Stephen Curry becoming a star was conceivable. Klay Thomspon was bound to shoot the lights out some games. Andrew Bogut getting 10 points and ten boards also not far-fetched. But the breakout and emergence of rookie small forward Harrison Barnes was surprising to say the least. At least it was surprising it happened this soon into his young career.
Barnes was a preseason All-American before he ever played a single game at the University of North Carolina. He was supposed to be the best player in college and have the ability to score whenever he wanted and take over games much like some of the currents NBA greats did.
But the expectations and hype was far too high and Barnes struggled to find his niche in college. He often looked lost and disinterested. He lacked the competitiveness and aggression to demand the ball. He struggled down the stretch of games and was not a big game performer. In two seasons at North Carolina, Barnes’ career-high was 27 and he scored 26 two other times. He simply could not get his shot whenever he wanted, often scoring between five to 15 points and not 15 to 30.
In turn, the best player in the 2010 college recruiting class became the 7th pick in the 2012 draft and fell to the lap of the Golden State Warriors.
Coming into the NBA, Barnes was not supposed to carry the team immediately, but instead be a quality young small forward, score some, defend his position and learn how to perform at a high level against the world’s best competition.
Barnes averaged only 25 minutes per game in the regular season, tallying a little more than nine points and four rebounds per game. In 81 regular season games, Barnes scored more than 15 points only nine times and more than 20 points only twice. (21 being his regular season career-high)
Much like in college, Barnes often looked lost on offense and struggled to consistently make three pointers, one of the strengths of the Warriors backcourt.
Barnes shot 3-of-10 from three’s from the center of the arc and 15-of-49 from the right wing. He did make his corner threes but his combined attempts from the left and right corner are still less than his attempts from the right side of the arc. He struggled from mid-range, shooting less than 35 percent from all mid-range spots except for in the right 18 foot range.
All of this meant that Barnes only played about 25 minutes per game and did not have the confidence of coach Mark Jackson.
But his regular season struggles went away faster than the Milwaukee Bucks in the postseason, and Barnes immediately elevated his play. Jackson said of Barnes, “we’ve seen a guy grow up right before our very eyes,” Jackson said. “As soon as the regular season stopped and the postseason started he has he elevated his game. He has embraced the moment, he has embraced the spotlight and he has played with tremendous poise and great confidence.”
Barnes had a regular season, Barnes-like game in his postseason debut against the Denver Nuggets, scoring only eight points in 28 minutes. But came back in Game 2 and played like a different guy from that point forward. He dropped 24 points in only 34 minutes, also tallying six rebounds and knocking down two threes.
At the time, that was Barnes’ career-high in points but Barnes would go onto score, 25 and 26 points against the San Antonio Spurs. In Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Barnes had a 26-point, 10-rebound double-double, his most prolific game as a professional. Only about a week earlier, Barnes had his first career playoff double-double scoring 19 points and gathering 10 rebounds.
Barnes also was much more consistent and effective from three in the postseason, shooting 7-of-16 from the left side of the arc, and more than 30 percent from the center and right. He also made more of his mid–range jumpers.
In the absence of David Lee, Barnes appeared to be the perfect small-ball four. A guy who can consistently guard bigger power forwards and also have enough offensive talent to stretch the opposing defense and take advantage of his speed mismatch. Both Denver and San Antonio could not pack the paint with Barnes on the floor and the extra floor spacing provided more space for Stephen Curry, Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson to drive. Barnes was also able to beat Spurs power forward Boris Diaw off the dribble multiple times as well as take advantage of the slower, less athletic Tiago Spiltter.
Barnes had a breakout postseason and appears to be the third young piece in the Warriors puzzle. Coach Mark Jackson also now knows that he has found the perfect small ball four and is able to use even more lineups and add even more complexity to the offense in the future. Expect Barnes to come back next year with an even better game from the perimeter and a more aggressive mindset from the get-go.