April 18, 2011 changed everything. The day that Harrison Barnes declared he would be returning to North Carolina for his sophomore season would forever alter the course taken by Chris Grant and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year, the 6-foot-8 Barnes was a prospect who had been watched for years, only to have his ascent to the NBA delayed by the league’s age requirements. The Cavaliers were staring at two would-be lottery selections in 2011 and—as you may have heard—were in need of a small forward who could score the basketball. Barnes fit this bill. But when the Ames, Iowa native stated that he wished to return to Chapel Hill in order to enhance his brand, well—as Biggie put best, Things Done Changed.
Duke’s Kyrie Irving was the sure thing. Though playing just 11 games with Duke University, the Cavs were salivating over their point guard of the future. But with Barnes looking to win a championship for Roy Williams, Grant and his staff had to set their sights elsewhere when it came to their other lottery pick. Much was discussed about a Lithuanian big man named Jonas Valanciunas, a young, true center, but one who could be staring down the barrel of Euro contract issues. Power forward J.J. Hickson was in search of a new contract and a kid from the University of Texas by the way of Brampton (Ontario), Canada had just put on one of the more athletic displays the Cavs had ever seen. Tristan Thompson, a 6-foot-9-inch forward with springs in his shoes, vaulted himself up the team’s draft board. Raw offensively, the team fell in love with his athleticism and willingness—not just ability—to work on the offensive glass. Though receiving a bit of backlash following the pick due to Thompson’s lack of scoring, the Cavs immediately traded Hickson to the Sacramento Kings, thus making the Canadian kid with a 40-inch vertical leap and a mind like a flytrap their power forward of the future.
One summer later, Barnes decided his time at UNC was indeed done and declared for the NBA Draft. By this time, however, the landscape had changed. Though smart and well-mannered, Barnes’ lack of desire to attack the rim started to become a concern. The Cavaliers needed a second scorer who could create his own shot and while Barnes had a terrific mid-range game, he was looking more and more like a one-dimensional player who could have a role on a team, but that role could not be one of high demands. Thus, with the Byron Scott-led Cavaliers dreaming of a Thomas-Dumars backcourt—and having just watched Bradley Beal get selected before them by Washington—they tabbed Syracuse’s Dion Waiters with the No. 4 pick. Barnes would slid all the way down to No. 7 where he would be selected by the Warriors—a team that had wanted Waiters.
Where’d he come from?
Born in Ames, Iowa, Harrison Bryce Jordan Barnes just celebrated his 23rd birthday. Unlike many of his peers who transferred to powerhouse prep schools in order to maximize their exposure and resumes, Barnes stayed in Ames where he and a teammate by the name of Doug McDermott—you may have heard of him—would rattle off back-to-back 4A Iowa state championships, both seasons coming with a flawless win total. He averaged 26.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 3.0 assists, firmly placing his name at the top of recruiting lists across the country, including ESPN’s ESPNU 100 and that of Scout.com. (Rivals.com, ever the contrarian, dubbed Barnes No. 2 behind Baltimore’s Josh Selby.)
Upon leaving high school, Harrison Barnes was the host of one of the more discussed recruiting announcements in recent history wherein the player, then just 17 years of age, brought the media to Ames where he would then beam up the face of the coach of the team of his preference on a giant screen though Skype.
“The school that I choose to be my alma mater, indeed, the place where I will leave my legacy, had the right balance of both academics and basketball that which I thought I could achieve the goals I wanted to pursue. Today, I’m proud to announce the school I will attend in the fall of 2010 will be the coach I’m going to Skype … ”1
And boom: There was Roy Williams, head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Barnes would go on to score a bunch of points at UNC, but do so in a fashion that left oh so much to be desired. Though showing flashes at times, Barnes often disappeared in a vortex of mid-range shots and lackadaisical defense. He shot just 42 percent from the floor as a freshman, and 44 percent a year later. Though longer than most of his peers, Barnes averaged less than one steal and a block per game over his collegiate career. After two disappointing games in the NCAA Tournament (this after reaching the Final Four a season earlier) and a sophomore season that appeared to be more about that whole ‘brand’ thing than developing his game, Barnes took the step many assumed he would a year earlier by entering the NBA.
Thought to be a top pick a season ago, Barnes worked out for just four teams before entering the draft—Cleveland, Charlotte, Washington, and Toronto. All four teams would pass on him in favor of another player, with Charlotte selecting another small forward in Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He would be selected by Golden State three picks later.
With the Warriors then under Mark Jackson, the team added veteran small forward Andre Iguodala to the fold. It would not be until this season, under head coach Steve Kerr, that Barnes would re-join the starting lineup and blossom behind two All-Star backcourt running mates and the emergence of forward Draymond Green.
What’s he bad at?
The knock on Barnes was legitimate: He could not carry a team. If he had been asked to shoulder the offensive load for a team looking to go from the dregs of the league to the NBA Playoffs, Ames’ best wasn’t going to cut it. Coming off of the bench behind Iguodala last season, Barnes struggled mightily after being asked to lead the second unit. His shooting percentage was below 40 percent. His PER was south of 10 and the Warriors were actually better off when Barnes was on the bench (plus-13.3 points per 100 possessions) than on the court (minus-0.8).
