The lasting image of Harrison Barnes after UNC’s loss to Kansas in the Elite 8 on Sunday was of him sitting in the locker room for 15 minutes with a towel draped over his head. Barnes hadn’t just lost a game; he’d seemingly lost his way. There wasn’t a Drake song playing in the background, but there might as well have been.
“I missed a lot of shots I usually make,” Barnes told the media when he came up for air. “And big-time players come through in big-time games.”
Things weren’t supposed to be nearly this complicated for the former No. 1 recruit in the country, who seemed from the start to have it all put together.
Everyone knows about Barnes’ weird, over-rehearsed college announcement, when he Skyped his decision to an ebullient Roy Williams. Likewise, it was no secret that Barnes eschewed the NBA after his freshman year in order to pile up accomplishments and infamously “build his brand.” As he elaborated in a pre-tournament interview with The Atlantic, the image of him cutting down the nets in New Orleans this spring would be a perfect frame in his first Gatorade commercial.
But it’s not when things are going good that you truly show who you are, but rather when you face adversity.
The anecdote that stuck with me: Barnes started slow his freshman year, and on New Year’s Eve, he grew introspective. Averaging 12.1 points and shooting 36 percent at the time, Barnes placed a call out of the blue to Fox Sports reporter Jeff Goodman, who had picked him as preseason National Player of the Year. Barnes wanted to know if Goodman still believed he could win the award. He also asked Goodman whether UNC could win a National Title, another brick in the wall of the kingdom he’d constructed in his head.
Barnes obviously still clung to the preseason hype, both the media’s and his own, and in that moment he was a college basketball version of Walter Mitty. But I thought it a rare crack in the veneer that Barnes was insecure enough to rely on the media’s approval rather than an innate belief in self. For someone who worships Michael Jordan, that’s a decidedly un-MJ-esque way to go about things.
Things picked up last January when Williams handed the reins to talented point guard Kendall Marshall, who piloted the Tar Heels to a 17-3 record the rest of the season. Barnes found his smile, had a 40-point game in the ACC Tournament and averaged over 20 points in the NCAA’s. But he stayed in school in search of that Jordan vs. Georgetown moment.
With MJ as his model, Barnes clearly didn’t want to be merely a basketball player plus a businessman; he wants to be a business, man. Despite being conducted by a Carolina grad, that Atlantic feature did Barnes no favors. Someone who we knew virtually nothing about â€“ by design â€“ appeared privately to have been putting the horse way ahead of the cart: How was he supposed to become an industry unto himself before he’d ever accomplished anything even close to that substantive? This preposterous notion only became magnified when Barnes shot 32 percent in the NCAA Tournament, including 8-for-30 in two games without Marshall.
As such, Barnes has become the most overanalyzed and polarizing player this side of Carmelo Anthony. All his talk of brands has come back to haunt him, while his game and mentality are being picked apart. It has become fashionable to mock Barnes, and likewise to defend him contrarian-style, and neither stance really hits the mark. Barnes brought a lot of this on himself, but boiled down, he’s still just a 19-year-old kid with an overinflated sense of self-worth. It’s hardly a crime.
Make no mistake, on the surface it seems Barnes should have simplified his thought process and gone pro after his freshman year. He finished last season strong, it was a weak draft with the lockout looming and he likely would have been a top-5 pick.
But for all the talk of how much he hurt his stock in the Tournament, if he leaves now, Barnes will still be a lottery pick, most likely ending up in the top 10. It’s clear that Barnes isn’t quite the elite player we all thought he was out of high school, but he has the tools to be a good jump shooter, the desire to improve and a killer instinct begging to be drawn out. Having seen him play in high school, he’s fluid when he’s not thinking so damn much. He’s been compared to Sean Elliott, in game if not in fortitude, and that would be far from the end of the world.
Whether this spring or next, Harrison Barnes is still going to be an NBA player, and he’s still going to be set for life. With some guaranteed money and financial acumen, he can probably start his own business at some point. And with a little perspective, perhaps the reality check of not bringing his loftiest teenage dreams to fruition will work out for the best.
After all, Michael Jordan is wildly rich, but he’s clearly more brand than man at this point. Maybe this splash of cold water is the start of Barnes doing things the other way around. And I kid about his life being a Drake song, but maybe he really should take a cue: Until you find yourself, it’s impossible to lose you.
Has your opinion of Barnes the player changed in the past year?
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