Commentary

'Harrison Barnes Show' will go on and on

Updated: November 13, 2009, 4:26 PM ET
By Ryan Canner-O'Mealy | ESPN RISE

This story appeared in the Winter 2009 edition of ESPN RISE HARDWOOD.

The flashbulbs pop. Autograph seekers wield Sharpies. Opponents turn into adoring fans.

Welcome to The Harrison Barnes Show.

Even in a state like Iowa that's serious about its hoops, the Ames senior is unlike anything locals have seen before. Rated the nation's No. 1 player in the ESPNU 100, the versatile 6-foot-8 small forward is already the most heavily recruited player in state history and should go down as its best-ever prep baller.

Friday on ESPNU, Barnes announced he would play at North Carolina

Along the way, he's rubbed elbows with NBA and political royalty while turning Ames into a must-visit destination for legendary college coaches. Whether he's out on the road or doing the hosting in his hometown, the show always goes on.

Last season, Ames traveled to Hoover (Des Moines, Iowa) for a tuneup game before the playoffs began. Once the scrimmage ended, an exhibition began. The Hoover players had never seen anyone like Barnes up close and were determined to make the most of the experience. With childlike enthusiasm, they shouted for him to try different dunks, including a between-the-legs jam that brought the house down.

"They were freaking out when he got it," Ames senior Doug McDermott says.

With each acrobatic throwdown, Barnes slam-dunked the stereotype of Iowa ballers as sweet-shooting farm boys.

"When you would go to play AAU ball and people saw you were from Iowa, you wouldn't get any respect," says McDermott, who has committed to Northern Iowa. "Now people are like, 'Oh, that's where Harrison Barnes is from.'"

The same sky-walking athleticism that Barnes used to put Iowa basketball on the map also helped him get noticed instantly as a freshman at Ames.

Harrison Barnes
Kelly Kline for ESPNRISE.com Harrison Barnes, tops in the ESPNU 100, had viewers hanging on every word before revealing his pick: UNC.

"Coach (Vance) Downs took him from that first freshman practice and we knew that was the last we'd see of him at that level," McDermott says.

Just a few days later, Barnes made a similar impression with the varsity team. He was dunking with such ferocity that the basket shook after each throwdown. Downs couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"I had to turn away because I didn't want him to see the expression on my face," the coach says.

But as Downs learned during spring break 2007, the secret to Barnes' success is a lot more substance than style.

Ames' season had come to an end with a painful loss the previous week. At the squad's year-end meeting, Downs told his players to use their vacation to recharge physically and mentally, then be ready to start conditioning when school started back up. On the first day of spring break, however, Downs woke up to five missed calls from Barnes, the first coming at 6 a.m. Fearing the worst, he quickly called his star.

"'Coach, I was at the weight room and wanted in,'" Downs remembers Barnes saying.

"I felt we could have won the state tournament that year," Barnes says now. "But we didn't, so there was nothing else I could do except get better."

Ever since then, Barnes has made pre-dawn workouts part of his routine, often rising before the sun to lift, run or shoot around.

That work ethic paid immediate dividends. After a great sophomore season for Ames, Barnes made the leap from being a local star to a national one. Starting at the Nike Hoop Jamboree and continuing through the LeBron James Skills Academy and the Nike Global Challenge, Barnes established himself as one of the nation's best  as good as anyone from big cities like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.

Before long, coaching heavyweights like Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Bill Self were getting well acquainted with Ames.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Barnes
Kelly Kline for ESPNRISE.com All business on the court, Barnes talks about building a "business empire" when he is done playing.

"The first time Coach K came in, it was crazy," says McDermott, whose father, Greg, is the head coach at Iowa State. "Everyone was asking for autographs and pictures. But now, people are almost used to it. Having a coach like that at our school is like an average day."

As a junior, Barnes was determined to win a state title. All the media attention and scholarship offers were nice, but he felt his prep career would be sorely lacking if he never hoisted a state championship trophy.

From the jump, Barnes played like a man possessed. He carefully straddled the line between staying within the team's offense and taking over when necessary. Other top recruits might have had gaudier numbers, but no one was more efficient than Barnes. He averaged 19.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game and nailed 43 percent of his 3-point attempts.

"He could be getting 35 or 40 a night," Downs says. "But he understands the framework of the team."

In the state semifinal against Johnston (Johnston, Iowa), he had 23 points on only 12 shots, while adding five rebounds, three steals and two blocks in a 52-39 win. In the championship game against Linn-Mar (Marion, Iowa), Barnes netted 24 points in a 55-45 triumph. He capped the year by winning Gatorade State Player of the Year honors.

But to only highlight Barnes' on-court achievements is to do him a great disservice. When it comes to being a top basketball recruit, Barnes breaks the mold. He took up the cello in fourth grade before switching to the saxophone a couple years later, and he still plays the sax when he needs to get his mind off the stress that comes with being the nation's No. 1 recruit. He boasts a GPA better than 3.5 despite a full slate of AP classes, and he even started a Bible study group at his school.

When asked about life after basketball, Barnes talks about building a "business empire."

"He has a whole different outlook on life than most kids his age," Ames principal Mike McGrory says.

Downs goes one step further, envisioning Barnes following the path of Bill Bradley, the NBA Hall of Famer turned senator.

"He could be president and it wouldn't surprise me," the coach says.

Nothing better illustrates Barnes' books-and-basketball balance than his encounters on the recruiting trail. On a visit to Stanford this past spring, Barnes noticed a meeting with "Dr. Rice" on his itinerary. He nearly choked when he was told it was actually former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Many of his peers might think Condoleezza Rice is an exotic dinner entrée, but Barnes knew exactly who he was talking to and why it was so significant.

"It was such a great honor," he says. "She was very down to earth, and it was an amazing overall experience."

Then when he went to North Carolina this fall, he had a brush with a different kind of fame. At the school's alumni game, Barnes got a chance to meet his childhood idol, Michael Jordan.

"He was just sitting there in the office," Barnes says. "It was pretty surreal."

Surreal. For those who've watched him up close, that's a pretty good way to describe the entire Harrison Barnes experience.

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