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On Harrison Barnes' potential

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With Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green beginning their stint at USA Basketball's training camp in Las Vegas today, we take a look at a couple of recent articles about the former's potential.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

This is less so one of those Golden State Warriors season reviews than a look ahead at what's to come for Harrison Barnes in the future, which is fitting given that a defining feature of The Harrison Barnes Project has always seemed to be a casual dismissal of past flaws and an eager embrace of imagined possibilities.

And, to be sure, there's nothing wrong with that type of optimism about a young player - we're fans and, at the very least, we don't want to believe the Warriors wasted a lottery pick that they valiantly tanked for. It's just something that I really have a hard time getting behind.

Earlier today, Sam Vecenie of Upside Motor explored Barnes' potential as more of a question mark than a certainty, which was a reasonable account of where he has been and whether he can reach the lofty expectations placed upon him. He briefly summarized Barnes' up and down career, then proceeded to make a couple of key points about whether it's reasonable to project Barnes as a future All-Star:

  • "His smooth, flowing jump shots act in juxtaposition to his jagged, mechanical ball-handling. The explosive leaping ability and athleticism that emanates from lower half doesn’t extend to his hips, which are stiff and allow for little in the way of shiftiness. Even athletically, Barnes is a walking contradiction, which makes it even harder to make heads or tails of what he can potentially become."
  • "Since 1990, there have been six wings that have made the all-star game after averaging less than 10 points per game in their first two seasons: Ricky Pierce, Detlef Schrempf, Tracy McGrady, Joe Johnson, Rashard Lewis, and Gerald Wallace."

Tackling the second point first and adding to the analysis already at Upside Motor, nether Lewis, Pierce nor Wallace played as many minutes in their first two seasons as Barnes did in either of his first two seasons (and Tracy McGrady played less than 100 minutes more in his first two seasons) - one could easily argue that those guys just weren't ready and didn't have the opportunity to show what they could do before even addressing the related issue of age.

That leaves Johnson and Schrempf as the most similar developmental comparisons of this group. Comparing their second-year scoring efficiencies to Barnes doesn't exactly inspire enthusiasm about his potential.

Player

Mins

TS%

Schrempf

1711

0.56

Lewis

1575

0.54

Pierce

1280

0.53

Wallace

571

0.51

McGrady

1106

0.5

Barnes

2204

0.49

Johnson

2255

0.47

Second-year minutes and TS% for All-Stars that scored less than 10 PPG in first two seasons.

As Vecenie notes, Johnson quickly becomes the closest developmental comparison but the problem is one of skill set, which goes back to the first point above: Barnes is not a terrible player but does have a rather awkward blend of skills. In rather stark contrast, every one of these other players had a clear NBA skill to help them become productive contributors.

Despite years of mediocre efficiency from Johnson, he has always been a better playmaker than Barnes by any standard. Shrempf's ability to shoot the three and rebound at 6-foot-9 just made him among the league's most efficient scorers during his time and a more versatile player than Barnes. Rashard Lewis is one of the top 70 3-point shooters of all-time by percentage. Pierce's ability to get to the line at a very high rate made him a rather efficient scorer despite not being a great 3-point shooter. Gerald Wallace is just a different breed of player. McGrady was just always the more fluid athlete.

Even if you don't agree with the way Vecenie approached this question, to my mind it's a much more rational and grounded approach than people meshing together a string of dunk highlights in their mind and deciding to #KeepTheFaith (ok, that's a clear straw man argument but you get the point). And I think you have to grant that how he was used during the Mark Jackson era has something to do with his performance - he could benefit from a coaching change as much as anyone. Yet as big a question as Barnes' ceiling is right now, there's a simpler question that still simply hasn't been answered through two years: what elite skill does he possess? And related, when all is said and done, what will his niche be?

Right now, that's the mystery with Barnes: he's a mixed bag of skills that don't match his physical tools and it just isn't clear what role he'll ever find to justify the expectations that people have for him. If he were to improve his ball handling skills, he'd be able to bring his considerable athletic ability to bear on games much more easily and possibly reach the potential that people like Jonathan Tjarks of The Pattern of Basketball described last week (15+ ppg 3-and-D player).

Ultimately, Barnes has a lot to overcome and it seems that the closer you interrogate the more optimistic projections the harder it becomes to believe the hype. Here's hoping that the USA Basketball experience helps him take a step forward in his third season.