There was a point during the Golden State Warriors' 66-57 win last night when it was looking like forward Harrison Barnes would have another disappointing, or at least inefficient, scoring performance.
Barnes was 1-for-5 after the first quarter on his usual combination of fade away jumpers and drives to the basket in traffic. When Barnes didn't have the ball in his hands, he had second-year forward Jimmy Butler blanketing him all over the court - did a great of job of following him over weak side screens designed to get Barnes open and wasn't helping off Barnes at all. After going 1-for-4 in the first five minutes of the games, Barnes only got one shot off for the remainder of the quarter.
It was looking like Barnes would struggle with Butler similar to the way he struggled with Nuggets second-year forward Jordan Hamilton earlier in the week. But the first quarter was ultimately only a prelude for an encouraging performance the rest of the way.
After struggling through poor shooting in the first quarter, Barnes was 6-for-11 for 17 points the rest of the way to finish with a team-high 20 points.
Of course, his performance wasn't without flaws - there's reason to believe that if guys like Butler or Hamilton can shut him down for any stretch of time, NBA rotation regulars could have success in frustrating Barnes into inefficient performances.
For the most part, he was still taking a lot of off-balance shots that sometimes fall and sometimes don't. We could question whether he could finish stronger at the rim. There are times when it has looked that if he can't score off the drive, he'll force a tough shot instead of looking to find an open teammate.
Yet the one thing that really stood out about Barnes' performance against the Bulls yesterday was that he looked far more confident as a scorer than he had been in his three previous games in Vegas.
Part of that was evident in the poise with which he stepped into a three off a bad pass by Justin Burrell in the second quarter to knock down a shot. But the most impressive progress evident in yesterday's game compared to Barnes' previous three games was how confident he looked as a ball handler.
Let's just be honest about this: Barnes is not entering the NBA as an outstanding ball handler. At times throughout summer league he's looked visibly uncomfortable putting the ball on the floor more than once or twice, often mishandling it in those situations and having to look down at the ball just to gather it before making a backwards pass just avoid a turnover.
But that being the case, what stood out about Barnes' performance was how much more efficient he was with the ball in his hands against the Bulls. It's not that he suddenly became an And1 caliber ball handler as he weaved through traffic or figured out how to create space against Butler's defense, but for the first time he didn't waste dribbles.
Rather than putting the ball on the floor right away and playing with it a bit before taking a bad shot, he waited when he had nothing and simply made the easy play. When he did decide to put it on the floor, he looked like he knew where he wanted to go and how to get there before he put the ball on the floor. Of course that can get many young scorers stuck in bad situations they can't get out of. But Barnes was impressive in that he managed to use his dribble more decisively in setting up his shots.
On his jumpers, he used a couple of dribbles just to get his defender rocking backwards before stopping on a dime, setting his feet, and rising over outstretched hands to hit shots. On his drives from the wing that resulted in shorter jumpers, he also did a better job of stepping into his shots - even if the degree of difficulty was high - and knocking them down. On his final made basket of the game, he did a great job of using his dribble off a curl to score
The reality is that those final stats from yesterday - 9-for-20 shooting, 9 rebounds including 3 offensive, and 2 steals - don't mean that much on their face. It's summer league and statistics don't have a direct translation. But what stands out is what he didn't do: turn the ball over. One major by-product of dribbling more decisively is that Barnes didn't turn the ball over despite getting even more shots against a tough defender.
That made basket in the fourth quarter was one of only two shots he got in the fourth and he did little else, which in part speaks to a strong defensive effort by the Bulls and maybe in part a bit of fatigue for dealing with their defense throughout the game. Nevertheless, what Barnes showed yesterday was rather rapid improvement over the course of this week even if he didn't put up as many points as he did in his first game. He looked like a more patient, more cerebral scorer who is already responding to his performances and working on his game or at least giving the impression that he's finding ways to make progress.
And that seems to reinforce something frequently said about Barnes.
"First of all he's a professional, on and off the court," said Kendall Marshall in an interview with Warriors.com after his Phoenix Suns beat the Warriors in a closed scrimmage the other day. "He does everything to the best of his ability. He's nobody that you're ever going to have to worry about off the court issues. As far as on the court, he's a special talent. I feel like he's just scratching the surface of what he's capable of. With a killer mentality there's no telling what he's going to be able to do. He's a hard worker - the hardest worker I've ever been around...it was every single day. He was the most talented guy on the team, but yet worked the hardest. He was first one there, last one to leave. He'd stay two extra hours. 6 a.m., he's always in the gym. If you want to be great, that's what you have to do."
Few teammates will ever speak ill of one another so perhaps Marshall's statements could be dismissed as fluff "player speak", but what seems to be clear early on in Barnes' career is that he doesn't take his talent - or the opportunity he has in front of him to become a productive player - for granted. That's not necessarily summed up in calling him a winner or competitor nor does it show up in the numbers across his first four games.
But Barnes is a worker and the way he got his numbers against the Bulls is probably more impressive than the bottom line. Regardless of what we think of Barnes now, it's hard not to imagine him continuing to improve as he gets more comfortable with the coaching staff, the team's system and his more senior teammates over the course of the season. And on a team that doesn't necessarily need him to be The Man, that makes him a valuable addition.
The Warriors finish summer league play today at 3:30 on NBA TV. GSoM will have a thread up for that game as well.