The comeback kid
UNC's Harrison Barnes will join the NBA when he's good and ready
This story appears in the Nov. 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
IT'S 8:30 A.M., AND HARRISON BARNES is alone again. The official start of practice still two weeks out, he marches past wet-haired coeds and coffee-toting maintenance men into the empty Dean E. Smith Center for his usual morning workout. It's still painfully early for most college students -- he might be the only person on campus awake by choice. Pulling down the hood of his sweatshirt as he steps inside, Barnes dabs at his nose -- he's got the beginnings of a cold -- and it's apparent he probably should still be in bed back at the dorm suite he shares with three still-snoozing teammates.
"I honestly couldn't tell you what he does in there," says UNC guard Kendall Marshall, who's spent a year dozing through Barnes' alarm clock.
If Barnes is in charge, it's a safe bet the workout is as methodical and practical as humanly possible. Back in high school, Barnes arrived at the court at 5:45 a.m. But now that he's got 24-hour access to a gym, he doesn't have to pack all of his drills into one stretch. "That's the transition to college: watching your rest, watching your diet, figuring how you can get the most productivity," Barnes says. "A lot of it is changing workout times -- making them shorter, making them longer. It's better to work on game-situation things that you can translate onto the court." He'll put up 500 shots or go through agility drills, or mime a series of offensive moves -- jab step, one dribble, cut, pull up -- until he's shaved each motion down to maximum efficiency.
So it's not surprising that Barnes is here this early or that he's so diligent. Really, the only shocking thing is that he's on campus at all.
BARNES SHOULD BE A PRO BY NOW. In a normal year, he would have been snatched up in the lottery and signed to an NBA team. But this is not a normal year. The NBA lockout has assured that he'll donate at least one more year of pro bono highlights, going against the flow of one-and-dones and returning for his sophomore year. And he's not alone. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, Kentucky's Terrence Jones and Baylor's Perry Jones III are among the other second-year stars who delayed their draft entries. Together with Barnes, the group's collective return means that this season, the fight for a national championship will be more rugged than it's been since before one-and-dones existed.
"It's going to raise the competition for everyone involved," says Carolina head coach Roy Williams. "Back to when Tim Duncan stayed four years."
Since the NBA imposed its age limit six years ago, college hoops has been a one-year detour for the Durants and Roses and Beasleys of the world who stuck to the script: A future pro is tagged by the end of high school, balls out for a year until he turns 19 and then starts collecting checks. Sure, it doesn't always go that smoothly, and there are exceptions (Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, UNC's Ed Davis). But it's been rare that even one freshman projected as a lottery pick -- much less four -- could be persuaded to stick around.
Williams himself admitted it was unusual for a player with pro assurances like Barnes to come back to school. According to the feedback he'd gathered from NBA execs, Barnes was guaranteed to go top five. That's impressive for any player, and it's even more remarkable given that Barnes struggled early on, living up to his hype for only half the season. But when contemplating a lockout-clouded future versus coming back to the country's best frontcourt and the preseason's No. 1 team, the decision was easy. "I feel that going to college another year won't hurt my draft stock, and it will probably help it, actually," Barnes says. "It'd be different if everyone jumped ship and I was returning to a team that wasn't going to be in the top 25. We have an opportunity to compete for a national championship."
That's the type of perfectly calculated statement that has come to define Barnes' time in Chapel Hill. Ask around and you'll find the same words used to describe him -- professional, mentally strong, hardworking, focused, confident. It's part of a veneer that he has honed since he was a kid in Ames, Iowa.
Barnes can credit his mom for that. Shirley Barnes was never an athlete herself, but she has always been a rabid basketball fan. Specifically, she was obsessed with Michael Jordan. In 1987, five years before Harrison was born, she began taping Jordan's games. A single mother with a Dolly Parton giggle and penchant for straight talk, Shirley loved the way Jordan ripped apart competitors on the court, but she was equally intrigued by his composure off it. Shirley met Barnes' now-estranged father, Ron Harris, while he starred for the Iowa State Cyclones from 1980 to 1984, and when their son came into the world, Shirley knew exactly whom she wanted him to take after. And just in case there was any confusion, she named him Harrison Bryce Jordan Barnes. Once he was old enough to sit through entire games, she'd park him in front of the TV every Saturday morning and press "play."
"If he wasn't good at something, he'd just make himself good at it."” -- Shirley Barnes, Harrison's mother
When Harrison and his younger sister, Jourdan-Ashle (another nod to MJ), got older, Shirley introduced a new exercise, this one inspired by a church service. "Our pastor gave a sermon and his message was, 'Don't tell it all,'" Shirley says, "meaning don't give up more than what people ask. Let them see who you are by what you do." To hammer home the point, she began drilling the kids in mock interviews, cutting them off if their answers meandered too much -- interview skills she figured would serve them well as professionals in any field.
Intentional or not, some of that well-trained composure bled into Barnes' playing style. The self-assured 6'8" wing dominated at AAU tournaments, climbing to the top prep ranking for his class. Able to post up or step out and shoot a flawless-looking jumper, Barnes became the first freshman ever named a preseason first-team All-America. And yet, when his big moment on the court in Chapel Hill finally arrived, Barnes choked. He foundered his first few months, shooting a miserable 37 percent from the field. What's worse, that stoic on-court facade and diplomatic way of answering questions about the team's shaky nonconference start earned him the nickname Barnesbot and chants of "overrated" from away crowds. At first Barnes was surprised, then humbled. "I've never really faced adversity on the basketball court before," he says.
