Warriors’ Barnes Takes Lead Defensive Role
Harrison Barnes went to North Carolina as one of the biggest recruits in school history, and when you roll that sentence over in your head, you realize what a big deal that is.
The 6-8 forward from Aimes, IA was ranked atop the 2010 recruiting class by ESPN and Scouts.com, and after some initial struggles with the Tar Heels, he averaged 15.7 points and 17.1 points per game as a freshman and sophomore, respectively.
But the fact that you can score against N.C. State or lead your high school team to an undefeated season and a state title doesn’t mean you can do it in the NBA. Realistically, even gifted scorers struggle to find their offensive niche for a season or two after they arrive in the NBA.
But defense isn’t offense. Talent plays a factor, but so do size, athleticism, hustle, and all of the other things that Barnes brings to the table. That why coach Mark Jackson hasn’t hesitated to put Barnes on some of the bigger assignments in the league: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, etc.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming into here,” Barnes told HOOPSWORLD. “I’m glad that Coach [Mark Jackson] has enough faith in me to put me out there against great players in late-game situations and I think the more that I’m in those situations, the more I’ll get better.”
There are some defensive concepts that Barnes might recognize from the college game, but not necessarily Chapel Hill. The Warriors occasionally run a 3-2 zone, for instance.
But there are a lot of other defensive strategies that are still new to Barnes.
NBA offenses obviously behave quite differently than college teams. There are pick-and-roll plays and nearly every player can seemingly shoot or take you off the dribble.
But what really struck Barnes is what players were doing away from the ball.
“I struggled at first just understanding concepts, like off-the-ball stuff, being able to rotate off your man and stuff,” Barnes said. “It took me awhile, but I’ve definitely adjusted and gotten better and am still getting better. Just being sure that I can defend a guy, even if they get 20-plus [points] a night and still be able to play team defense.
“Definitely off-the-ball,” Barnes continued, when asked what the biggest defensive challenge has been. “Here guys are so talented that they can just run down the lane with such force, guys like Tyson Chandler, if you don’t catch him early they’re going to lob it to him. Guys like Carmelo Anthony and Steve Novak whole can fill the threes are out there on the kick-out too, that’s a tough match. I think off-the-ball, specifically, is what I’ve had problems with.”
Barnes had his work cut out for him on Wednesday as Anthony scored 35 points (he wasn’t defended exclusively by Barnes, though). The rookie conceded that Anthony is a “great player,” adding that he always wants to defend guys like that.
But Barnes has defended all shapes and sizes in his brief time in the NBA. Jackson has used him on smaller guards and even post players.
“I got caught in the post with [seven-foot center] Tiago Splitter one time, that’s probably the biggest guy I’ve ever had to go against,” he said, adding that James and Anthony are pretty big in their own right.
Offensively, Barnes hasn’t been spectacular.
He’s registered 8.9 points while shooting 43.8 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from 3-point range. Both figures are around what he did during his final season with the Tar Heels, so it doesn’t look like there is any beginner’s luck involved. He also takes a lot of mid-range jumpers and was compared to Chicago’s Luol Deng by former ESPN.com writer and current Memphis Grizzlies executive John Hollinger.
But for Barnes to be as good of a pro as Deng, he’ll have to defend the NBA’s best every night. He’ll need to become more efficient on offense (his turnover rate of 10.8 is normal for a rookie, not a veteran) and most importantly, he’ll have to put every ounce of his talent on the floor.
Everyone knew Barnes was a special player back in Aimes, and thanks to Coach Jackson, we’re getting a chance to see how he fairs against the league’s top offensive talents.