Seemingly random scoring outbursts aren't exactly a rare sight in the Las Vegas Summer League, where the perfect storm of talent disparity and scrambled, unorganized defense opens up opportunities for players that they might not have found otherwise.
Scorers with a clean stroke and good ball skills can go a long way on the perfectly arbitrary scoreboard, but in the process at least give some vague hint of their scoring instinct or skill, however tied up in the weird dynamic of Summer League they might be.
But the inaugural day of the 2012 Vegas Summer League brought a supernova remarkable even by the event's own unique standard. Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson erupted for a combined 47 points on just 26 shots for the Golden State Warriors—enough output to nearly eclipse the opposing Los Angeles Lakers' 50-point total on their own.
Thompson's surge was to be expected given his sharpshooting for Golden State last season, but Barnes was even more fluid and efficient than one might have otherwise expected. The game opened up completely for Barnes, who converted each of his four three-point attempts, and balanced spot-up shooting with smart, well-executed drives.
"Coach Jackson talked to me a lot about just being aggressive so I'm just trying to do the best I can," Barnes told Bleacher Report. "He just told me to not necessarily be worried about failing or doing things wrong, and just whatever you do, do it aggressively."
Barnes and his teammates were clearly equipped to blow the Lakers' outmatched Summer League team out of the water, but that didn't make such a stark performance any less impressive considering Barnes' underwhelming college performance.
A stint at North Carolina was supposed to groom one of the nation's elite prospects into an easy top pick, and yet two years in Chapel Hill only brought about a chorus of doubt. Barnes drifted to the No. 7 pick in the 2012 NBA draft, and Barnes' efficiency and consistency were rightfully brought into question.
Neither was a problem in his Summer League debut, where he instantly made himself comfortable in scrambling for the game's opening points and never relented. Barnes unleashed hell in transition and half-court situations alike, prematurely ending an exhibition before it could even approach competitive relevance. It was, in a way, the kind of decisive performance the UNC faithful had long been waiting for, yet whether it was a revelation or a cruel tease remains to be seen.
Regardless, Barnes regarded his on-court success with reason and modesty. This game was a success and a release, but the real work and more pertinent trials would go on behind closed doors.
"Our practices are definitely trying to get us ready for the regular season," Barnes said, "so we'll be able to translate [our Summer League success] to [the regular season] just on defensive principles.
"That's the biggest thing we're trying to focus on—just playing good defense and making sure people get to their spots and rotations, so that when we go to training camp in the fall, we won't be slowing down the veterans."
It's not surprising that Barnes would play down his early Summer League triumph; he's a truly thoughtful athlete, even to a fault. He may not always see the most efficient alternative to an ill-advised jumper, but he seems to grasp the bigger picture in a more general sense, and at least make an effort to put everything into the proper context. Sometimes that results in a logical contortion regarding his place in the basketball universe, but such consideration also leads Barnes to an honest understanding of how winding the road to being a successful pro can be.
He dropped 23 in his first semi-official NBA game, but this is still a step in an understood process. Following the game, Barnes admitted that he's still adjusting to the NBA's NCAA-divergent defensive three-second rule. He noted that, schematically speaking, he's transitioning from playing full denial defense to the penetration-preventative style that successful D in the NBA demands. He already has an understanding of the shift in physicality from the collegiate level, and embraced the challenge of working within such a different game.
He even took a moment to analyze and appreciate the astounding quality of NBA athletes—those who would come to test Barnes in the months to come, and provide the benchmark for his performance from this point forward.
"Guys [in the NBA]," Barnes said, "they can eat the floor up. You can see it a little bit in Summer League, but with guys like LeBron [James], who can just cover so much space, you really have to be efficient with your dribbles and playmaking."
And so Barnes moves forward with all kinds of directives, instructions and goals—all intertwining and important in their own way, and not lost upon such a grounded rookie. He'll be charged with finding a balance in his game that he could never consistently muster at North Carolina, and in the process reject two years of NCAA precedent to make claim to a more promising future as a pro. No bit of his career is in the least way guaranteed, and every step taken will be one against a steep, uncompromising incline.
But Barnes' first pro performance—even while fitted with an asterisk and undercut by the setting itself—suggested that despite all the doubt and difficulty, the ascent of the former Tar Heel and newly christened Warrior could prove to be a bit easier than just about anyone thought.
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