The 'next level' continues to be elusive for Harrison Barnes

The 'next level' continues to be elusive for Harrison Barnes
March 19, 2014, 7:45 pm
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It just takes time. It's a process ... You've got to look at the season as a whole. There's going to be ups and downs. Just continue to work and it'll all come together in time.
Harrison Barnes

In 12 playoff games last season Harrison Barnes averaged 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. (USATI)

Harrison Barnes is averaging 9.6 points per game this season and is shooting just 40% from the field. (USATI)

Programming note: Coverage of Bucks-Warriors begins Thursday night at 7:00 on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area with Warriors Pregame Live.

OAKLAND – When Harrison Barnes takes flight it's a gorgeous sight, a young man above the crowd and beyond the noise, staging a crowd-pleasing exhibition of tremendous athleticism.

Those moments that reveal to the Warriors the scope of Barnes' capabilities, reminding them why they drafted the 6-foot-8 forward seventh overall in 2012, and they also spur the dreams of a fan base with a deep desire for Barnes to evolve from occasionally spectacular to perennial All-Star.

The Warriors privately wonder if that day will come. Barnes is gifted, no doubt, but after studying him for 158 NBA games, their hope is giving way to skepticism.

Watching Barnes on the court, where he struggles more often than he succeeds, it's hard not to believe he, too, wonders. He has admitted that there are times when he fights the tendency to overthink. He's not always able to relax and ride the flow of his natural ability. That internal battle continues to rage.

Inserted into the starting lineup for the injured Andre Iguodala on Tuesday, Barnes' first bucket came after he deftly avoided his defender and soared in for a dunk, thrilling the Oracle Arena crowd and giving the Warriors a 47-41 lead over Orlando.

The play came in his 13th minute on the floor, with 5:15 left in the first half. It was his last field goal. Barnes later added a pair of free throws, but he missed the other five shots he took. He finished with four points, the lowest total among eight Warriors scorers.

He'll get another opportunity to distinguish himself Thursday night, when the Warriors face the Bucks at Oracle. Barnes once again will start for Iguodala.

But the numbers continue to indict Barnes. He's shooting 40 percent this season, 33.6 percent since the All-Star break. He's averaging 7.1 points per game in March, shooting 33.8 percent overall, 25.9 from 3-point range.

Barnes is having trouble scoring.

Harrison Barnes always has been able to score.

He's four years removed from being widely considered the No. 1 prep player in the country at Ames High in Ames, Iowa. He was the subject of a fierce recruiting battle before carrying the burden of rich expectations into Chapel Hill, where he wore North Carolina blue for the fabled Tar Heels.

Harrison's mother, Shirley, groomed her son for basketball. She was a huge fan of Michael Jordan, taping his games religiously. It's not a coincidence she named her only son Harrison Bryce Jordan Barnes, or that he chose the college that produced Michael Jordan.

Barnes stayed at Carolina for two seasons during which he mostly fascinated observers. He would look invincible one night but be invisible the next.

But the Warriors knew the backstory. So when they Warriors drafted someone who once had been the most coveted kid in the land, they rejoiced as if they'd struck oil.

When Barnes served up a few highlights last postseason, hopes were raised.

And now, as the Warriors wonder if Barnes can reach the next level, they sense the disappointment among fans and perhaps even scouts.

"People measure him differently than we measure him," coach Mark Jackson says. "We measure his impact on the game, how he defends, how he takes care of the basketball. Is he aggressive offensively? Does he make the unselfish play? Is he rebounding the basketball?

"We don't measure him in how many points he scores. We're pleased with the way he's played and we know, we're very comfortable putting him in games, at three different positions."

Is Barnes, like young Paul George, a future All-Star? Or is he, like a Richard Jefferson or a Wilson Chandler, bound for a solid but not exceptional NBA career?

No member of the Warriors is more hotly debated in the front office than Barnes. As the team gazes into the future, he is the clearest quandary within its current core. One complicating factor is that Barnes is only 21 years old.

"It just takes time," Barnes says. "It's a process. You can't just think how you're playing now or how you played last week or how you're going to play next week is the final result. You've got to look at the season as a whole. There's going to be ups and downs. Just continue to work and it'll all come together in time."

Barnes is highly intelligent, has an impeccable work ethic, is unfailingly cordial and a bit shy but with a subtle sense of humor. He's a check in so many of the boxes required of a fine friend, a great teammate and a superb basketball player.

But the elite NBA player possesses an inner predator, a divine ruthlessness that drives him, and often his team, to further heights. It need not be visible or audible – it's not about "game faces" or pep talks or screaming after a dunk – but it must be present. It's from the soul.

There is no doubt Kobe Bryant has it, as do Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade. LeBron James has it but needed to experience some agony to develop it. James Harden and Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook have it, too, and it's starting to emerge within the likes of Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah and, yes, Stephen Curry.

There is no evidence, not yet, that Barnes has it.

The Warriors, as time marches on, will have to determine if this young man who dominated at the only high school in his hometown, in America's heartland, will develop it.

And, moreover, when?