Unfortunately for the Cavs, he’s no longer asked to play a role that doesn’t fit him.
So, what’s he good at?
While he had higher hopes coming out of college, Barnes has become one hell of a role player in his third year in the league. Though he will forever be compared to Waiters in the eyes of many Cavs fans, Barnes was willing to take on a role that Waiters would not in providing relief for a star-studded backcourt. As a 22-year-old starting small forward, Barnes produced 10.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game2, increasing his efficiency by nearly 100 full percentage points year-over-year. The 2014-15 season has been as much about Barnes’ emergence as an NBA-caliber talent as it has the rest of his team leaping into the hemisphere of stardom, providing the UNC product with a near 180-degree turnaround as compared to a season ago. Remember those terrible on-off numbers from before? This year, the Warriors are 17 points per 100 possessions better with Iguodala on the bench and, in turn, Barnes on the floor. Remarkable, really.
Barnes doesn’t shoot often, but when he does he tends to make defenses pay, doing most of his damage in the corners as well as in the paint. Through the regular season, Barnes has hit 40 percent of his three pointers, proving to be pretty lethal from the right wing. Through the playoffs, he’s shooting an incredible 76 percent near the rim as teams like Houston focused more on the Currys and Klay Thompsons of the world. The vast majority of Barnes’ shot attempts through this postseason are coming late in the shot clock, signaling plenty of ball movement early on, and are either catch-and-shoot (33.6 percent of field goal attempts) or at the rim (43 percent).
But what about that defense? Well, remember this play?
You should. Not only was it one of the two times the Cavs have faced the Warriors this season, WFNY’s own Kirk Lammers broke it down in one of his many fantastic film rooms. LeBron James leaves his feet—the Cardinal Sin of basketball—and tosses an errant pass into the corner. Yes, it was Golden State’s Andrew Bogut who provided the help, but it was Barnes who managed to muscle James away from the rim long enough to make the four-time MVP change course. Barnes defended bigger opponents through much of the playoffs (including Memphis’ Zach Randoplh), so James, while quicker than Z-Bo, will certainly not scare the resurrected small forward.
While his teammate Steph Curry provides highlight reels by the boat load, it’s Barnes who has made a career out of doing the little things, and allowing his team to flourish in the meantime.
How can the Cavs handle him?
This question is a bit of a double-edged sword. Barnes has, once again, managed to elevate his play into the postseason, providing Golden State with some much-needed relief in the Western Conference Finals large in part to a 51 percent eFG to this point. There has been some talk about the Cavs deploying a hobbled Kyrie Irving on to him in the way of a defensive assignment, allowing better defenders—Matthew Dellavedova, LeBron James and Iman Shumpert—to tackle the Warriors’ dynamic backcourt duo. This, of course, would lead to a substantial height disparity, with Irving giving up nearly six inches to the longer Barnes.
The Cavs deployed a lesser-of-evils strategy through much of the postseason, daring lesser players to shoot from long range. It has worked well to this point, but as Grantland’s Zach Lowe shows us, it might not be the best strategy against the Warriors, especially if that player being dared is Harrison Barnes.
It may all come down to Kyrie Irving. If the Cavs can hide Irving on Barnes, and Barnes struggles, it’s a massive win for Cleveland. If Barnes can take advantage of a few opportunities and get the Cavaliers to pay more attention his way, it’s a huge victory for Golden State as they will then be able to capitalize on a different, thinner defensive scheme that would put Irving elsewhere.
This series will not be as much about the Cavaliers “handling” Harrison Barnes as it will be to not allow him to be the one to provide the pain. More than half of his shots (51 percent) occur with zero dribbling, and 60 percent have been without a defender within four feet, showing that Barnes has been a beneficiary of poor rotations or teammates finding him out of double-teams. For the Cavs to keep No. 40 at bay, it’ll take focus and communication throughout each contest. Of course, if Barnes is on James early on, and racks up a foul or two, well—that’s all the better.
In the event Barnes does have a big game at some point in the series, something that isn’t far-fetched as evidenced by his 24-point, seven-rebound effort in Golden State’s series-clinching game against Houston, Cavs fans should not be so quick to point out that he should’ve been a Cavalier. If not for Barnes’ decision to return to UNC, the Cavaliers would not have Tristan Thompson, one of the postseason’s best rebounders. They also wouldn’t have been in the same position to deal for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, two of this postseason run’s most important ingredients. Sure, Barnes has been able to carve out a role as a third or fourth option for the Warriors, but that option would not have been provided had he been a post-July 2010 Cavalier. Not to mention, someone else logs most of the small forward minutes in Cleveland these days.
Things often work out as intended. The path may not always be obvious at the time, but the picture becomes much clearer once the dust settles. After spending several seasons with a gaping hole at the small forward spot, and getting to watch Barnes log playoff minutes with the Warriors, it’s natural for Cavs fans to wonder what if? But if the Cavs can hold their own and not let wonky rotations get the best of them, it could be Barnes who allows Cleveland to focus their defensive efforts elsewhere. After spending several offseasons hoping that he would be a Cleveland Cavalier, Harrison Barnes, now a role player in Golden Sate, could very well go down as one heck on an unanswered prayer.
Past Know Your Foes: Steph Curry