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NBA Draft - A Look at the Game, and Mind, of Harrison Barnes

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With reports indicating the Cleveland Cavaliers may be trying to move up in the NBA Draft to select Bradley Beal of Florida, it seems as though a clear majority of commenters and voters on Fear the Sword are content to stay at number 4 and let Chris Grant take whatever is left after Charlotte and Washington make their selections. This would mean, without a major surprise, that the Cavaliers would likely be deciding between Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of Kentucky, Andre Drummond of Connecticut, or Harrison Barnes of North Carolina (I have yet to read a single report or rumor or guess (outside of our very own Editor) who has linked Thomas Robinson to the Cavaliers, although he did reportedly outplay Drummond in a team workout). This post will explore the man that is Harrison Barnes, where his game stands today, and how he might live up to the unfair expectations wrought upon him.

I spent a large majority of the season just wishing that the Cavaliers would have the opportunity to take Harrison Barnes, even as he went through his second season of ups and pronounced downs wearing tar heel blue. It looked, before injuries to Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao, that the Cavs would be picking in the 8-12 range, and Barnes has been projected as a top 5 pick since his sophomore year of high school. If the NBA age requirement didn't exist, Barnes would have been drafted first overall straight out of high school. As most Cavs fans pine for MKG or Brad Beal, this is perhaps helpful to keep in mind. Barnes has the opportunity to become an excellent NBA player, and the Cavaliers have an opportunity to add him to their roster.

The consensus on Barnes, at the time, was that he was a smooth but explosive athlete with the prototypical size (6-8, 225 pounds) for an NBA Small Forward. He was an advanced jump shooter who slid down the lane with ease and finished with authority. The game looked easy for him. On top of all of this, he was well-spoken and intelligent, and discussed the importance of his chosen college's academic reputation. He managed his reputation with great care, fully aware of how the media in the age of twitter and 24 hour Sportscenter can magnify any type of controversial statement. At the time, scouts and prognosticators looked at Barnes' self-awareness and attempts at successfully branding himself as positive. He was a future NBA all-star, and put to rest at an early age that he would have any of the emotional or reputational baggage that found ways to damage players like Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Stephen Jackson, Antoine Walker, and countless others.

After two years of good but less than spectacular college ball, however, that type of constant consideration of his persona has come off as something else for certain members of the sports writing community. Pompous. Presumptuous. Harrison Barnes, the kid who as a Freshman at North Carolina was named a preseason All-American, is now getting hammered by fans and media for the temerity to be interested in projecting himself as an intelligent, business savvy basketball player. Because at a time when kids from modest backgrounds find themselves in professional sports with little financial education, and often find themselves broke after a few years out of the game, we definitely want to denigrate those that want to avoid putting themselves in that situation. We definitely want to discourage kids from wanting people to like them, for wanting to create an image that they can then profit from through endorsements. Harrison Barnes may not have ended up being the one-and-done superstar North Carolina Small Forward who brought another national title to Chapel Hill, but he does leave Tobacco Road as a certain lottery pick. The same people that helped feed the hype machine around Barnes are now the people who want to call him a failure before he makes his professional debut.

After 600 words of easy media bashing, it is probably time to start looking at something that may actually matter to Cleveland Cavaliers fans, should they make him the 4th pick on Thursday night: How good can Harrison Barnes be in the NBA? He is no longer the slam dunk all-star people thought they saw in high school, but the all-star potential is still there. He still has ideal size, and a great wing span that will make it easier for him to defend. What is less clear is if he has the lateral quickness to stay with NBA Small Forwards, or the intensity to challenge himself to stay with those guys. He still has the jump shot that makes it look easy for him to get baskets in the mid-range or from distance, but perhaps not the ability to get to a spot on the floor on his own to create those looks and succeed with a high percentage. As regards his game, the adjective smooth, preferred by many watching him play high school, has too often been replaced with slow.

So how did Barnes actually perform at North Carolina? In a vacuum, he didn't play bad. But players at North Carolina don't play in a vacuum, and preseason All-Americans don't play in a vacuum. The expectations were absurd. As a sophomore, Barnes played 29 minutes a game, scoring 17 points per game on 44% shooting. He shot 36% from three point range. He shot a pedestrian 72% from the free throw line, and averaged only 1 assist per game while turning it over twice per game. He snagged 5 rebounds per game, which actually is impressive considering that he played with three lottery pick bigs in Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and James McAdoo who are all capable on the boards. A season in which people assumed 22 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists were a near certainty for Barnes didn't quite live up to the billing, and he went from being the presumptive first overall choice for this draft to now hoping he stays in the top 5. His ball handling, at the very least, will have to improve at the next level if he wants to create his own offense. At minimum, his floor is Marvin Williams, but his defensive ability and transition game should be better because of his speed.

But then there was the combine. He had the highest standing vertical of any of the participants, and tested faster than any other participant in the 3/4 court sprint. It is difficult to reconcile the game tape with the metrics of the combine. Further complicating things, are the steady reports of phenomenal workouts Barnes has turned in. While it was reported that Beal outplayed Barnes in Cleveland (by a nose), Harrison has been impressing everywhere he has gone, if the reports are to be believed, and Barnes is even in contention to be taken 2nd overall by the Charlotte Bobcats.

With the obvious disclaimer that I am just another in a long line of amateur psychologists who happen to be sports fans, I have a theory as to why Barnes play didn't translate at North Carolina like many assumed it would. The same aspects of his self-awareness and inability to shield himself from the constant analysis of his strengths and shortcomings and ebbs and flows of his draft stock led to a style of play that can be described as self-conscious and scared. He knew everyone wanted him to be the go-to scorer and to live up to the hype as a transcendent scorer, and it led him to force things that weren't there. He was playing with several other players who are likely to be first round picks, and it caused him to hesitate about putting the team on his back, and it led to awkward offense. In other words, I just don't think he was ever comfortable, and I don't think he ever played instinctively, and I don't think he was ever able to get out of his own head and let the game come to him.

I still believe Harrison Barnes is an elite athlete. I still believe he can be a great shooter, from all over the court. But he is going to have to believe that, and he is going to have to know when to use his elite athletic skills, and he is going to have to know when the defense is giving him a look or taking a specific look away. It really wasn't so long ago that Harrison Barnes and Kyrie Irving were sharing high school all-star game MVP awards. Neither one had the college career they wanted as heralded recruits headed to UNC and Duke. Kyrie seems to be doing just fine in the Wine and Gold. We will learn soon enough whether Barnes will get the chance to do the same.