The Curious Case Of Harrison Barnes

In the Fall of 2010, a friend and I took a CTA train to watch State of the Union at the Strawdog Theatre on Chicago’s North Side. I’m not much of a theater guy, but the show was pretty good. The seats were super uncomfortable, but the show was good. In all honesty, though, although I did enjoy the production, my main motivation for not occasionally tuning out was the fear of lacking coherent, insightful things to discuss with my friend post-show. “Uh…umm…the protagonist was…uhhhh…DENOUEMENT!!!”

But none of that is important.

I only share this anecdote because of a conversation that transpired on the train. College basketball was nearing its season opener, and my friend and I both had good reason to be optimistic. That Spring, his Duke Blue Devils landed consensus top-five recruit Kyrie Irving out of Elizabeth, New Jersey. My UNC Tar Heels signed a kid from Ames, Iowa named of Harrison B.J. Barnes. ESPN rated him the top overall recruit in the Class of 2010; slotted him second overall, only behind…Josh Selby. The hype wasn’t quite LeBron or Oden-like, but many people who are paid to evaluate basketball prospects thought he was NBA-ready out of high school. He was a preseason All-American in the college ranks before his first collegiate game, and even my friend admitted that Barnes’ arrival to Chapel Hill made UNC frontrunners to win a 7th National Championship. I beamed gleefully.

But a few weeks into the season, those who were expecting the second coming of Prince Kobe Bean Shuttlesworth came to the startling realization that…Barnes wasn’t that good. He was criticized for having a slow release, shaky handle and, most of all, for having an unnerving tendency to “disappear” from games. And if you came to believe what you heard about HB’s game prior to his stepping foot on North Carolina’s campus, then it was reasonable to be disappointed. I was. We were promised a transcendent prospect, but we got a merely above-average player. Over six or so months, Barnes went from “can’t miss prospect who could’ve gone first overall if he were able to declare for the draft out of high school” to “guy who could use another year of college to polish his game.” So that’s what he did. Long story short, he showed some improvement his second year, but a couple lackluster performances in the NCAA Tournament further damaged his draft stock. Some had him pegged as a fringe-lottery guy, and had he not tested as the most athletic prospect — a result that was mostly unexpected, as some questioned his athleticism — at the 2012 Draft Combine, he may not have gone seventh overall to Oakland.

Barnes’ rookie season with the Warriors was uneven but promising — a familiar story. He made a few impressive highlight reel plays (like that “right-handed hammer” over Pekovic), but his shooting was inconsistent and slightly below-average overall. And he still had extended stretches of anonymity on the court — stretches where he wouldn’t command attention from opposing defenses. Sure, there was already an established pecking order in the Warriors offense that essentially relegated Barnes to a fourth or fif option, but his tendency to be dormant for prolonged periods could be traced back to his days wearing baby blue, when he was his team’s undisputed first option.

SportVU might simultaneously be the best and worst thing to happen to the world of basketball writing, but sequestered in the publicly-available dataset are little tidbits that can augment our understanding of players without making claims about a player’s production or ability level. Sometimes it’s helpful to step away from the paradigm of “X does Y better than Z” and move towards evaluating players on more neutral terms. There’s obviously utility in comparing Barnes’ shooting or rebounding to his peers’, but I propose what I take to be a more illustrative set of facts that corroborates the “Barnes is an enigma” narrative. SportVU technology tracks the number and length of touches each player has per game, and many of the results are intuitive: point guards tend to handle the ball longer per touch, catch-and-shoot specialists touch the ball infrequently and briefly, and superstar wings have a high volume of touches. But Harrison Barnes is the single-most unique player in the entire league when considering touch statistics. Of the top-200 players in terms of frontcourt touches per game, Harrison Barnes ranks 170th in touches per minute. But the length of an average Harrison Barnes touch (in seconds) is not commensurate with players who possess the ball as infrequently as he does:


These players rank 163rd-173rd in touches per minute among the top-200 players in touches per game (as of 11/22 or something like that). As you can see, Harrison Barnes is the clear outlier. The list is filled with different player-types — catch-and-shoot specialists, a stretch 4, slashing wings, offensive rebounding bigs — but all of them tend to get rid of the ball in one way or another well before Barnes. And here’s a table of players who tend to handle the ball about as long as Barnes per touch:


Populating the list are a few point guard-esque players, followed by Barnes, Alec Burks, and some of the best scoring wings in the league (and Rudy Gay). Burks, a shooting guard by trade, had some point guard responsibilities for the Utah Jazz early on due to Trey Burke’s injury. His inclusion in this list is partially due to that role-shift. The LeBron-Wade-George-Carmelo quartet is unsurprisingly ball-dominant, but Barnes ranks ahead of them all. That might seem strange at first, but anybody who has seen Barnes play shouldn’t be too taken aback. When he receives a pass, he often looks to break down his defender off the dribble and either pull up or get to the rim. He’s a capable catch-and-shoot player, but he’s comfortable dribbling to his preferred spots and rising atop defenders for midrange jumpers. He has also shown an ability to post up smaller defenders. Barnes is a versatile, confident scorer, and that’s what makes his relative lack of touches enigmatic.

It’s easy to attribute his lack of touches to his being on a team that’s loaded offensively, but his new role as 6th man has given him some playing time alongside inferior scorers. Despite this, his usage with Curry and Thompson on the bench does not reflect an increased scoring load (via NBA WoWy):


I’m operating under the assumption that, since Harrison Barnes’ primary role is as a scorer, the number of shots he takes has some relation to the number of touches he receives. In lineups sans the Splash Bros., where Barnes is often joined by the likes of Marresse Speights, Jermaine O’Neal and Draymond Green, one would expect his number of shots (and touches) to increase, but that hasn’t been the case thus far. In fact, he shoots most infrequently in these cases. Barnes is least gun shy when playing alongside Curry and not Thompson, which is likely due to his benefiting from drive and kick shot attempts created by Curry and Andre Iguodala.

Barnes has shot very well so far this season, so the issue isn’t his effectiveness. It’s a combination of two factors that leave prognosticators apprehensive about Harrison’s future. writer (and Warriors fan) Ethan Sherwood Strauss probably put it best when he noted that Barnes has a habit of “turning easy shots into hard ones.” This goes back to the perceived inadequacies as a pure athlete that existed prior to the 2012 Combine. He’s fast, quick and explosive, but he looks a little awkward on the court at times. Here’s a pretty good example of what Strauss means:

He demonstrates pretty sound footwork with a reverse pivot to create some separation from James Harden for the shot, but instead of shooting, he pump fakes, allowing Omer Asik to come over from the weak side and make the shot a little more difficult. Harden, on the other side of Barnes’ shooting hand, was in no position to contest the shot without fouling, so Barnes had very little reason to pump fake. He may have been trying to draw a foul by faking, but he ultimately shot a fade away (because Asik had time to come across the lane), so that seems unlikely. Plays like this are fairly common from Barnes.

The second cause for concern is the pervasive (and perhaps valid) notion that Barnes “disappears” from games. I think the reason for his lack of touches is fairly simple: Harrison Barnes is an exceedingly unselfish, intelligent guy. He understands that his scoring is his most valuable asset, but he is too reticent to demand the ball from his equally talented teammates. Players who aren’t vocal about wanting the ball tend to not get it as much. When he does get the ball, he’s intent on scoring, but he picks his spots. Might this mindset limit his ceiling as a player? Maybe, but it won’t matter as much if he improves the non-scoring parts of his game.

He’ll continue to be an enigma, but keep in mind that he’s still only 21-years-old.