Barnes was not only the nation's top recruit out of Iowa's Ames High School in 2010, but also the honorary next Michael Jordan of that year's class. He ended up playing for the North Carolina Tar Heels as well, but the comparisons would have poured in no matter what school he attended.
In college, Barnes did not play like Jordan. In fact, he gained a reputation as a player whose effort level did not always match his talent level and whose performance suffered in big games. As a result, the comparisons disappeared completely.
After a disappointing two-year college career, Barnes fell to No. 7 in the 2012 NBA draft. In that year's loaded class, however, going as high as Barnes did was no small feat.
Many believed he would make a better professional than college player. This was due to the college game favoring facilitators, spot-up shooters and bigs, while the NBA tends to cater to athletic wings who can score in transition and create their own shot on the perimeter.
ESPN's Jay Bilas elaborated on why Barnes' physical tools boded well for a stronger NBA career in a 2012 interview with the Charlotte Observer:
He has a 38-inch standing vertical jump. No one his size has that. His speed and agility were spectacular, too. I think it's fair to say he's a thinker and in college he was process-oriented. Once he gets to the NBA, the game is a little more wide open. It's called closer, so players can't have their hands on you on the perimeter and that will help him.
Through his first year-plus in the NBA, Barnes has continued to hover in a vague space between future star and underachiever.
While his game has indeed transferred wonderfully to the pros—he made the All-Rookie First Team and was the only player on either All-Rookie team to appear in the postseason—he has continued to demonstrate inconsistent intensity and effort.
Barnes became a fascinating barometer player for Golden State last season. The team went 25-9 when he went for 10 or more points and 14-2 when he grabbed seven or more rebounds.
When Barnes failed to score in double digits, the Golden State Warriors went 22-26, and when the rookie small forward tallied six boards or less, the team went 33-33.
From a team perspective, this simply meant that an active, aggressive, engaged Barnes was great news. From a personal standpoint, this indicated a troubling continuation of the disappearing act that plagued him in college.
However, the rookie's inconsistency was quickly forgotten after a breakout playoff performance.
An injury to All-Star power forward David Lee in Game 1 of the playoffs versus the Denver Nuggets allowed Mark Jackson to try Barnes as a stretch 4, and the results were astounding. After regular-season averages of 9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds, Barnes averaged 16.4 points and 6.4 rebounds throughout his 12 playoff games.
Not only did this help him shed his reputation as a player who shrinks under the bright lights, but it also triggered a chorus of hype that had not been attached to Barnes' name since high school.
There were proclamations that Barnes would be the league's most improved player in 2013-14, and cries that the 21-year-old should replace Lee as the team's starting power forward. The hype was such that many wanted to see Lee—the team's first All-Star in 16 years—traded away.
After the team signed Andre Iguodala and made it clear that Lee was staying put, the focus shifted to Barnes and his viability as a bench player. Some pegged him as the front-runner for the Sixth Man of the Year award, while others worried that a bench role may be poisonous for a player who already has trouble maintaining his focus on a nightly basis.
Thus far, Barnes has defied both expectations.
A slew of unforeseen challenges is partially to blame. He missed several weeks of the preseason and the first four games of the regular season with a foot injury and took some time to find his game because of it.
Once he got going, he didn't stop. After a five-game stretch in which Barnes averaged 16 points on 54 percent shooting, Iguodala's hamstring strain allowed him to join the starting lineup. He flourished in the role, putting up 14.5 points, 4.8 boards, 2.0 assists and 1.5 steals in his 12 starts.
A return to the bench has temporarily slowed Barnes, as he has failed to crack double digits in any of the three games since Iguodala's return.
Regardless, the sophomore has made clear strides this season. He has shown an improved post-up game and an even more improved outside shot (35.9 percent from deep last year, 39.3 percent this year).
He's been a far better defender and has arguably surpassed Klay Thompson as the team's best defensive player not named Iguodala or Andrew Bogut. He has begun to apply his defensive tools effectively, using his good size (6'8"), wingspan, lateral quickness and strength to give guys like Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki tougher nights than they would like.
Most encouragingly, Barnes has tentatively stopped floating through games. He demands the ball when he's on the court. Not verbally, but by cutting to get open, fading off screens or sealing off his man in the post.
When he gets the rock, he no longer seems unsure of what to do or if he can do it. He not only has the ability to beat his man with a combination of footwork, strength, explosiveness and and an array of finishes from all distances, but he also wants to score and believes he will in one-on-one situations.
That isn't to say he's a black hole out there. Barnes promptly gives the ball up when sensing a double-team and will pass it off 10 times out of 10 before jacking up a low-percentage look early in the shot clock.
For all the improvement Barnes has shown, however, there are still several areas in which the second-year man must grow before throwing his name into any kind of star discussions or even demanding an unconditional starting role.
Despite his size, length and strength, Barnes has been a poor rebounder this season. His 4.6 rebounds per-36 minutes are only 39th among small forwards with at least 400 minutes played.
Turnovers have also been an issue, as he's averaging 1.6 giveaways. This wouldn't be such a problem if he posted better than two assists per game, but as it is, his lack of playmaking ability means he should not be costing the team nearly two possessions a night.
Barnes is one of only seven players (excluding centers and power forwards) who average as many turnovers as he does while putting up two assists or less.
Seeing as Barnes' star potential is based predominantly on his scoring prowess, though, the biggest hole in his game is his inability to get easy points at the free-throw line.
Call it a lack of respect from officials or a result of him rarely forcing the issue, but Barnes will never be a great scorer getting to the charity stripe only 2.6 times a game. Even the notoriously contact-shy Stephen Curry has gotten to the line more in his career (3.1 attempts per game), and Barnes is not a heat-it-up outside scorer.
Barnes has the skills needed to get to the line but does not properly utilize them.
He will pump fake his man into the air, but will shoot a fadeaway rather than drawing the contact. He has a quick first step and can draw blocking or reach-in fouls, but he does not know how to anticipate this and get into the act of shooting. He can explode to the rim in transition, but usually opts for a Eurostep or reverse.
Compounding the issue is that when Barnes does get to the line, he's shooting only 69.5 percent this year and 74.3 percent for his career.
Barnes is a fairly rare breed of basketball phenom; his demeanor does not match the typical play style that goes along with it.
His game is notoriously volatile, but his head remains exceptionally level.
He's an eruptive athlete, but he favors playing a more cerebral game.
He grew up both idolizing and inciting comparisons to Michael Jordan, yet he is one of the most humble players in the league.
Barnes is growing as a player, and as his commitment and work ethic become less and less questionable, it appears more and more likely that his ascent will continue.
We all should certainly hope it does, because few players have ever combined the thrilling scoring ability and chilling calmness that Barnes at his best would provide.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.