A few months ago, I wrote a piece about Harrison Barnes, right after he and Carolina flamed out in the NCAA tournament following Kendall Marshall’s injury. My article, a tongue-in-cheek bit about Barnes’ infatuation with his “brand” as well as the lack of awareness he showed by discussing this so publicly, was pretty harsh on the player whom I exclusively referred to as “The Black Falcon.” I portrayed Barnes as a business major who thought of his basketball as little more than a hobby, and although the NCAA may want fans to believe something similar, I’m sure it wasn’t an accurate illustration of his situation.
Although facetious and intended to be light-hearted, the column’s thesis wasn’t far from my true sentiments. As a Duke fan, I considered Barnes wildly overrated–but this was a product of the hype-driven college recruiting process and the media mania surrounding ACC (i.e. Duke and Carolina) basketball. Barnes, for the most part, didn’t bring about any of this hoopla onto himself*–he wasn’t the one naming himself as an NCAA Preseason All-American as a freshman. The raised expectations for Barnes were a byproduct of his prodigious talent and analysts’ overzealous projections, nothing more.
*Yes, Barnes’ commitment ceremony, when he chose to attend UNC over Duke, Kansas, Oklahoma, and UCLA, was overdone and tacky. But on the laundry list of the worst decisions a 17-year old can make, this might be one of the slightest offenses. If I had ever been in a similar situation, I’m not sure I would have set about organizing such an ostentatious presentation, but I definitely would have thought about it.
During his two seasons at Chapel Hill, Harrison Barnes became a Rorschach test for college basketball fans. Depending on one’s allegiances, it was just as easy to see his smooth jumper, his array of moves to create space, and his striking athleticism, as it was to note his weak handle, his matador defense, and his seeming aloofness on the court. Personally, I derived happiness from his failures, from his zero field goal performance in a loss against Minnesota as a freshman to his disappearance in the NCAA tournament as a sophomore.
When Barnes’ career at UNC was unceremoniously wrapped up–with the loss to Kansas, the brand-based criticism, and a quick press conference to announce his declaration for the NBA draft–I couldn’t have felt better. While he was projected to be a lottery pick (a generous rating, I thought), I was joyous that he had never brought home an NCAA championship, or even an ACC tourney title. And, of course, a 2-3 lifetime record against Duke. All was right with the world.
Simultaneously, my beloved Golden State Warriors (don’t ask) had just traded Monta Ellis for the injured Andrew Bogut and were entering a full-fledged tank mode in order to hold onto their first-round draft pick, which was top-7 protected (meaning if they didn’t end up in the top 7 after the draft lottery, their pick went to the Utah Jazz). After a grueling month and a half of playing just rookies and Andris Biedrins–i.e. losing–the Warriors had secured the 7th-worst record in the NBA, and after the dust had settled from the lottery, they still held onto their draft pick. They were in prime position to trade for an established NBA small forward (their most immediate positional need), to package some picks and move up for stud Kentucky SF Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, or to wait it out and try their luck with the seventh pick.
Through the scouting process, the Warriors liked many players–Damian Lillard, Dion Waiters, even Tyler Zeller–but the one name that kept popping up was Harrison Barnes. It seemed that if Barnes were available, he would be the one chosen, and once Waiters went to Cleveland with the 4th pick, and Lillard to Portland with the 6th, the Warriors’–and Barnes’–fate was sealed. And immediately, just like when UNC learned Barnes would be playing for them, the Warriors were ecstatic. Analysts lauded the pick–Jay Bilas claimed that he thought Barnes might be a better pro than college player–and fans began drawing comparisons to Paul Pierce. Paul Pierce, the 10-time NBA all-star. As they say, “Those who ignore history will be doomed to repeat it.”
Initially, I had been skeptical of Barnes becoming a Warrior–as one of my least favorite college players ever, I didn’t even want to entertain thoughts of him in the flashy Golden State midnight blue and gold. My residual resentment of the collegiate Barnes was still ever-present, clouding my judgment of his prospects.
But soon after he was drafted, and I was maneuvering through the seven steps of sports fan grief, I decided to watch something I never had before: Harrison Barnes’ college recruitment highlight reel. I wanted to watch Barnes when he wasn’t wearing Carolina blue, so I could study him without the Duke devil on my shoulder, pointing out the weaknesses in his game. And after watching this, well…yes, I know these are high school kids from, yes, Iowa. I know that probably very few of them even played in college, at any level. But I also know that this is a special player, and that high school reel I just saw is incomparable to almost anyone else’s.
What was shocking to me, though, is that I’d never seen Barnes in such a light before. As fans, the lenses through which we watch our team–the ones that allow us to access our strongest emotion and passion–act more like blinders than anything else. Once we enter that realm of fandom, we can no longer view players rationally. We always will view those on our team as superior to those on the opposition, even if it’s not even close to being true. It’s this passion that makes sports such a wonderful creation.
Unfortunately, with college transfers, the college-NBA transition, trades, and free agency, the distinction between the members of “my team” and “their team” is slowly fading. A few days ago, Ray Allen left the Boston Celtics for their rival, the Miami Heat. As tough a decision it was for Ray-Ray, it’s almost as tough a rationalization for the Boston fan: “Do I still like and respect Ray, and can I still root for him?” “Was he that much better in Boston than Miami, or did it just seem that way?”
In my case, it’s been about a week and a half since the draft, and I’m already recalibrating Barnes’ college career. (I now think that with a better supporting cast and more shots he could have easily averaged 30 a game. No doubt about it.) But I’ve learned that, when assessing players, it’s important to take a step back from the brink of bipolarity that sometimes is the dwelling of a sports fan. So much of sports fandom is hyperbole–“he’s the next Marvin–no, the next Vince–no, the next MJ”–it’s fun, but it’s hopeless speculation. And as players uproot themselves, and our favorites leave home, with our enemies replacing them, and vice versa, how can we evaluate them honestly and accurately? I couldn’t write that I loved Michael Gbinije last season but also that I think he’s a bum, since he’s now at Syracuse. But that’s almost how I think, and I don’t think I’m alone in that vein.
So, as an independent source and general NBA analyst, I think that Harrison Barnes had a solid, quietly impressive career at UNC while not quite matching the astronomical hopes that were placed upon him. I think that he has the potential to achieve something quite similar to that in the NBA, and his ability to score should ensure him a career with at least some longevity.
But as a Warriors fan, well…
I think we’ll see the Black Falcon fly.