule, leaving us to wonder just how varied his offensive game can eventually become.
Unfortunately, Barnes’ offensive revolution hasn’t been met with team success. Golden State is 5-4 in their last nine games and has fallen behind their torrid win pace from two weeks ago, but that’s more to do with strength of opponent than anything else. That Barnes’ best stretch of the season has come against this level of competition means he’s capable of sustaining it over the long haul, more reason to believe the Warriors will get back to their winning ways once the schedule finally eases.
For now though, revel in the fact that Barnes didn’t live up to those lofty expectations from 2010 and before. Because if he had he certainly wouldn’t be a Warrior, currently outperforming the revised and downgraded forecast that made his draft day slide to seventh overall possible in the first place.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.
Follow Jack Winter on Twitter @armstrongwinter.