For those of us who remember Michael Jordan from his college days, the standard refrain was that the only one who could stop him from scoring was Dean Smith. Now the University of North Carolina Tar Heels have another superstar, even more highly touted than Michael Jordan. But Barnes is not yet the Michael Jordan look-alike you might have expected. In fact, largely because of five factors, many think he is already a bust.
First, being singled out as the only freshman ever to be picked as a preseason Associated Press All-American is an albatross. Expectations are sky high for anyone labeled in this way. North Carolina’s Barnes became the first freshman to make the list since voting began before the 1986-87 season, so there were many outstanding freshmen who could have been included.
Last season, John Wall was Kentucky's ticket to the Final Four and should have won the John Wooden Player of the Year award. Based on every athletic criterion, Wall was at least as good as Barnes, and probably better. Only the taint of his relationship with an agent and perhaps some aspects of his coach's take on Roy Williams could have cost him any award.
Second, the worst factor by far is that Barnes has been played from the very outset as if he were ready for the big stage of Carolina basketball.
Wall is not a good example for some very good reasons.
While Kentucky has as fabled a program, Barnes was, if anything, far more protected in Iowa than Wall in Raleigh, North Carolina. And unlike Wall, Barnes was protected at home and had fewer travels and all-star games under his belt when it was announced he was going to UNC.
Wall was also a fifth year senior in high school and there were those who believed he was qualified to enter the NBA draft before he joined Kentucky, given his age and additional year. Both his age (and maturity, at least in years) and his greater seasoning made a world of difference at the outset.
Jordan is also not a good example.
When Jordan came on board with the Tar Heels in 1981, the circumstances were far different from today. Fewer chances existed for high school players to show off their talents, and Jordan was not as ballyhooed as Barnes, perhaps in large part due to the blogosphere.
Barnes and Wall are recent examples of how not only the many sites devoted in part to high school basketball recruiting have proliferated and become very popular, but also how far hype can travel. And their profiles are huge.
Jordan was not that prominent in the public's eye, and was kept under wraps.
Third, Barnes has been thrust into the limelight and given much more of a scoring burden than Jordan. There is that "the only person who could keep Jordan from scoring" point. In truth, both have been unfavorable to Barnes, making his every move far more critical than Jordan's during his freshman year.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, Barnes is playing on a much inferior team to either Wall's Kentucky Wildcats team last year or Jordan's 1981-82 team. Jordan had James Worthy and many other players who played in the pros. This team may have one other player who succeeds as a pro.
Finally, Barnes is not used to the limelight or even being the "star," a concept named by Al McGuire and continuing to be present in the Big East. Being a "star" is alien to Barnes. As a true team player not used to being a "star," Barnes has been diminished in the public's eyes because he still thinks like someone who's not a real star player. Part of the reason Barnes went to North Carolina was the team play, so prevalent still at that school.
So would the Big East have been better for Barnes? Would any team with more talent have been better? Is Barnes a bust? Will he be a star at the college level?
The added exposure of today magnifies every mistake, highlights every low point and exaggerates every weakness. True, Barnes is not yet a star. But compare him with Jordan.
So far, Barnes is averaging almost 12 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in 27.3 minutes. Jordan averaged 13.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 31.7 minutes during his freshman year. While Jordan also averaged over 50 percent shooting his freshman year and Barnes is shooting about 37 percent, this is comparing a full year with only part of the season. We will see where Barnes ends up.
But whatever the outcome, Jordan stayed at UNC for three years. If Barnes were to stay for that long, it will make little difference what happened his freshman year. Barnes is almost certainly bound for greatness. Barring injury, he could be another Jordan.
Only time will tell.