Harrison Barnes cemented himself as one of the brightest talents of his draft class in last year's playoffs, following an incandescent postseason run with the Golden State Warriors. Over the course of the 2013-14 campaign, Barnes has failed to meet the increased expectations, and his extended slump has been raised as a cause for concern.
Barnes managed to show a whole new side of himself when David Lee went down with a torn hip flexor in the very first game of the 2013 NBA playoffs. The rookie stepped in as a stretch 4, and played so well that many pondered whether the Warriors were actually better without Lee. In fact, he was so impressive that there was reason for a legitimate debate whether Klay Thompson or Barnes should be in the starting lineup this season.
In basketball, confidence is often the most important intangible quality in a player. When you face adversity, the easiest thing to do is to roll over and surrender. So many players in the league go through extended slumps, which makes us question whether they have permanently regressed. Barnes might not be anywhere near that point, but his confidence is obviously shaken.
In January, Barnes, who is supposed to be the leading force of the Warriors' second unit, seems to have been deprived of all his basketball talents. He is averaging 6.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and shooting 35.2 percent from the field in 2014. He has scored in double digits just three times in that period, and has even gone scoreless in back-to-back games. Barnes has looked passive and shaky, and has seen his minutes decrease as a result.
For a young player in the rudimentary stages of his career, who was thrust into the perfect situation in his rookie year, being forced to take a step back and play a different role can be demoralizing. When developing talent, consistent trust is one of the most important factors, and even though Barnes is averaging more minutes this year, he is no longer as important to the core as he was last year.
The worrying part about Barnes' recent struggles is the fact that he doesn't quite have the same amount of trust as he did last year, while also being in a position that makes it harder to break out of a slump.
Barnes isn't a superstar, and he obviously lacks the irrational confidence in his innate abilities that most stars possess. When Stephen Curry struggles with his shot, he shoots more. The first thought that enters his mind when an opportunity for a shot arises is not one of doubt, but one of self-assurance.
When Barnes, who had connected on just one of his shot attempts at that point, was presented with a wide-open look to win the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, his hand was shaky and he would most likely have gotten rid of the ball if he could have. It could have been a symbolic turning point—Barnes breaks out of his slump by delivering the late dagger. Instead, the miss magnified the distressing burden on his shoulders.
Adjusting to a New Role
Barnes might not be a starter, but his contribution off the bench is crucial on a team that has few scoring options among reserve players. While his struggles can be partially attributed to a diminished confidence, it is also up to head coach Mark Jackson to put his young forward in a position where he can be most effective.
Barnes' arguably best individual stretch of this season was when Andre Iguodala was hurt. In Iguodala's 12-game absence, Barnes averaged 14.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and two assists per game. His minutes and numbers took yet another dip once Jackson's defensive ace recovered from his injury.
Like most young athletes, Barnes is still a malleable talent who can be developed, but not without assistance. A big reason for Barnes' dip in efficiency this season can be attributed to his new role. He is most effective when being a dynamic threat, who can score off cuts, spot-ups, post-ups and dribble-drives. He spent more time on the floor with Curry last year, which naturally provided Barnes with more space to operate within. Take a look at these stats, which show Barnes' numbers with Curry on and off the floor this season:
|Harrison Barnes' numbers with Stephen Curry On/Off the floor|
|Curry ON||Curry OFF|
|Field Goal Percentage||44.3||37.4|
|Points Per Shot||1.07||0.88|
|Effective Field Goal Percentage||49.6||41.7|
Even though Barnes has, on average, played more minutes off the bench this season than he did in his starting role last year, he is still spending less time on the floor together with Curry. When Curry is off the floor, Barnes' usage rate goes up and his efficiency takes a huge hit. This statistical trend is conspicuous when watching the Warriors play, as Barnes is simply not a playmaker or a guy who can create for himself possession after possession.
Simply put, Barnes is evidently not particularly comfortable in his current role. He thrived in the playoffs by causing a tricky matchup at the power forward position, forcing big men to come out and guard him at the perimeter. Now he is expected to handle a huge scoring load in a lot of creativity-absolved lineups.
Some Warriors fans and pundits have probably pondered the notion of moving Barnes and adding a piece that fits better right now. Most teams have very small windows to contend for a championship. As a general manager, you have to put the exact right pieces together and hope for the best. The Warriors have a very talented core, but there are ways this team could get better.
Warriors GM Bob Myers hinted that even though Golden State traded for Jordan Crawford, he would not be opposed to making more deals if it could make his team better. Barnes does have a lot of upside and could flourish within the right role and tutelage somewhere else. Giving up a talent like Barnes would likely take a pretty convincing offer, but his services are more attainable now than they were last year.
It's highly unlikely the Warriors will jump the gun and give up on Barnes at this point, and some rotation adjustments could probably help Barnes break out of his slump. Rookies are often prone to hitting the so-called "rookie wall," but sophomores are not immune to the curse either.
Unlike veterans, young players don't have the experience or the luxury of having played in different roles throughout their careers. Most of the time, players in their early-20s are very receptive to new ideas and change, but it takes time.
Among all the criticism, Barnes has actually become a better spot-up shooter, increasing his three-point percentage from 35.9 last year to an even 40 percent this season. He thrives playing in small lineups as a power forward alongside Curry, but coach Jackson faces a tough challenge in trying to give his superstar a sufficient amount of rest while also allowing him to share the floor with Barnes.
The current rotation and lineups can be tweaked to accommodate Barnes' skill set better, and then it is up to him to perform to his potential. In these situations, patience is a virtue, and both Golden State and Barnes have to be tolerant. As basketball players often like to address questions regarding tough times, Barnes just has to "keep grinding."
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