OAKLAND – When Harrison Barnes is 24 or 25, still well off on the distant horizon for a young man who won’t turn 21 until May 30, what Warriors fans saw from him Sunday might well become the norm.
Game in and game out, Barnes could evolve into a go-to scorer, a guy who routinely shoots 20 or more times a game, a player who might possibly average 20 points and 10 rebounds as he matures.
Then again, that evolution might not take that long. With Stephen Curry and David Lee ailing and the San Antonio Spurs doing their best to clamp down on Klay Thompson, Barnes’ future suddenly may be his present with Game 5 Tuesday in San Antonio.
Clearly, the Warriors determined – as did Barnes – that in order to beat
the Spurs with Curry and Lee both essentially playing on one leg, the performance curve for the rookie forward had to be fast-forwarded with this NBA Western Conference semifinal coming to a head.
Barnes responded remarkably in Game 4, to be sure – 26 shots, 26 points, 10 rebounds, stellar defense, perfect free-throwing (7-for-7), exhibiting an inside-outside game that the Spurs didn’t handle very well. They may not have the personnel to do it.
The upshot of that development? The kid may have to reload and do it again in Tuesday night, even though he logged 51 hard minutes during a must-win that knotted the series at 2-2
“I was exhausted after the game, I was gassed,” Barnes said Monday. “But I guess that’s the blessing of being 20 – I really don’t feel it today.”
Attrition becomes so much of a factor in these grinding, grueling playoff series that a youthful, healthy player with Barnes’ exuberance and explosiveness becomes more significant the deeper things go. What amazes coach Mark Jackson is that such a young player has answered that bell in this kind of pressure-packed situation. He admitted he wouldn’t have believed it in training camp.
“No, and that’s saying a lot,” Jackson said. “There’s no rookie who’s doing what he’s doing right now. He’s starting for a team in the second round of the playoffs. He’s defending, he’s scoring, he’s rebounding, he’s playing with an edge. He’s elevated his game in the postseason, and it’s great to see. His future is incredibly bright.”
How much has Barnes elevated? In the regular season he averaged 25.3 minutes, 9.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and just 7.9 shots per game. In 10 playoff games, he’s vaulted to 39 minutes, 15.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 13.4 shots. He’s had double-figure scoring totals in eight of the 10 games, and had 20 or more three times. And for good measure, he’s hit 26 of 29 free throws (89.7 percent) after shooting 75.8 percent during the regular year.
The Spurs have to be as surprised as anybody. When Barnes played against them during the regular season on Jan. 18, he played nearly 38 minutes but took just five shots and made only one. He had a lot of games like that. Out of the 81 games he played, he only had double-digit shot attempts 21 times, with a high of 17. He missed that many on Sunday, and that was still irking him a bit a day later.
“The shots kind of fell into place,” Barnes said. “It would have been much nicer if I’d made some more. I can’t recall ever missing that many shots before. But coach just told me to keep applying pressure and attacking because eventually the refs are going to make a call or it’s going to go in.”
Jackson said it wasn’t Barnes’ fault that he wasn’t turned loose in such a manner during the regular season. It was simply a function of the scorers’ pecking order, where the rookie was the fourth or fifth option behind Curry, Lee, Thompson and Jarrett Jack.
But Barnes has also progressed, gaining more confidence in his dribble drives and also his long-range shot.
“My game has changed a lot since I got into the NBA,” he said. “I was joking around with Carl (Landry) in midseason that me and him played the same position – we were both facing fours. That was the only play I used to get, that one in the post. But as coach I got more comfortable and as coach got more confidence in me, I was able to go out to the 3-point line and start working on my drive.”
Eventually, Barnes sees himself as a player who is dangerous from anywhere on the floor. He admitted he didn’t spend much time watching forwards growing up. He watched Kobe Bryant, and yearned to emulate him.
“But he’s a long way from where I am, to say the least,” he said.
Perhaps not as far as anyone thought before the playoffs began.