In truth, he'd never had to face being bad at anything. Barnes, a business administration major, arrived on campus with enough AP credits to bypass several introductory classes. In high school, he played cello (because he was good at it) and saxophone (so he could march in the band). Besides hoops, he'd also been a standout track and soccer star. "If he wasn't good at something," Shirley says, "he'd just make himself good at it."
But this time, there wasn't an easy solution that could fix Barnes' game. He'd watch hours of tape to see where he could shorten moves or dribble out of defensive traps. He'd practice those moves in his morning workouts and again later with the team and yet, come game time, still overthink. "He'd catch on the wing," says Tar Heels forward John Henson, "and he'd jab, step back, crossover, between the legs and then shoot it. He'd make it a much tougher shot instead of just shooting the three."
In practices, however, the coaches saw a different player from the one struggling in games. "Every now and again there were things he would do where, as coaches, we would look at each other and say 'wow,'" Williams says. "Things like covering sideline-to-sideline on one play on defense or how quickly he would take a step and rise up above the rim."
Barnes' teammates continually chided him to enjoy games the way he did workouts, but it ultimately took help from Shirley to turn his season around. While he struggled, she tried to keep quiet and let Barnes figure it out with the coaching staff. "I didn't want to be the hovering mom," she says. Instead, after games, she would hit him with a playful, "H, what's up?"
He usually reacted by focusing on the next game on the schedule, only for Shirley to watch him wander passively through another dud. Before his season got too far gone, she e-mailed him more game film. This time, though, the video wasn't of Jordan but of a YouTube clip of Harrison balling out at -- and smiling through -- the NC Pro-Am the previous summer. The message field read: "Paging Harrison Barnes. I'd love to see this person show up."
Something clicked. Soon after, Barnes responded with a 25-point performance (his season high at the time) in the win over NC State on Jan. 29. His performance included a couple of dunks capped by banshee howls, and a late-game three in front of the Carolina bench that had him grinning from ear to ear as he got back down the court. "He started enjoying the game more than just seeing it as a factory where he could put in his work," Henson says.
"When he started being Harrison Barnes last year is when our club started really going up," Williams says. "He's the kind of young man whom other people gain strength from. They feed off of his success." By the end of the season, the Tar Heels were leeching off Barnes' swag. He established himself not only as the scorer he'd been projected to be (15.7 ppg, including a 40-point game in the ACC tournament against Clemson) but also as one of the most clutch finishers in college. He shot 53 percent from the field in the final four minutes of close games and won two games on the final shot to propel the Heels to the Elite Eight.
As awesome as his turnaround was, though, all it really amounted to was an impressive two months. And Barnes knows it. "Between the beginning and end of last year there were a lot of inconsistencies," he says. "Playing at the level where I finished, for a whole year, that's what I'd like to shoot for."
That kind of self-awareness -- warts and all -- doesn't usually exist in would-be one-and-dones, where pure potential outweighs uneven performances and sketchy fundamentals. This year's No. 1 pick, Kyrie Irving, played only 11 games for Duke. The No. 3 pick, Enes Kanter, spent the entire year on Kentucky's practice squad. The age rule has actually created a perfect storm for mediocrity. Players want to maintain draft status that's been speculated on since high school; coaches want to maintain reps as heading programs that churn out pros. The result is a players' market that puts less emphasis on skill development and more on camouflaging defects until the end of a season. And that has even successful one-and-done coaches lamenting the rule. "I don't like it at all," says Kentucky head coach John Calipari. "It's bad for basketball. It's bad for the NBA. It puts these kids in spots where everything is about one-and-done. You've got 100 kids going to college who think they're one-and-dones."
Even though it's easy to hide behind the "bad for basketball" spiel, the reason so many college fans really hate the one-and-done rule is sentimentality. Most freshman mercenaries are easy to forget. In one year, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony created college legacies and endeared themselves to fan bases in a way that one-and-dones like Donte Greene and Tristan Thompson couldn't. For all the merchandise sold and road trips taken when Derrick Rose was at Memphis, season-ticket holders still sued Rose and Calipari for devaluing their experience with an NCAA violation. O.J. Mayo's wins at USC don't count anymore. And despite going to a Final Four with Kevin Love in 2008 and pulling in Jrue Holiday the following year, UCLA coach Ben Howland is under fire in 2011 for being a poor recruiter.
That dry-erase legacy is part of the reason Barnes is excited to be back on campus. If he does as well as he's planning to, he'll have a permanent tie to a historical program -- something few one-year players have achieved. "I feel like if I just came here for one year and left, I wouldn't be able to return and I wouldn't have the same connection," he says. "You don't feel like you're part of the program until, for example, you get to the NCAA Tournament and you're making history -- going round after round, and every game you win determines whether you raise the banner or not."
In typical fashion, the summer prior to college Barnes made a list of things he wanted to accomplish before he left North Carolina. Of course, Barnes wouldn't share it. But Shirley did. "I don't know if I should say," Shirley admits, "but I think he might want his jersey in the rafters."
The only way to do that, in a year that should be historically difficult, is to win a title over a group of sophomores who are all looking to do the same thing. And for that to happen, the Harrison Barnes who loves the game -- not the uber-analytical Barnesbot -- needs to show up. Only then will he have truly earned his spot alone at the top of the draft board.
Elena Bergeron is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine.
ESPN The Magazine: November 14, 2011