The press conference following an NCAA tournament loss invariably brings with it one of the dumbest questions the sports media asks of a player. With Harrison Barnes, it came a few questions in, and was phrased like this: "Is there a possibility that this is the last game you play at UNC?" The question is dumb because ten minutes prior the person you're asking expected to still be playing college basketball; they expected to win and advance. Unless the player is profoundly, utterly miserable at school, at that moment they have no idea if they're going to declare for the NBA draft. Barnes' answer was as bland as you would expect: "I haven't thought that far." Stupid question asked, noncommittal answer given. The script is followed.
Still, Monday morning there were a couple of columns written that served as career retrospectives on Harrison Barnes, and they weren't particularly kind. This sudden shift in perspective for the 2nd Team All-American actually began before the Sweet Sixteen, with this Atlantic profile of the player by Jason Zengerle. Zengerle has written a lot on Duke and Carolina basketball for a guy who's worked for places like Slate and The New Republic — catch his pieces on Joseph Forte and Jason Capel back in the day — but with Barnes he takes away a little too much from the interview. Basically, he's unduly impressed that a 19–year–old business major sounds like, well, a 19–year–old business major. The word "brand" appears in the piece seven times, only once in a quote from Barnes. "The longer you stay in college, the better a brand you build," is mentioned as one of his reasons for returning for his sophomore year.
Not that there isn't a fair amount of other business–speak peppered in the interview. His view of the NBA is quite clear–headed:
"The NBA is a business," Barnes told me, elaborating that players are akin to pieces of inventory that, if they don't produce, get replaced by other pieces that do. "But on the brighter side," he added, "you do gain a lot of capital, and you have a platform from which you have avenues to do just about anything you want to do." Indeed, Barnes seems amazed that more basketball players don't take advantage of those avenues. "I think if anybody has an opportunity to play professional basketball," he said, "to not transcend that into off-the-court endeavors is really a waste."
Zengerle also draws a comparison to Michael Jordan in the way Barnes ducks his questions on religion and politics, since Barnes puts forth instead "Anytime you want to get into religious or political views, that can instantly polarize people." This is taken as just more brand management, and not the infinitely more likely view that Barnes, the most reserved player on and off the court — I think he's the only player not on Twitter — just doesn't like to talk about his personal life. But overall, it's the perfect little piece for the Atlantic, a "look at this college basketball behaving just like the business mogul we all aspire to be" sort of story. It ignores the fact that, well, few in the NBA dress dress in "the kind of flashy outfit commonly seen on NBA draft night" anymore, as Lebron James is the new fashion icon, or that every highly touted high schooler approaches basketball like a career, as this ESPN story on Tony Parker makes pretty clear (more on that later). But overall, it's pretty anodyne.
And then Barnes played two games without Kendall Marshall, made 8 shots out of 30, and saw his season end.
By Monday afternoon, two columns had caught my eye, both playing off the brand theme of Zengerle's story. Andrew Sharp wrote one for SBNation, and Jay Caspian King penned one for Grantland. Of the two, King's is harsher, expressing misgivings for Barnes going back to his college announcement, calling it "too polished and produced," but both hang the loss to Kansas squarely on Barnes' shoulders. Sharp takes the view that Barnes just wasn't capable of what was assumed of him, while King goes one step further to say that not only was Barnes not that good, but everything was brand–building on a foundation of sand. Both throw in asides to absolve Barnes for the Barnes expectation levels, sort of, but still, the theme is the same. He's a bad basketball player who should feel bad.
So bad, in fact, that Kansas designed a defense focused entirely on him, taking away both his open three and the dribble penetration, knowing there was never going to be more than one person besides Barnes on the court to take a perimeter shot. So bad that Williams gave him the ball in the waning seconds of the Ohio game. So bad that he took a quarter of UNC's shots in those two games, and people were complaining that he wasn't shooting more.
Frankly, a lot of complaints about Barnes build down to the same bloodlessness affectation he has on the court when he was scoring 40 points against Clemson. He's quiet and reserved, and only the occasional on–court outburst is going to change that. Barnes was the first person to say he expected to play better in the tournament, but it's rather facile to say he should have just stepped up, and parted the defenses with his innate Harrsion Barnesness. He's a college basketball player, playing with a lot of teammates on the bench injured. To ignore that in favor of shots at his brand is to fit everything into a title morality play. Barnes, the most reticent, un–flashy player on this North Carolina team, spent too much time focusing on his image instead of his basketball? What kind of sense does that make?
I'm hundreds of miles away from Chapel Hill, with no insight into the miss of elite college athletes fifteen years my junior. So I have no idea if Harrison Barnes (or anyone else) will go pro. He would be a very high draft pick, most college athletes improve the most between their freshman and sophomore years, and he's had a ringside seat for more injuries than you can count. All of that could spur him to leave. he also hasn't accomplished what he wanted to at the the college level, which could bring him back. Or again, he could look at this season, where everyone did everything right only to have it end with three potential starting guards on the bench in ties. He may not have the energy for another year of this.
I don't know. I think Carolina fans are a little spoiled by the 2009 team returning en masse, and such moves aren't as common as we'd like to believe. But either ay, I expect Barnes to be quite successful. He's focused, he's methodical, and he's accomplished. And I don't think any of that is a brand.