That famous quote from Bill Bradley formed the cornerstone of John McPhee’s classic New Yorker profile (and later book) about Bradley’s days as an extraordinary college player at Princeton from 1962-65.
The specific reference in that quote was Bradley’s uncanny ability to regularly make reverse layups facing away from the basket by tossing the ball behind his shoulder. (Bradley also had a running hook shot and a couple of other tricks you don’t see much of these days.) But the point is more general: knowing what you can do on a basketball court, when you can do it, and where you can do it is a function of practice and experience.
This brings us to the question of Harrison Barnes’s freshman campaign. Barnes’s difficulties this season have largely stemmed from the fact that (like Bradley), he can do it all on a basketball court: he can shoot outside, he can drive, he can post up, he can clear space for a mid-range shot, he can elevate to escape a closely guarding defender, he can run the court, he can create easy baskets off of his defense, and he can hit the glass. Moreover, Roy Williams and Carolina fans want Barnes to do all those things, and not confine himself to being a narrow specialist with a specific role.
But it takes time to learn to do it all well, all at the same time, against a rigorous level of competition. (Even Bradley had the benefit of a freshman team season.) In terms of decision making demands and reading how a play is developing, the “3” position is one of the most challenging on the court, especially for an all-around player who is expected to handle the ball a lot, not just catch and shoot.
The most obvious indicator of Barnes’s struggles to date is overall shooting percentage -- still at just under 40 percent for the season—even though there’s no evidence of a mechanical failure in his shooting form. Part of that low figure is the fact that at times, Barnes has literally had to take shots for the team -- that is, try to force shots late in the shot clock or at other times when the offense was stagnant, simply because he had a better chance of creating and making a difficult shot than anyone else on the floor. Even more important are the following factors: a) overall shot selection b) learning to get comfortable and familiar with what is and is not available and c) overall confidence level.
But let’s throw out the season numbers and ask what Barnes has done for Carolina lately. In the five ACC wins to date, here are Barnes’s core numbers: 27-56 overall FG (48.2%), 8-21 3FG (38.1%), 10-16 FT (62.5%), and 14.4 points per game. Compare this to Barnes’s numbers the other 15 games: 61-169 overall FG (36.1%), 18-59 3FG (30.5%), 38-51 FTs (74.5%).
Put another way, each field goal attempt launched by Barnes in the five ACC wins has resulted in 1.11 points. In contrast, each field goal attempt by Barnes in the other 15 games resulted in just 0.83 points. Since Barnes took a little over 11 shots a game in both sets of contests, that amounts to a difference of 3.1 points a game -- significant enough to be the margin between winning and losing.
Needless to say, Carolina’s chances of continuing its winning ways in conference play would be greatly enhanced if Barnes’s numbers match or exceed what he’s been able to produce in those five games.
For that to happen, Barnes obviously is going to have to continue to show confidence in hitting makeable shots, and the team offense is going to have to function well enough to ensure that Barnes is not called upon to make too many bailout plays.
Probably the most important variable, however, is shot selection. In many situations this year, Barnes has been the best outside shooter on the court for the Tar Heels, but the more he can get closer to the basket the better. In an ideally scripted game in which Barnes took his normal allotment of 11 field goal attempts, the ideal breakdown would be 2 or 3 three point shots, 2 or 3 mid-range or post move shots, 2 layups or near-layups in transition, 3 or 4 shots from close range off drives or offensive rebounds, and at most 1 forced shot when the team needs it.
It won’t often work out exactly that way, but the point is this: the more Barnes can get closer to the basket and take advantage of his skill in short and mid-range shots, the higher his efficiency is going to be. Nights where he is limited to being a three point shooter will pose big problems for both Barnes and the Tar Heels.
This is not to say shooting percentage is the only area that needs development in Barnes’s game. As with most of his teammates, reducing needless turnovers and improving foul shooting are critical issues, and eventually one would like to see Barnes registering more assists. In addition, as Roy Williams hinted Saturday in commenting on Barnes’s game against N.C. State, greater and more consistent intensity in the loose ball and defensive hustle categories -- as he displayed on Saturday -- would also be desirable.
The feeling here is all that, and probably more, will come in time. And for anyone tempted to hang the “disappointment” label on Barnes’s freshman year, consider this: the Ames rookie’s numbers in those five ACC games compare favorably to what Wilmington freshman “Mike” Jordan produced against ACC opponents during the 1981-82 season (12.6 points per game in 17 league contests on 52% shooting, or 1.03 points per field goal attempt). Look back at the box scores from that year, and you find that M.J. too had 3-11 and 1-6 nights.
Moreover, while Barnes has struggled at times to develop a sense of where he is, he certainly has a well-developed sense of when he is most needed, and has proven himself to be reliable clutch performer. Indeed, Barnes already has a game-winning shot to his credit in his Tar Heel career—it took that Jordan guy until the last game of his freshman year to do the same.
The point here is not that Barnes should be trying to pattern his game or career after M.J. Rather the point is that even the greatest players sometimes take time -- over multiple seasons -- to develop. Early struggles are not a firm predictor of where a player will end up, especially when you are talking about someone with an exceptional work ethic.
Bill Bradley actually may provide a more relevant role model for Barnes: my sense is that achieving excellence in the mid-range game and being able to finish at all angles around the basket is what ultimately is going to make Barnes a truly special player. Bradley was famous for his rigorous shooting workouts that required him to sink 10-of-13 shots from each spot on the court, with each hand, before moving on, and for religiously practicing new and old moves. By the time he was a senior, Bradley had unquestionably mastered the college game.
Harrison Barnes is still an apprentice. But the essential traits -- including most importantly, the work habits -- required to become a master are certainly there. The exciting thing for Carolina fans is that they will get to see the transformation happen before their very eyes.
Thad has return to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.