Why Harrison Barnes is a victim of “Kobe assists”

Elsewhere, I discussed in length the concept of “Kobe assists.” Now, I want to take a look at their specific impact on a Warrior Harrison Barnes. Going into the 2012 draft, he was heavily criticized for not meeting expectations in his either of his 2 seasons at North Carolina. The Tar Heels lost in the Regional Final both years, meaning they were one of the 8 best teams in the nation. This is also confirmed in their final poll ratings, 7th in 2011, and 4th in 2012. Despite all that, Barnes’ career there was looked at rather bleakly, for a couple reasons. Chief among them were his tendency to be a jump shooter and a less-than-stellar shooting percentage (advanced or field goal).

I think Bryant and Barnes may have something in common in addition to sharing similar nicknames (those being Black Mamba and Black Falcon). At North Carolina Barnes was asked to be a perimeter player the same way Bryant has been for much of his NBA career. He played with his own pair of “twin towers” in center Tyler Zeller and forward John Henson, who were also high picks in the 2012 draft.

The same advanced wisdom that painted Kobe Bryant an average chucker saw Barnes as a hopeless NBA prospect despite much evidence to the contrary. He was strong, fast, and smart, with good basketball instincts. His jump shot wasn’t elite, but it was certainly well above average for many prospects. Look just 5 spots up the draft, at fellow small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. His jumper, nor his footwork, were close to matching Barnes. Aesthetically, Barnes showed all of the talents you expect to see out of a future NBA star. And still, numerous respected basketball outlets thought him not just overrated, but of hardly being worthy of drafting at all. Certainly, they said, a team would be doing themselves a disservice drafting him in the lottery.

Long I tried to convince many Warrior fans that Barnes’ numbers were victims of a system that worked very well for UNC. Goldsberry, in his own article points out “different players do different things, as evidenced by the league’s great offenses.” The same way Kobe’s personal numbers are hindered by playing with good post players, Barnes was too. Zeller and Henson lead all major conferences front-courts in combined rebounds, and were third behind in scoring (30.0) West Virginia’s Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli (30.6) and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas (33.4). The Buckeye duo, however, also featured a smaller lineup in general. Thomas who projects as an NBA small forward, plays a much more perimeter game than most any big at the NCAA level.

For Zeller and Henson, this means that they spent a whole lot of time in the paint, more than most. Compounding that issue is the fact that the college game does not feature a defensive 3-second rule. In addition to likely having 4 players in the paint at any given time, opposing defenses could pack the lane with all 5 of their defenders, as they often do. Even with the short 3-point line, there a fewer legitimate long-range threats to prevent this. On last year’s UNC team, there was one player outside of Barnes that was a 3-point threat. It was guard Reggie Bullock, who hit them at 38.2 percent. Not exactly the biggest threat.

Further more, point guard Kendall Marshall (drafted 14th overall) handled most of the distributing duties. This hindered Barnes opportunities for assists, which resulted in less-than pedestrian numbers there given it was already one of his weaker points.

To this point, I feel somewhat justified that my assessment of Barnes was far greater than those who looked at his numbers and labeled him a “chucker” or a ball hog. Some even suggested he was just not very good at basketball. Given the change in attitude from before, during, and post-draft, it seems the same Warrior fans who doubted his NBA prospects are starting to warm to his abilities now that he’s being asked to do different things. Very little has changed about his skill set, outside of an improved crossover that he assured everyone was coming when he reached the NBA. He anticipated the NBA the same way I anticipated his coming. More offensive freedom, more space. There isn’t actually more room on the court, but the abilities of the players in the league dictate that you guard them out to the now-23 foot 3-point line. Barnes, despite a rather modest start to his career, has to be loving the way the NBA game plays more to his strengths.

It’s early in his career, though. Looking forward, I can see his career playing out a whole lot like Kobe Bryant’s. A volume scorer who is a legitimate threat everywhere on the court. A solid defender, rebounder, and passer when he wants to be. Obviously, expecting him to turn out anywhere near as good is a reach, as it is with any player in their rookie year, but certainly, he could end up in a situation similar to the one he was in at North Carolina, and that Kobe has been in most of his career. If he ever does reach his NBA potential, this is warning. Warriors fans who despise the way Kobe Bryant plays the game should get used to it.

Barnes is the most gifted and talented player on our roster. Beyond Klay Thompson. Beyond Steph Curry. Far beyond both David Lee and Andrew Bogut. If he makes use of all his skills (note: less than half of players ever do), he’ll almost assuredly be our best player at some point. Don’t let a judgement you made about Kobe and TS% to hurt your experience of Barnes. Kid’s going to be good, and he’s likely going to be good in much the same way. The similarities are all there, on the court and off. A well-balanced offensive game. A chip on their shoulder. A confidence that implies a more experienced player. Similar monikers born of similar aspirations. A drive to prove doubters wrong. Kobe’s is widely-known, but Barnes himself has begun his career doing exactly what others thought he couldn’t. Attacking the paint with his crossover, scoring inside, rebounding. It’s all there, despite a lack of it at North Carolina.

Fans of Barnes (and all Warrior fans should be Barnes fans, IMO) should take the notion of “Kobe assists” and save it for a later date, even if they’re unwilling to accept the idea now. Don’t let one number deceive your perception of the game.

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