Harrison Barnes was supposed to be the future of basketball.
He was the kid compared to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan before he turned 18. The kid that had the intelligence to match his play, with a 3.6 grade point average in Ames. He was the kid that immediately understood the business of basketball, and was going to be the next kid to be a brand unto himself like LeBron James.
He’s no longer the kid, the brand, or the future. Now, he’s the question mark.
Ask fifteen different people what they think of the 22-year-old Harrison Barnes, and you might get fifteen different responses. Some will tell you he’s still that future star that’s simply hidden behind Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala in Golden State. Others will say he’s a bust, not only for someone that was considered the next great basketball player, but also just as the 7th overall pick in 2012. The reality is almost certainly somewhere in the middle, but the diverging opinion on Barnes is telling. We have no idea what he is yet.
These polarizing thoughts act in conjunction with the incongruous nature of Barnes’ game. His smooth, flowing jump shots act in juxtaposition to his jagged, mechanical ball-handling. The explosive leaping ability and athleticism that emanates from lower half doesn’t extend to his hips, which are stiff and allow for little in the way of shiftiness. Even athletically, Barnes is a walking contradiction, which makes it even harder to make heads or tails of what he can potentially become.
Can he develop a better ability to get to the rim so that he doesn’t need to rely so heavily on pull-up midrange jumpers — which took up about one-quarter of his shot attempts? And in that regard, will he ever become better at driving to the rim, where he only converted 38 percent of his shots, third-worst in the NBA among the 80 players that scored at least 150 points on drives? These are questions that Barnes hasn’t done a great job of answering in his two uneven seasons.
He’s such a question mark that we don’t even know what his best position is yet. The best stretch of basketball of Barnes’ career probably occurred during the 2013 playoffs, when Mark Jackson played him as a stretch-4 to cause matchup problems for the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs. During the Spurs series particularly, Barnes was the force that many expected him to be from the outset of his career. He averaged 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and was particularly instrumental in their Game 4 overtime win, with 11 fourth-quarter/overtime points. Maybe a corner had been turned for Barnes.
But then, the Warriors signed Iguodala and those 81 starts that Barnes made as a rookie went away. While Barnes played more minutes per game this season than the one previous, he played fewer minutes with the Warriors starters. And while David Lee was out of commission again with an injury, Draymond Green ended up taking the minutes that could have been earmarked for Barnes at the power forward spot.
Undoubtedly, this was due to a severe regression in Barnes’ play. However, this regression probably had to do with Jackson’s usage of him. Barnes did not receive consistent playing time with any singular lineup throughout the 2013-14 season. In the 2012-13 season, Barnes played nearly half of his minutes with a lineup of Stephen Curry, Thompson, Lee, and either Festus Ezeli or Andrew Bogut. This season, Barnes’ only played one-fourth of his minutes with his top-two most-used lineups. Barnes was featured in five separate lineups last season that played at least 100 minutes together. This season, that number was reduced to two despite playing more minutes overall. That type of utility usage hurt Barnes and didn’t allow him to get into any sort of distinct role. Coach Jackson undoubtedly did the sophomore player no favors in helping him to settle into a role behind Iguodala.
I don’t mean to make excuses for Barnes, as it’s pretty fair to say that was he was dreadful last season. His sub-10 PER and 48 percent true-shooting rate aside, Barnes settled for jumpers more often, attacked less, and was often unsure of his place. How else can you explain the fact that his defensive rebounding rate somehow dropped from nearly 14.5 percent to 11.9 percent, despite playing more minutes at power forward? In order to try to compete for a title last season, the Warriors lost sight of taking time to develop Barnes and it may hurt them in the future.
At this point, it’s safe to say that Barnes will never become the brand that he once wished to be so desperately. And yet still, I’m not completely sure I would put Barnes’ all-star potential completely out to pasture. There is a road for him to follow, even if these players are few and far between.
Since 1990, there have been six wings that have made the all-star game after averaging less than 10 points per game in their first two seasons: Ricky Pierce, Detlef Schrempf, Tracy McGrady, Joe Johnson, Rashard Lewis, and Gerald Wallace.
McGrady and Lewis came into the NBA directly from high school, and therefore were on different developmental timelines than Barnes should have been. Wallace is an entirely different player type than Barnes, so we should probably throw him out as well. Also, Pierce simply seems to have just been a late bloomer that thrived as an efficient scoring microwave off the bench for the Milwaukee Bucks. Not totally applicable to Barnes. However, that does leave two cases of guys who could help point to a path of stardom for Barnes.
The first one is Schrempf. Schrempf’s story was much like Barnes’ in that he had Mark Aguirre and Sam Perkins in front of him on the mid-late 1980’s Mavericks squads, holding back his playing time. He was eventually dealt to Indiana, where his playing time skyrocketed and his counting numbers went along with it. His best years though came later in his career in Seattle, where he was the third member of their own version of the “Big 3” with Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton.
The most applicable scenario is unquestionably Johnson’s. Johnson’s career didn’t really get on track until his third season, and his all-star skill level didn’t show until he was 25 after a move to the Hawks. Like Barnes, he has pretty stiff hips and is basically just a shot maker. However, there are few better in the NBA today at making difficult shots than Iso Joe. This is something that Barnes can become with continued work on his game. He’s big enough to elevate over smaller defenders, and has always had a penchant for knocking down difficult looks. Both have also always been solid wing defenders, which adds a little something to their credibility. The biggest divergences in their games are their passing abilities, as Johnson has always had pretty excellent floor vision, and their ball-handling abilities. Those are things Barnes needs to improve in order to add further dimensions to his game, and make himself more valuable as a teammate and creator.
The biggest thing to note here though is that a majority of these guys didn’t unlock their all-star talents until they had moved on to different places. And yet still, most also showed a higher level of play than Barnes has shown to this point. I do think a move away from Golden State will eventually be the right play for Barnes, but he needs to show something better on the floor first. Because of that, this is going to be the important season in his development. It’s something of make or break time for him this year. Even on a per-minute basis, Barnes needs to show a more diverse skill set offensively than what he’s given us so far. With Jackson gone and Steve Kerr in, maybe that will be the key to bringing out the best in Barnes. Maybe Klay Thompson will be dealt for Kevin Love, opening up minutes at the small forward position and a more regular rotation spot. There are a lot of ways that Barnes can make an impact for the Warriors this year, it’s just clear that it needs to happen now.
The potential shoe deal is gone, and the next Kobe he is not. He may not be the future of the basketball, but that doesn’t mean that Barnes still doesn’t have a potentially bright future. But the question marks need to end this season, and he needs to show us that future.