April 21st, 2012
I recently wrote a lengthy piece about Harrison Barnes. I delved into the Black Falcon alter-ego, born of a combination of premeditated branding and a stretch of transcendent play during the second half of his freshman year. While I’m sure Barnes did not like my suggestion that he may not have truly claimed ownership of the Black Falcon mantle, I think my evaluation was fair and evenhanded. Certainly many radical fans have been far less gentle with their criticism.
The backlash against Barnes is understandable given the way he finished his season, and is not only limited to fans. After spending most of the year as a consensus top three draft pick, Barnes is now projected in the five to nine range and some analysts have suggested he may fall even further. Given the rather precipitous drop in the Harrison Barnes stock, it came as no surprise that Barnes releasing a prototype of his Black Falcon logo was met with ridicule by many. However for all the negative press Barnes has received regarding his one dimensional game and his preoccupation with his brand,1 there remains a flip side to that coin.
I was never sure about Barnes as a top three pick. Players at that level are usually expected to have All-Star potential and are looked at to become starters in their first season. But, one of the mistakes people make about the NBA draft is overemphasizing the importance of picks outside the top three. In the NFL, even mid second round picks can come in and compete for a starting spot and many are regular starters by their third season. But the NFL has twenty-two starting positions compared to the NBA’s five. Furthermore the shelf life of most NFL positions is much shorter than that of an NBA star. The current NBA scoring leader (Kobe Bryant) is in his 15th season as is the player #2 in assists (Steve Nash). Tyson Chandler leads the league in FG% in his 10th season and Jason Kidd starts for the defending champs in his 17th year. Taken together, the point is that first round NBA picks face a lot more competition for playing time than do first round picks in most other sports.
Back to Barnes, being picked five to nine with many doubting his ability to be anything more than a great jump shooter will allow him to enter the league bereft of the astronomically high expectations which arrived with him at Chapel Hill. Will the fans of whatever team drafts him still get their hopes up? Sure. Will Barnes actively attempt to augment this hype to further build his brand? It’s certainly likely. But overall from a league wide and media perspective, not too much will be expected of the Black Falcon.2 He won’t be on the preseason all-NBA team. He may not even be on the preseason all-rookie team.3 The point is that for the first time in a while, Barnes’ doubters may outweigh his hype in the offseason. I have no idea what effect this will have on him, but certainly a case could be made that it will add to his focus and determination.
The next thing that may be falling in Barnes’ favor is the teams picking in that five to nine range. With the caveat that crazy things happen in the NBA lottery and teams get very trade happy on draft night, GMs who currently would hold picks five to nine in June are the Cavs, Raptors, Trail Blazers, Jazz and Pistons. With the exception of perhaps the Raptors, all of those teams have enough talent and potential star power already in place that Barnes would not be burdened with any presupposition that he would be the savior of the team or the superstar to build a franchise around. In contrast if he were a top three pick he could potentially land at Charlotte or New Orleans.4
We all know the scenario in which Barnes is a bust. He comes in as a 6’8” spot up shooter who can’t create his shot and give marginal effort rebounding and playing defense. But there is also a fairly reasonable scenario in which Barnes comes in and leads all rookies in scoring. While the NBA has much better defenders than some of the those who gave Barnes problems in college, it also has significantly more spacing, allowing Barnes to execute the pre-rehearsed shots he loves. And while the end of the season certainly highlighted Barnes’ limitations in creating for himself off the dribble, his one-dimensionality may be a bit overstated. It will be a surprise if Barnes suddenly starts attacking the basket like Wade or LeBron, but he has shown an ability to hit a shot from pretty much anywhere on the floor and could certainly manage to get off eight to ten shots in 20+ minutes of play.
Furthermore, while this is a strong draft class, the top half of the first round is not particularly heavy on players whose expertise is scoring. Anthony Davis is a can’t miss #1 prospect who can start as an impact rookie, but I would be surprised if he averaged much more than 12 PPG. The other big men in the first round are either undersized (TRob, Sullinger), projects (Perry Jones, Andre Drummond) or more in the mold of bench contributors (Zeller, Kidd Gilchrist will be very good on defense and in transition but still needs to work a lot on his shooting before he really takes off as a scorer5). Brad Beal and Austin Rivers are the only other true scorers in the top half of the first round.6 Rivers will probably fall to a team that has too much talent for him to have a realistic chance at starting, so to lead rookies in scoring he would have to be a Jason Terry/Delonte West type who provides firepower off the bench.7 If Barnes were to end up on a team like the Cavs alongside a capable point in Kyrie Irving it would be completely reasonable to imagine him putting up 12-16 PPG, which may be enough to lead all rookies in the points department.
Going even further, let’s assume that he has a great rookie season which translates into a solid career and several All-Star appearances. He is never Kobe or MJ as perhaps he would like, but ends up being one of the top 10-15 players in the league for a stretch of seasons. Suddenly in 10 years many people are looking at his honored jersey in the rafters and thinking of an NBA All-Star rather than someone who barely snuck onto the first team All ACC. More importantly recruits who were never alive for the MJ era see an NBA star UNC alum whom they can look up to, rather than a #1 recruit who stayed two years and saw his draft stock fall.
I am not trying to say that Barnes will do all of this, just that there it is a possibility just as much as Barnes playing in the NBA development league in three years. Ultimately he is 6’8” and has one of the best jump shots of anyone who will be taken in the NBA draft. For all the talk about preoccupation with his brand, he is still a competitor. And for everything we all claim to know about the person and player he is, Barnes will only be twenty years old when he is drafted in June. Over the past two years we’ve seen the consequences of building him up to superstar status before he earned it on the court. We have learned that lesson. I think it would be wise to avoid having to learn another by not throwing too much dirt on his grave before he has played a minute in the NBA. There are a couple ways his career could go. Let’s just sit back and cheer for it to go one way rather than claiming to know it will go either.
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