Harrison Barnes: The Birth of a Star, or How I Learned to Assert Myself

All year, the criticism of the Warriors 7th overall pick has been the same: “plays well in flashes, but doesn’t assert himself enough and didn’t average double-digit points across 82 games. Can go absolutely silent for extended stretches.”

One surefire sign of a great NBA player is one who steps up his game come playoff time. Harrison Barnes has done exactly that. His regular season numbers: 9.2 points per game, and 4.1 rebounds per game in 25.4 minutes per game. Those numbers, while respectable, made him the last member voted to the All-Rookie First Team. His postseason numbers: 15.9 points per game, and 6.6 rebounds per game in 39.1 minutes per game. That is an astounding jump in minutes! For a rookie to be relied so heavily on in a playoff run may seem crazy, but his numbers have steadily gone up and Warriors coach Mark Jackson is managing to keep him in certain small-ball type lineups. He started at the four to stretch the defense for 5 games when David Lee went down in Game 1 of the first round series against the Nuggets, and that worked out splendidly. He is beginning to silence all his critics who claim he wasn’t consistent enough in the regular season.

Barnes has managed to hit lots of tough shots in both games 4 and 5 of this rigorous 2nd round matchup. He has been creating shots off the dribble and late in the shot clock, something he didn’t consistently do for much of the regular season. In the regular season, Barnes only scored 21 points or more two separate times, he’s done it 4 times now in the playoffs (with potential for even more). In Game 5, he was the only guy shooting a decent percentage besides Jarrett Jack, and kept abusing the switches in the post against Parker, as he’s been doing all series. He doesn’t get rattled at the line late in games and has drastically improved his foul line jumper, which was rough at times through the season.

The Warriors best rookie has hit big shots all postseason long, showcasing his killer crossover and step back jumper in overtime periods, especially in Game 4 when he was being guarded by the tough Manu Ginobili. While he took a ton of shots (26) in Game 4, it was the strategy the Warriors were imploring because of the mismatches with Parker and Neal getting switched on to him(both very sub-par defenders). He’s shown the ability to take over the Warriors offense for stretches when they go cold and can’t buy a bucket. At one point in Game 4 scoring 8 straight points in a stretch when the Warriors were struggling to get anything going on offense.

Another aspect of his game Barnes has been able to showcase in this playoff run is his excellent three point shooting. After averaging just under two attempts per game in the regular season, he is now averaging four and a half attempts per game. These mostly come from spot up shots off Curry or Jack driving through the lanes, but he isn’t afraid to chuck one up off the dribble late in the shot clock. This is a huge step in establishing both his confidence, and forcing defenders to guard his at the line, leading to more open lanes on his way to the tin.

He’s one of the only Warriors that has the potential to posterize an opposing big on any given play. We’ve seen the Pekovic dunk and the reverse jam against the Nuggets, and although the dunk in general is wildly over rated, it can be useful in the playoffs, especially in home games that can have the crowd so heavily influence the outcome. A posterizing dunk is one way to get the Oracle faithful on their feet, and Barnes isn’t afraid of anyone that protects the rim.

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His defense has really been tested in this series. No offense to Corey Brewer and Kenneth Faried, but shutting down Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Peonard is Barnes’ modus operandi for this series, and for the six games thus far, has been the biggest defensive test of his short career. His lateral movement has kept him on the floor. The only aspect of his defense that needs to evolve is his ability to pick pockets and get fast break dunks, once he gets there, he will be a more complete player.

Not afraid to bang with the bigs down low as a small ball four, Barnes has shown versatility and accepted the challenge placed in front of him by coach Mark Jackson.  He’s as quick and strong as almost any wing in the league, which gives him a very high upside, especially on defense, and can still hold his own against legit 4’s. This type of versatility will allow him to have a long and productive career.

An interesting comparison for Barnes’ career trajectory is Russell Westbrook. Not in his style of play, but how his game so directly translated to the NBA after a disappointing college career. Westbrook averaged a meager 9 points per game at UCLA after getting stuck behind Jrue Holiday and Darren Collison. Barnes wasn’t stuck behind players at UNC, but the system that Roy Williams runs doesn’t emphasize a superstar individual, it plays more evenly amongst the roster. This led detractors to saying that Barnes was overrated in high school and shouldn’t have been the number one recruit for his class. Those ‘draft experts’ are now kicking themselves thinking they could have had the next great small forward. Drafting isn’t an exact science, but haven’t we learned by now that college numbers aren’t the ultimate figure is establishing whether a guy will be a success or not?

This postseason run has seen Curry become a superstar, Thompson put his name on the national NBA radar, given redemption to Andrew Bogut, torn David Lee out of the lineup, and given the critics more than they can handle about Jarrett Jack, but the player taking the biggest strides forward may be the underrated small forward from Ames, Iowa, Harrison Barnes.

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