After two years and incredible hype stemming from being a near unanimous #1 recruit in high school Harrison Barnes is facing some questions about his legacy and value as a basketball player. The first of those questions comes from Grantland's Jay Caspian King who calls the Barnes brand a "bust."
It's easy to blame all this weird, precocious ugliness as well as Barnes's basketball troubles on the "fast-paced media," high school recruiting, and big-time college athletics, but the somewhat liberating truth is that Harrison Barnes just wasn't a great basketball player. He was good, sure, and shot the ball with a confidence that went far beyond his youth, but he never really developed any other part of his game. He'd go crashing into the boards and pull down a jaw-dropping rebound, but then he'd follow that with 10 minutes of standing around on defense. He never figured out how to get to the basket. He never found a way to reliably distribute the ball in transition. Instead, Barnes's improvements were the sort that could be easily dispensed through the media. He put on 15 pounds of muscle between his freshman and sophomore years. He "committed himself to defense." He "came back to win a national championship." He did everything he could do to build the perception that he was competing the right way. But he did not really improve as a basketball player. Before Kendall Marshall, the most gifted passer in college basketball, came along, Barnes was pretty much the player he was this past Friday and Sunday. It's not entirely fair to judge Barnes in two games without his point guard, but it's particularly damning that a lottery-bound perimeter scorer couldn't create his own shot against the mighty Ohio Bobcats. On Sunday, in the biggest game of his career, Barnes missed his last six shots and looked lost when the game was on the line.
This wouldn't be a problem if Barnes were Anthony Davis or even Andre Drummond — the evidence of his physical abilities would overwhelm everything. But Barnes's appeal and part of the brand he's been building over the past two years is that he's the thinking man's athlete. Who but Barnes would give an interview to The Atlantic? What other basketball phenom would think himself into a pretzel and decide that the best way to promote Harrison Barnes, the brand, would be to talk about Harrison Barnes, the brand? Especially when every other super-athlete who talked openly about brands has been met with the public's wrath? Derrick Rose, the antimatter to the brand-building NBA, just signed a $200 million shoe contract. Hasn't it become clear that the way to really build your brand is to breathe basketball, win championships, and throw a couple very public shots at LeBron & Co.? Again, I don't think any of this myopia is Harrison Barnes's fault. We live in a cannibalistic era where sports news exists only for its own sake, and therefore every bit of information about a 17-year-old phenom gets inflated and distorted. Harrison Barnes, at the age of 17, believed he was an NBA brand because everyone in the country already assumed he'd win the Naismith and go on to be the first pick in the draft. But all those interviews, all those press conferences, and all that hype had their effect. Barnes was always a bit too cerebral, a bit too meta about basketball — it shouldn't be surprising that the basketball was always what suffered.
The translation? Barnes worried too much about the branding and not enough about just playing basketball. No one would fault Barnes for being a planner and paying attention to his goals, preparing for a future in the NBA. However, the point is made here that maybe Barnes would have been better served by just "ballin'" and winning. If he does that, the branding largely takes care of itself. There are plenty of players who care not one whit about a personal brand until one is actually created as a result of their accomplishments. Barnes got the cart before the horse a little bit on this but considering much of the hype was outside of his control, it is understandable why he would view it that way. The problem for Barnes is for all the time he spent working on his brand he never quite lived up to it on the court. In two years at UNC he has been a very good player and is a big reason why UNC did some of the things it did as a team over the past two years. However, Barnes fell short of being that eye opening player who changes the game when he was on the court. It happened in flashes but never at the consistent level everyone expected. He was good but not transcendent like you expect for a player looking to brand himself as the next Michael Jordan.
The really intriguing aspect in all of this is how various people have reacted to Barnes' level of accomplishments relative to the expectation level.
In some corners of the UNC fan base there seems to be a lack of attachment to Barnes. Other UNC fans seem to be downright angry at him for his approach to the game and others seem genuinely pissed off the greatness of Barnes never materialized. The brand talk was a little off putting as was his closed demeanor. In short, if you took a poll of Tar Heel fans I think you would find a lot of mixed feeling about Barnes which were only worsened by going 8-30 in two games UNC needed him to be "that guy." Even now with "who will leave" talk now the hot topic you can find everything from "I hope he comes back" to "I won't care if he leaves." Looking back to the way UNC fans reacted in 2009 to his decision it is hard to imagine we are at this place. Not that UNC fans dislike or hate Barnes but they wanted and expected more. Since it didn't happen in a way they anticipated, it is almost like fans have had their feelings hurt which might be ridiculous but being fans of college basketball teams is like that some times.
Outside of Tar Heel fans you have people like Marty Tirrell, a radio show host in Iowa who took to Twitter Friday night after the UNC win over Ohio laying the blame for Barnes' struggles on Roy Williams. Tirrell was telling anyone who would listen about how unhappy Barnes was with Roy and that one day he would admit coming to UNC was a mistake. Barnes denied this to WTVD's Mark Armstrong on Saturday and Tirrell being the mature adult that he is basically called Armstrong, a well respected local journalist, a liar. Then again Tirrell also hates Roy for poaching Iowa kids to Kansas and UNC over the years so we probably shouldn't care too much what he thinks. The reaction itself is very telling. Whereas UNC fans' reaction to Barnes is one of disappointment/anger/frustration, Tirrell and likely others simply refuse to accept Barnes is at fault for his coming up short of the greatness they assumed was there. Unable to cope with reality they lash out at Roy who Tirrell claims destroyed Barnes' game. It was both entertaining and sad to watch, especially given Tirrell was using the whole situation as a means of self-promotion.
It is possible we are being a little premature in evaluating Barnes since his UNC career might not yet be over. Given how much Barnes is concerned about brand and legacy the question naturally arises if those will weigh heavily in his decision to stay in Chapel Hill or enter the draft. Will Barnes view criticisms like the Grantland piece above as motivation to return? Or will he he view his two years in Chapel Hill as not going as it he intended, form a new plan and start over in the NBA. Certainly what John Henson and Kendall Marshall do will matter a great deal since winning a national title is said to part of Barnes' plan. If Marshall and Henson do not return, that task is much more difficult, especially since Barnes needs Marshall more than Marshall needs Barnes.
As a selfish fan I hope Barnes returns and hope he can fulfill the potential everyone saw in him two years ago. The dream scenario is everyone comes back who can come back and with all players healthy the Heels can be the odds on favorite to win the title. These guys are going to do what's best for them and for Harrison Barnes that is either come back with a legendary junior season or cut your losses, head to the NBA and build his career there.