Harrison Barnes Is Proving He's an Overrated Player

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 25, 2014

The Golden State Warriors bent over backward to get Harrison Barnes, and for a while, it looked like those efforts were going to pay off.

Despite violently tanking after the 2012 trade deadline, the Dubs still needed to win a coin flip with the Toronto Raptors in order to prevent their first-round pick from going to the Utah Jazz. They won it, though, and used the No. 7 selection on Barnes.

Even amid Golden State's elation over simply having a lottery pick to spend, there were some warning signs with the North Carolina product. Barnes had been a disappointment in his sophomore season, making it hard to project his ceiling after a freshman year that made him look like a top-three pick.

The small forward was polished, though. He was unusually mature, obviously athletic and seemed to fit the prototypical specifications for an NBA wing. Plus, he wasn't far removed from being named the nation's best high school player in 2010.

So the Warriors snatched him up, started him 81 times in his rookie year and watched with delight as he blossomed during their postseason run.

But a funny thing has happened since then: Barnes has fallen apart.


Mysterious Decline

It's hard to isolate a single cause for Barnes' regression, perhaps because there are so many reasonable explanations available.

The addition of Andre Iguodala forced Barnes to the bench, which reduced his overall importance to the team and slotted him into a role for which he was totally unprepared. For most of this season, he's been miscast as the offensive focal point of a decidedly terrible bench unit.

Steve Blake's arrival has mitigated some of the damage, but Barnes has been awful overall. Lacking the skills to create his own shot, Barnes has struggled for months when given the ball in isolation. He simply can't beat anybody in one-on-one situations.

His handle is too weak, his moves too predictable and robotic.

Plus, he has all but disappeared from the Warriors' undersized lineups. Barnes' star shone brightest when filling in at the power forward spot for an injured David Lee in last year's postseason. There, he could run past bigger opponents on offense while holding his own defensively.

The Dubs have gone with two-big lineups almost exclusively this year, which has led to a better-than-ever defense but left little room for Barnes to sneak in minutes at the 4.

Those circumstances (and probably a few more we can't know without being in the locker room) have snowballed. And the result is a version of Barnes that has taken a major step backward. Earlier this season, his failure to develop was a disappointment.

Now, it's more like a disaster.


Missed Opportunity

Compounding the problem of Barnes' stunted growth is the Warriors' inability to recognize his true ceiling.

Golden State waved off interest from other teams around the league at last season's trade deadline because it believed in the then-first-year player's star potential.

As Marcus Thompson of Bay Area News Group wrote in February 2013 (via Sulia): 

Harrison Barnes' name comes up quite a bit. But the Warriors aren't interested in moving Barnes. One source it would take (sic) a 'major offer' to get them to even think about moving Barnes. It's obvious to Warriors fans that Barnes is/should be untouchable. But that hasn't stopped teams from trying to pry him away from the Warriors.

To be fair to the Warriors, they probably weren't the only team to miscalculate Barnes' value. The fact that other clubs around the league were interested in him proves as much. But more than that, the same qualities that made Barnes a great high schooler and a tantalizing college prospect remain visible.

He's still a gazelle in the open floor. He's still an extremely hard worker. He's still a genuinely good dude whom any organization would love to showcase to fans and put to work in the community.

Amid this season's deadline trade talk, Warriors general manager Bob Myers lauded Barnes' positives to Diamond Leung of the San Jose Mercury News: "Ultimate professional, probably the hardest-working guy on the team, so we have huge hopes for him, and we think he's going to have a real high ceiling."

It's great that Barnes has the support of the front office, but his on-court work this year has revealed more troubling signs—signs the Warriors should have recognized. Barnes isn't a fluid athlete, he can't get his own shot and he avoids contact to a comical degree.

His remarkable athleticism doesn't translate into production. He makes easy shots hard and hard shots impossible.

Perhaps his ruined confidence is to blame. Maybe it's his ill-fitting role. Who knows?

The point is, Golden State had opportunities to move Barnes earlier this year and last year. And while we don't know what kind of return it could have gotten for him, it's hard to imagine his value ever getting back to those pre-deadline levels now.

That's a missed opportunity, and one a team angling for a deep playoff run right now cannot afford.


The Latest

Things have never been worse for Barnes. He's averaging 6.3 points per game on 29.8 percent shooting in the month of March. And his three-point accuracy, a solitary area of improvement for most of this season, has plummeted to a putrid 20 percent this month.

And remember: Barnes doesn't force shots from the perimeter, so he's accumulated that 20 percent mark on looks that have almost always been wide open.

Perhaps most damningly, he ranks 45th among second-year players in PER, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Barnes isn't just lagging behind the rest of the league's small forwards—he's been worse than 44 of his second-year peers.


Worst of all, Barnes has bottomed out at a time when he should have been seizing the moment. A sore knee sidelined Iguodala for the Warriors' last three games, allowing Barnes the chance to start and play with the first unit.

Instead of straightening things out alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Barnes' free fall has spiraled out of control. His combined totals in those three games: 85 minutes, eight points and 2-of-19 shooting. He's gone 0-of-11 from three for good measure.

There's simply no justifiable excuse for playing Barnes right now. Head coach Mark Jackson prides himself on giving minutes to the guys who earn them, and Barnes hasn't earned them. He's probably still working hard in practice and following the coaching staff's direction, but the results aren't showing on the court.

And that's hurting the Warriors.


Is This It?

The outlook is bleak for Barnes, but there are a couple of things weighing in his favor.

First (and this won't make him feel any better), Barnes isn't responsible for the way Golden State overestimated his value. The Warriors should have seen his limitations sooner and adjusted their plans accordingly.

Second, the guy is in his second NBA season. If big programs like North Carolina ever actually had seniors on the roster, Barnes could be one right now. Saying a young player still has time to improve is an easy fallback argument, but it's true.

Ultimately, though, it's now crazy to believe Barnes is ever going to be anything close to an All-Star. He's a great athlete who might never figure out how to channel his raw talents into useful basketball skills. That's instinctive stuff; either it's there or it isn't.

Maybe he'll become a reliable rotation player who hits a few threes, finishes when spoon-fed and defends reasonably well. But anyone hoping for more is going to be disappointed. Soon, Golden State will have to abandon any hopes of stardom for the guy it was so excited to snag in the 2012 draft.

It's time to downgrade our expectations as well.


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