|ESPN.com: NBA||[Print without images]|
LOS ANGELES -- It may have taken 10 games to happen, but Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown has settled on a starting small forward. Matt Barnes won the job over Devin Ebanks.
"He's my small forward for the foreseeable future," Brown said of Barnes after the nine-year veteran had 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in the Lakers' 90-82 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday. "He earned it, he's held on to it and he's played the right way for us at that position."
It capped an impressive two-game spurt for Barnes following his 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals on Friday against the Golden State Warriors. It was only the second time since signing with the Lakers as a free agent in the summer of 2010 that Barnes scored double figures in consecutive games, dating back to Dec. 17 and 19 of last season, which also happened to be two wins by Los Angeles.
"I know what my role is on that first unit," Barnes said. "It's to provide energy and a spark, and I try to do that."
It has been a remarkable turnaround for Barnes after he played just 14 minutes in the Lakers' first three games, picking up two DNPs while Brown went with Ebanks in the starting five. Ebanks, who the Lakers drafted in the second round a year ago, started the first four games, averaging 5.0 points on 50 percent shooting and 3.3 rebounds, but has played in just one out of Los Angeles' six games since.
Barnes is averaging 8.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.3 blocks per game on the season. He has seen his role increase, topping 30 minutes per game in his last two games after not playing more than 22 minutes in his first six appearances. As Barnes' role increased, Metta World Peace's role as the backup small forward diminished as he averaged just 11.5 minutes per game against Golden State and Memphis.
Brown was effusive of his praise about the 6-foot-7 forward.
"Barnes played a whale of a game," Brown said. "He played a whale of a game on both ends of the floor. He's playing within the system and it's exciting to see a guy at his size with his athleticism, with his defensive energy and his quickness and all that other stuff, play the game the right way. ... The defensive intensity that he brought to the table (Sunday) was good to see. It was fun to watch."
Barnes did not have fun watching from the bench to start the season, perhaps that's why he did not fully accept Brown's affirmation of his starting position after the game.
"There's no comfort," Barnes said. "I thought I was starting at the beginning of the year, so there's no comfort here. I'm going to continue to go out there and play hard and do anything I can to help the team win."
Barnes, who exercised his $1.9 million player option to stay with Los Angeles in the offseason, has had an up-and-down time with the team after signing as a free agent prior to the 2010-11 season. He suffered what he calls the first major injury of his career when he tore cartilage in his right knee last January, causing him to miss 26 straight games. He later served a one-game suspension for his part in an altercation in a game against the Dallas Mavericks.
"I think I had my footing last season before I got hurt and then I lost all the momentum getting hurt," Barnes said. "Coming in this summer, I worked very hard to put myself in a position to succeed. It started off really rough, but hopefully from here on out we can continue the smooth transition."
Despite his reluctance to find comfort in his starter status, Barnes said his confidence hasn't wavered.
"I'm always confident," Barnes said. "I just think the important thing is when the coach has confidence in you. As a player you always have to be confident, but it goes a long way when you know your coach backs you and I feel like Mike is starting to back me and it shows in my play."
Kobe Bryant, who recruited Barnes to sign with L.A. in the first place, was appreciative of the forward's efforts as well.
"He's playing to his strengths," Bryant said. "He's great on the glass and he's very active. He's good at getting us easy opportunities and second opportunities."
Bryant alluded to Barnes' value showing the most when the Lakers find themselves playing Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant or Miami's LeBron James down the line.
"That's a very key spot in our league in this day and age," Bryant said. "That 3 spot defensively is a huge, huge key."Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.