If you’re wondering the reasoning behind North Carolina’s No. 8 ranking in the latest Associated Press poll, especially considering last season’s difficulties, then look no further than the man the AP voted as the first freshman to ever earn a spot on its Preseason All-America team.
The hype surrounding the Ames, Iowa product has been nothing short of ridiculous, with talk of the 6-foot-8 freshman wing being the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft, as well as discussions about first-team All-America and ACC Player of the Year honors.
But sitting in the sleek lobby of the team hotel in San Juan as UNC prepares for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Thursday, Barnes simply brushes off those high expectations.
“I think all of that will take care of itself after the season,” Barnes said. “I think the most important thing right now is winning games.”
Which brings us back to Barnes working on his game long after the crowd had exited the Dean Dome on Friday. That wasn’t an isolated incident.
Following UNC’s Media Day event in October, he entered the team’s practice gym and asked the lone remaining reporter if he could turn on some music to run through some drills. A larger population of the media was exposed to his work ethic following his six turnovers and 2-of-9 shooting display in an exhibition win over Barton two weeks later.
The type of music may range from hip hop to R&B to classical, but the intent is always the same.
“After the game, that’s when the images of the game are most vivid and you remember what you did,” Barnes said. “I started after the exhibition game because I felt like there were some things that I needed to work on and then after the last game against Lipscomb, I felt like there were some things I needed to work on as well…
“You try to look at the game as a whole. You can only control how much effort you give and your ability to rebound. You can’t control how many shots you make – that just depends on the night and depends on the situation. I thought there were a lot of things that I could have done better after the exhibition game, so I just went to gym and worked on them so I wouldn’t have that problem again.”
Some elite high school players enjoy the hidden benefits of a key to the gym, but that wasn’t the case for Barnes, so his high school coach ultimately paid the price.
“He refused to give me a key because he said it was against the rules, so he told me just to call him,” Barnes said. “So anytime, day or night, I’d call him and he would always get there within 10 minutes.”
While his talent may be unmatched as a freshman, it’s his other attributes that elevate him to that place where lofty expectations roam wild. Roy Williams put it as succinctly as possible during his radio show on Monday night: “He is very driven, very focused, very determined and he’s disciplined.”
When asked about any emerging leaders on the current Tar Heel roster, Barnes immediately points to juniors Larry Drew and Tyler Zeller as being vocal leaders with the 2009 NCAA Championship serving to back up their words. And then, without being prompted, he offers his opinion of how he’s trying to guide this team.
“I just try to lead every day through effort, making sure that I give the most effort that I can give for my teammates,” Barnes said.
While fans and media members look at Barnes’s addition to this program as critical on the tangible level, he understands that there is more involved with championship-quality play than just scoring the basketball. The Bahamas adventure in August may have served as the ignition switch in building team chemistry, but this Puerto Rico business trip is about rolling all of the work over the past month into a successful product to put on the court.
“It’s very different just because we have the whole team here now and we’ve developed a little bit of chemistry through practices, conditioning and just being around each other, so we’re a much closer unit,” Barnes said. “… It’s been a very smooth transition. We’ve all gotten along well since we’re all really young – freshmen and sophomores, a few juniors and a senior – so we’re definitely a close unit and that’s made things a lot easier.”
At approximately 11:30pm on Friday night, roughly 2.5 hours after North Carolina had dispatched the scrappy Bisons for that season-opening win, three fans stood outside the players’ entrance shivering, anxiously waiting for Barnes to emerge from the Dean Dome to sign a few autographs.
Unfortunately for them, Barnes had business to attend to.