- Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN Staff Writer
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In a moment, Harrison Barnes reminded fans that the hype isn’t wholly empty. On Thursday night against the Clippers, he raced behind a weaving Jordan Crawford, received the pass, then soared past Willie Green for a powerful and-1 dunk. If the crowd's crazed reaction for a merely cool second-quarter jam was a little over the top, it may be attributable to a certain nervous energy regarding the Barnes situation. He’s been adrift on this roster this season, and the murmurs of doubt and disappointment have been growing louder.
As Anthony Bennett hogs the national “draft bust?” spotlight, it’s easy to forget that there are other young players under local scrutiny. In an ideal world, we wouldn't hold these young men to expectations they didn't set, but that change isn't happening anytime soon.
In Barnes’ case, the expectations don’t stem just from being the No. 7 pick. There’s more to the anxiety of “Is this it?” than his lottery status. First, Barnes didn’t storm the scene just last season as Bennett did en route to becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Barnes is coming off his rookie season, but the former No. 1-ranked recruit has been underwhelming nervous fans for years now.
Barnes played for a high-profile North Carolina program and was featured before a March Madness TV audience that dwarfs that of Warriors games. His freshman year at Chapel Hill was underwhelming, albeit mildly so. Barnes scored, but didn't do it that efficiently, and did little else. He still probably would have been a top-three pick if he had opted for the draft then, but he elected to stay a year, which worked out badly for his draft stock, if not his “brand.” Sophomore Barnes played like freshman Barnes. His "NBA body" continued to move as though animated by what draftniks might call a "low motor." His handle remained stilted, his shot remained average, and his disappearances from the team’s offensive attack remained frequent.
As Barnes drifted through his final college season, the Warriors set about a deliberate course. They tanked mightily in pursuit of a top-seven protected pick. The process was excruciating for just about anyone who followed the team closely out of either obligation or habit. It made a grim mockery of Mark Jackson’s first season as head coach as he strove to prove himself with suited stars and a massive organizational incentive to lose, lose, lose.
Barnes was the prize, the guy who would vindicate the intentional indignity of 2012. And in the 2013 playoffs, after Warriors fortunes had dramatically reversed for the better, Barnes appeared to do just that. His rookie season was uneven, but Barnes got something of a spotlight during Golden State’s first-round upset of the Denver Nuggets. David Lee went down with a hip injury, and Barnes, who had seen almost no time at power forward to that point, was called upon to be the replacement.
Barnes thrived with more space on the court, using his long strides to sail toward the rim. Denver frequently left him open beyond the arc, allowing Barnes to shoot 40.6 percent from deep in the series.
The following Spurs series didn't help Harrison’s efficiency, but it did bolster his national cachet. Tony Parker "hid" on Barnes defensively, which goaded the Warriors into bogging their offense down into repeated post-ups with their rookie. The result was plenty of points for Barnes (an average of 17.3 over the six-game series), but at a below-average 51.4 percent true shooting mark. Since raw point totals still command a lot of respect, many filed Barnes’ series as a breakout performance.
The Warriors themselves were reputed to be highly optimistic about Barnes during last summer’s training camp, even if they did bring Andre Iguodala in to take his starting spot. Rumors about Barnes' killer training camp set off yet another drum roll in a career comprised of so many anticipatory drum rolls.
Barnes began this season with a foot ailment, and he’s been, to put it bluntly, quite bad so far. It's not often that you’ll see a player with a 9.95 PER get so many opportunities. Jackson continues to post Barnes up as though his high-flying wing is Al Jefferson waiting to happen. The results have been miserable, mostly because Barnes claims neither the shooting ability nor passing vision to capitalize on frequent post-ups. It’s not all Jackson’s fault, though. Barnes dribbles with the stultifying caution of someone who fears the ball might set off land mines. He also holds on to it with the slow, deliberate focus of someone consulting a Magic 8 ball. To summarize, he’s a ball-stopper, but without the gaudy individual offense that many ball-stoppers can conjure up in isolation.
Though blessed with the body of an elite perimeter defender, Barnes has shown none of the instincts this season. While it’s understandable that a younger player might struggle on defense, Barnes’ flaws on that end are highlighted by the dogged defensive efforts of less-touted second-year man Draymond Green.
Draft disappointments don’t just let fans down on their lonesome, as disappointment needs a comparison to some better, imagined outcome. Sam Bowie wouldn't be “Sam Bowie” without Michael Jordan. Perhaps the most agonizing aspect of draft pick disappointment is the emerging picture of the alternatives. As the draft pick hindsight gets more clear, less blurry, it shows Andre Drummond dunking off a high screen lob from Stephen Curry. It shows John Henson blocking a shot simultaneous with Andrew Bogut. It shows Terrence Ross claiming membership as a Splash Brother with a 51-point opus. It shows Terrence Jones as an even better stretch 4 than Barnes in the Denver series. It shows Jeremy Lamb as what Kent Bazemore was supposed to be defensively. Depending on the day, it might even show the better side of Jared Sullinger, Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten.
Barnes still has time and still has plausible excuses (remember the early-season injury?). Mark Jackson repeatedly extols his work ethic. Nobody on the team has criticized Barnes for a lack of desire or effort. If you’re hopeful about Harrison, you’ll have to lean on the subjective because the statistical profile is looking bleak. If you’re looking for optimism, you’ll have to consider what Curry said about Barnes after the victory over the Clippers: “He’s still young. He’s still trying to, you know, find his way. New role this year, obviously, coming off the bench. He’s going to get it. We still have confidence in him, we keep staying in his ear; he has confidence in himself, and obviously he’s shown that he can make a huge impact.”