CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- While the college basketball world has analyzed every shot, dunk, pass, foul and turnover associated with Harrison Barnes over the last two seasons, the North Carolina sophomore has worked through a more personal side of life away from home.
Unbeknownst to most onlookers, Barnes didnt arrive at UNC with all guns a blazing like many top-flight basketball prospects. Barnes saw life at UNC as a three-pronged journey, each of which required major adjustments.
An honor student, Barnes revealed he was a confident and outward young man when, as the top-rated high school player in the class of 2010, he made the official widely covered announcement via Skype he would attend North Carolina. Barnes later openly spoke about his intent on trying to equal, if not surpass, Michael Jordans accomplishments at Carolina three decades earlier. That only added to the pressure of being the top new dog in such a fabled program.
Two years later, Barnes has finally found a comfort zone that fueled him with the same bravado to go the Skype route with so many eyes watching. But the time in between has been a struggle.
Coming from Iowa, the media is small and you know somebody who has been interviewing you since you were two years old and then coming to Carolina, a big media hot spot, and the fact that its a lot at one time, said Barnes, who is from Ames. Media critiquing you in a way you havent experienced before, you have pressure not only from the team but school and a social life.
Now, Im a year older, much more mature, much more adept at handling the situation. Thats the beauty of stuff, its not burdensome anymore.
But it was, and it obviously impacted his play some. Barnes didnt acknowledge that, but he didnt refute it, either.
I was pretty guarded person when I came out of high school, he said. I had so many questions of every little nuance of how I played, my life, and youre not shooting well, and your facial expression, you dont seem like youre into the game, are you okay with it? Do I look like Im okay with it? Just little stuff like that.
Barnes was the first true freshman ever named first-team preseason All-American by the Associated Press, and he played like anything but one during the first half of his freshman campaign. The 6-foot-8 forward closed last season strong, helping lead Carolina finish one game short of the programs 19th Final Four.
He averaged 15.7 points for the year, but was at 19.6 over UNCs final 18 games.
But Barnes was in another funk when the current season began, though this was different. He was more productive than a year ago, but came under scrutiny from UNC fans for not being the super star they expected.
An unemotional player most of the time, Barnes has been misunderstood, perhaps even by some teammates. Hes been described as aloof by more than a handful of people who have dealt with him.
Ive heard that a lot, actually, Barnes acknowledged, looking down and chuckling.
But he no longer comes across that way. If anything, Barnes is far more revealing and willing to talk about himself now than at any previous time during his UNC tenure.
For example, the topic of speaking Spanish came up after a recent win over Clemson because two of his high school Spanish teachers and an academic advisor flew in from Iowa to see the game. Asked if he still remembered any Spanish, Barnes smiled and replied, I tend to find the best way to speak Spanish is to find someone youre attracted to and the words just flow. You can learn a lot that way.
Okay, does he have a Spanish or Latin girlfriend?
No, I dont, he said, smiling even brighter. (But) I wish.
UNC has a Smith Center policy that doesnt allow fans to bring in signs. Arena staff collects and drops them off at the players lounge. The players ruffle through them and decide which signs to hang up at the entrance into the locker room. The decisions are almost always based on humor.
The sign posted this past week had a falcon painted in royal blue and bright green, and at the bottom read TheBlackFalcon.net.
A member of the media asked about the sign, to which Barnes, whose nickname is Black Falcon, replied, Thats not Carolina, thats a darker blue, like 8-miles-down-the-road blue.
Barnes isnt ever going to make a living doing stand-up, so when attempts at humor dance from his lips, its clear the 19-year-old (he turns 20 May 30) is feeling really good about things. He doesnt use humor as a faade.
And a happy, comfortable and relaxed Barnes is exactly the player UNC needs to make a push toward another national championship. Instead of pressing and playing tight, Barnes has been much more assertive of late in every aspect of the game. Its almost as if hes at peace with things, and can finally play all out, leaving everything on the court.
No question. This is it, he said. This is what you play college basketball for, youre playing for March Madness. If you go out on the court now in these last two or three games and you dont leave it all out there you are cheating yourself and cheating your teammates. This is what your season is going to be defined as. You have to leave it all out there.
And it may be how his career is defined.
Barnes admits that winning a national championship would likely give him reason to turn pro, but hed rather talk about the task at hand. He certainly strikes as someone leaving for the NBA after this season, regardless of how far the Tar Heels advance in the NCAAs, but he just doesnt want to say it. Hes more than halfway to a degree already, and he just seems like hes finally in control of everything, and he likes his current course.
I think Harrison being the player that everybody tried to make him out to be a year-and-a-half ago, hes becoming that player now, UNC point guard Kendall Marshall said. Thats not to insult his game at all, sometimes players have to grow into that, and I think hes done a great job of adjusting into that role.
The Black Falcon is averaging nearly 21 points and seven rebounds per game over the last few weeks. Relaxed and assertive is the perfect combination for a basketball player, and even more so for Harrison Barnes.