2011 NBA Draft: Has Harrison Barnes Earned His Projected No. 1 Spot Back?
Harrison Barnes, UNC's star swingman, has had one of college basketball's most turbulent seasons, especially in terms of popular perception, in recent memory.
The No. 1 recruit coming out of high school, Barnes was voted first-team preseason All-American. Of all the great freshmen to come through the college ranks in recent years—from Carmelo Anthony to Kevin Durant and Mike Beasley—none had ever received that honor.
Expectations couldn't have been higher for Barnes, who was supposed to singlehandedly resurrect UNC's program, which had missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in a generation the year before.
So when he struggled to start the season, averaging 12 points, six rebounds and one assist on 37 percent shooting, the backlash was enormous. With their star freshman underperforming, the Tar Heels' season seemed destined to be mired in mediocrity for yet another season.
But that wasn't really Barnes' fault. Roy Williams' offense depends inordinately on point guard play, and Larry Drew, the incumbent starter, was a mid-major talent at best. So when he was benched for McDonald's All-American Kendall Marshall, the team—and Barnes—made a 180.
By the end of the year, Barnes was averaging 15/6/1 on 45 percent shooting, including a 40-point performance in the ACC tournament and several late-game daggers that helped them make the Elite Eight.
So has he regained his place as the preeminent prospect in college basketball? I don't think so, but I'd argue that's because he never had it in the first place. He had the same holes in his game in March as he did in December, and he had the strengths then that he showcased in postseason play.
In evaluating Barnes and other NCAA prospects, I like to use what I call "the five-tool" system (borrowed heavily from baseball scouts), which looks at the five skills college players need to translate their games to the next level—the ability to create a shot, defend a position, shoot, rebound and pass.
Despite being extremely skilled for a 6'8" player, Barnes has one big weakness—a lack of elite athleticism—in comparison to some of his competitors (Duke's Kyrie Irving, Arizona's Derrick Williams and Baylor's Perry Jones III) for the No. 1 spot in the NBA draft.
Shot-Creating: Good, Not Great
At 6'8", Barnes has one of the best pure strokes in college basketball (35 percent from the three-point line, 75 percent from the free-throw line). Combine that high release point with great ball-handling ability, and he can almost always get a decent look at a basket in an isolation situation.
But without great burst, he has trouble getting around equally athletic defenders like Kentucky's DeAndre Liggins. As a result, he is more likely to settle for a mid-range jumper than to take the ball to the front of the rim, which explains his pedestrian 42 percent field goal percentage. The farther away your shots are from the basket, the more difficult it is to shoot efficiently.
He would be much more effective on the next level as a No. 2 option, spotting up off the perimeter and taking advantage of defensive rotations, than as a No. 1 option. For the most part, All-NBA guys on the perimeter, like Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, have the athletic ability to get the ball to the front of the rim.
Defense: Can Only Guard Small Forwards
The other area where his lack of elite athleticism really hurts him is defensively. At 6'8" he has the length to stay in front of most small forwards, but he'd get burned if he had to guard smaller but faster shooting guards.
While there aren't any great defensive stats, his block and steal averages (0.4 and 0.7 a game respectively) suggest that he'll never be a difference-maker on the next level.
Shooting: A Great Shooter
The strongest part of his game. There are very few 6'8" guys who can stroke like Barnes. In the right scheme, he could average over 40 percent from the NBA three-point line.
Rebounding: Big for His Size
While he's not on the level of guys like San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard (who gets almost 11 a game), Barnes is a good rebounder for his position, using his size (6'8", 210) and high basketball IQ to track down loose balls.
What's most impressive about his six rebounds a game average is the fact that he plays with one of the tallest and most athletic front lines in the game in Tyler Zeller and John Henson, both of whom have wingspans well over seven feet.
Rebounding is a zero-sum game—if you get it, then your teammate cannot—so Barnes' willingness to mix it up for boards and not rely on his big men is a good sign.
Passing: The Area He Must Improve
While there are several mitigating factors for his low assist numbers, including UNC's desire to pound the ball inside as well as have their point guards dominate the ball, 1.3 assists a game is simply not good enough for someone with Barnes' talent level.
Great NBA wings can affect the game even when their jumper is not falling, primarily by setting up their teammates and taking advantage of the extra defensive attention they draw to set up guys with easy looks.
** For comparison's sake, LeBron James averages seven assists a game, and even the notorious ball-stopper Carmelo Anthony gets three. **
When Barnes beats his man off the dribble, he should always be on the lookout for defensive help, especially on a team like UNC, where his teammates are more than capable of taking advantage of a 4-on-3 situation.
If he does stay in school one more year, this is the area of his game I would expect to see the most improvement in. An increased willingness to pass would also improve his field-goal percentage, since he would be taking fewer high-difficulty shots, and generally make him a much more efficient offensive player.
Best-Case Scenario: Danny Granger
A tremendously skilled 6'8", 230-lb. small forward for the Indiana Pacers, Granger is putting together another All-Star-caliber season, averaging 20 points, five rebounds and three assists on 42 percent shooting, including hitting 38 percent from long range, an eye-popping number for someone who averages nearly five three-point attempts a game.
He's not one of the biggest stars in the NBA because he's been miscast on a mediocre Indiana team that needs him to be a "Batman" when he's really a "Robin." If he could play off a No. 1 option like Deron Williams in New Jersey or Dwight Howard in Orlando, he'd be a perennial All-Star, and his long-range shooting would make his team extremely dangerous in the playoffs.
Worst-Case Scenario: Mike Miller
The No. 5 pick in the 2000 draft, the former Rookie of the Year has bounced around the NBA despite an incredible skill set for a 6'8", 220-lb. forward.
The consummate team player, Miller's unselfishness has prevented him from getting wider acclaim—last year in Washington he only took three three-pointers a game despite hitting them at an incredible 48 percent rate.
He's struggled fitting into a haphazardly assembled team in Miami this year, though a nagging wrist injury he suffered in the preseason, which kept him on the injured list for the season's first three months, hasn't helped. However, his ability to space the floor around Miami's Big Three will be a huge component if the Heat make a deep playoff run this year.
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