By Bjorn Zetterberg of SwishScout.com

 

 

In the 2006-07 season, Kevin Durant took the nation by storm as a freshman phenom, becoming the first freshman to be the Naismith Player of The Year.  The next season, Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley were big time players on the national stage as freshman, dominating the NCAA competition.  Just last year, big names John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins rocked the college basketball landscape with their play.

Ultimately, all these players made the jump to the NBA, deservedly so, after great ‘one and done’ years.  This year, the high profile player who was supposed to come in and dominate the NCAA was Harrison Barnes.  Much to the dismay of North Carolina and college basketball fans, Barnes has been, at best, relatively pedestrian.  With a player as talented as Barnes and expectations as great as they were, why has he failed to produce at a high level?

Barnes was the 2009-10 National High School Player of the Year by numerous publications and basketball experts.  He was ranked number one by the vast majority of scouting and recruiting services, and even entered this college basketball season as the unanimous number one NBA Draft choice favorite.  The accolades were abundant as Barnes led his Ames High School basketball team to a 53-0 record as a junior and senior, taking home two Iowa State 4A Titles in the process.  In last year’s McDonald’s All-American game, he was co-MVP of all-star game featuring the best prep players in the nation.  I got the opportunity to see him in person at the Nike Hoop Summit where he looked like the real deal and rallied Team USA to a comeback win over the World Team with a 27-point performance.

Barnes is a 6’8” shooting guard/small forward prototype with a good frame and great length.  As Iowa’s ‘Mr. Basketball,’ he averaged 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, and shot 43% behind the arc.  Barnes had a high basketball IQ, solid fundamentals, good all-around game, and knew how to score.  Based on his play and the accolades that came along in his fantastic high school career, he earned the hype.  Anyone who saw him play prep ball or was aware of he had done had high expectations, as they should with a player of his caliber.

However, being named First Team All-American by the Associated Press was unfair.  Barnes was the first incoming freshman in NCAA history to be bestowed with the honor before ever taking the court in college and having done nothing to earn that distinction.

The buzz and rating that Barnes generated among recruiting circles was justified, based on what he had done in his high school years.  Even knowing what we do now about his play in the first half of his freshman year, he would still garner a similar caliber of prospect ranking.  The problem was that despite zero minutes of NCAA play and a preseason All-America status, Barnes’ sheer reputation escalated expectations even further. Clearly Barnes, hasn’t lived up to it like fellow big names in his class; Kyrie Irving, Perry Jones, Jared Sullinger, and Terrance Jones have.  None of those players had the headline-grabbing attention Barnes did though coming into the season.

Coming into NCAA play this year, I expected him to produce 18-20 points per game, 6 rebounds, and a steal.  Having followed, researched, and put together a profile on him for SwishScout.com, those were fair expectations for the number one incoming freshman, based on the history of high caliber players in the NCAA.  His numbers currently; 12 points, 5 rebounds, .5 steals, and .5 blocks are good college statistics for any freshman.  But based off the standards we set for Barnes prior to the season, it’s underwhelming particularly the scoring.  He’s not taking the country by storm like Rose, Beasley, or Durant did as freshman, but he’s been decent.

Barnes has had a few nice games, but has yet to score more than 20 points in a single game this season, an amount many expected him to not only meet but simply average.  Harrison is getting his shots in games and taking them, he’s just not making them.  He is getting up 11 field goal attempts per contest, but shooting 37% from the field and 31% from three-point range has diminished his effectiveness.  Those are clearly awful shooting percentages for any player, putting Barnes in the biggest shooting slump of his career.  It just so happened that this slump occurred when the national media coverage is at its peak, so everyone is quick to say he’s a bust.

It’s important to look back at the production from Roy Williams’ wing players since the coach came to Chapel Hill in 2003. In the first year of up-tempo offensive installation, guard Rashad McCants averaged 20 points per game. The next year, the 2004-05 title run, McCants had 16 point per game but was surrounded by Sean May, Raymond Felton, and Marvin Williams to ease pressure on him.  To his credit, Rashad also capitalized on his shot attempts, shooting well above 40% in FG and 3-pt. percentages.  In 2005-06, Reyshawn Terry managed 14 points per game, and Wayne Ellington, another highly touted recruit at UNC, consistently put up 16 points per season in his career.

The Roy Williams offense hasn’t been one to facilitate a big time scorer on the wing, but rather boosted the numbers of the big men.  Post players Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough, Brandan Wright, Deon Thompson, and Ed Davis are examples of past beneficiaries under the offense.  Even this year, Tar Heel bigs Tyler Zeller andJohn Henson are putting up nice numbers at Barnes’ expense.

To put it simply, Barnes appears to be a victim of circumstance and lowly confidence shooting the ball.  He’s still the team’s second leading scorer, but nowhere near the potential he could be scoring.  If his shots were dropping at a better rate, it’s likely his numbers would mirror McCants’ ’05 campaign.  Confidence is playing a big role in the Barnes’ shooting woes and he just needs to see the ball go through the hoop to get his scoring swagger back.   He could also help his cause by being more aggressive on offense and driving to the basket, as he has looked tentative and too passive with the ball in his hands.

In terms of NBA potential, it’s pretty apparent Barnes has played his way out of that number one spot.  However, he is still among the top ten prospects, if not top five, based on his skill set and potential.  I am on record as stating I didn’t believe he would be the number one pick before the season started, but he still has great size, an NBA body, is very young (18 years old), and has tremendous upside.  Based on what I’ve seen from him in high school, his game reminds me of a Joe Johnson type scoring guard.  Barnes can become a perimeter player who can shoot but also take you off the dribble, choosing then to either pull up or get to the rim.  To do so, he will eventually have to be more assertive on offense.  Others could argue he’s not even the best NBA prospect on his team; it might very well be John Henson.

Conversely, I am of the opinion that Barnes is going through some growing pains and his game will develop.  There’s no way that at 18 he’s peaked in terms of production on the court.  Once his shot starts falling, which they will, we’ll see the look of the player whose potential could make him a star.  He has that ‘next level’ switch dormant in his game; he just hasn’t learned how to hit it yet.  Another year of college would help him reach that stage and load up UNC in 2011-12, with the additions of commits James McAdoo and PJ Hairston.

Playing for a high caliber program and basketball school like North Carolina is also a big reason that Harrison’s game is under the microscope.  With the Tar Heels’ high expectations, Barnes was anticipated to be the one who would lead them to the NCAA Tournament and beyond.  At 13-5, and 3-1 in conference, North Carolina is poised to make a run in the ACC towards the ‘Big Dance.’  Right now, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Tar Heels in the tournament as an eight seed.

Best case scenario: Barnes finishes up the season with some big scoring performances, looks like the NBA talent everyone expected, and leaves for the Draft after leading UNC on an inspired tournament run.  Worst case, Barnes struggles in conference and is unsatisfied with his lone year in Chapel Hill, opting to up his stock and return for his sophomore season on a loaded roster.  He is only 18, has three years of eligibility left, and has a great level of NBA potential, possibly more so than any player in all of the NCAA. Until the season is complete, reserve judgement on ‘bust’ statements for Barnes’ play and look at how far UNC makes it in the tournament; there’s still a lot of basketball to be played.