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Harrison Barnes earns place on NBA All-Rookie First Team and in our hearts

Ronald Martinez

The Golden State Warriors have placed rookies on the NBA All-Rookie First Team in three of the last four years: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and now, announced yesterday, our own Black Falcon, Harrison Barnes.

So let's take a moment to look past last night's somewhat devastating loss and 3-2 deficit in the Western Conference Semifinals, and look forward to the future that those three guys look poised to lead us toward.

This is how bad teams become good teams: they get good draft picks, hope that one or more become stars, and build around a youthful core that shows promise to improve. It's incredibly depressing that a team can be so bad for so long and still fail at this process — you have to go back to 2001-2002 and Jason Richardson before you find another GSW 1st teamer. But I digress — we're supposed to be looking to the future here.

Throughout the season, I think the majority of us saw Curry and Klay as fundamental pieces of any Warriors team going forward. Andrew Bogut, maybe for the short term. David Lee? Love him! Not sure if he's an indispensable member of the core.

Perhaps I was in the minority, but I wasn't yet sure on Barnes. He showed some things: an ability to rebound strongly for his position; explosive athleticism leading to highwire monster jams; glimpses of defensive promise; and a calmness and poise found rarely in a 20 year old, especially one slated to be a star before he was old enough to vote. But in all of these traits except maturity, he did not show consistency, and he did not, frankly, show any growth.

Well, apparently all it took was a 2nd round playoff run against the vaunted San Antonio Spurs to catalyze a growth spurt. He's averaging 19 points and 8 rebounds per game, taking advantage of a defense entirely geared on stopping his backcourt teammates. But he's showing things we just haven't seen much of: turnaround jumpers from the post, up and unders off the spin, pull-up jumpers off the dribble — confident moves out of isolation possessions that have produced, and that frankly needed to produce, based on the way San Antonio was defending the team.

After game 4 I posted this comment, in response to a discussion of Barnes' potential:

My theory about Barnes’ mental makeup, as it has been for much of the season: I don’t think he has the selfishness that is often intrinsic to greatness. I think he wants to be great, but he’s very cognizant of his position as a rookie and as a young man who still needs to learn a lot. No knocks here: I think that’s a fantastic attitude. But I don’t see that his ego is driving the bus, and I do think that can be an impediment to greatness in professional sports, where the triple-alpha males often rule.

I think Barnes’ newfound aggressiveness, and raised performance within that additional usage, is more due to external influence: that is, David Lee’s absence, and Jackson’s likely prodding of Barnes to step up to fill that vacuum — or perhaps Barnes’ own realization that the team needed him to contribute more. During the regular season, the team simply did not need him to be great — and so he wasn’t, and didn’t try to be. He played within the system, within his own comfort zone. And that’s fine. Now they need him to be something more, and that’s what’s so heartening here: he appears able and willing to fill the void, both physically and mentally.

Hopefully, to borrow a Simmonsism, these are reps that will be critical to his development as a player and human being. He may be convinced, by Jackson or his agent or perhaps himself, that he DOES need to be great, all the time, for this team to succeed — in part because the bar for success has been significantly raised just in the past three weeks, and to a level I feel will be sustained going into next season, even if they lose to the Spurs. Will it awaken a Jordan- or Kobe-esque ego-demon that alone drives him to new heights? I don’t think so. And I’m kinda happy about that.

One caveat to everything: he’s only 20 freaking years old. His mental makeup is incomplete, and it would be stupid to place bets on who he becomes. One thing is certain, though: even at 20, he has the physical tools to be a dominant player.

Even though we lost game 5, I'm so encouraged by Barnes' play that even just a couple of days later I would have been more enthusiastic in my praise. This really doesn't feel like a case of an insane fan overreacting to a couple of games; this feels like a breakthrough. I stand by my reasoning above as to why, and my theorizing on his mental state and how his stardom might originate. And I feel like it's originating right now.

Win or lose, this series is producing a lot more than a berth to the WCF. We've already seen Steph Curry show the mainstream that he has bad ankles is a star in this league. We've seen what Bogut can do for this defense when healthy. And now we're seeing that Harrison Barnes is, with certainty, that third piece to an exciting, bright core that has a chance to finally elevate this team out of the doldrums and into the playoffs for years to come.

So, congrats on the All-Rookie honors, Harrison. You've had your doubters, but you won over the awards voters for that award, you sure as hell have won over a whole lot of Warriors fans, and you've won your place as a building block for something special.

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