Lightning Bolt


Originally published in SLAM 171

by Abe Schwadron / @abe_squad

Harrison Barnes is apologizing to me. “Did you get my text?” he asks. “I told you I’d be a little late. My fault, man.” The 21-year-old’s call from the West Coast comes in no more than 15 minutes past the scheduled time, hardly late enough to be considered tardy, especially based on NBA Standard Time. And, considering his excuse, it’s easy to excuse him.

“I got them out today,” Barnes says. “Them,” of course, refers to the six stitches above his right eye, the result of a collision with San Antonio Spurs forward Boris Diaw in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals. That game would end up being the final one of Golden State’s ’12-13 season, and of Barnes’ rookie campaign.

A little over a year ago, on May 30 (his 20th birthday, coincidentally), the “Black Falcon” was in attendance at the 2012 Draft Lottery, shaking hands, meeting the media and awaiting the official list of potential destinations to begin his NBA career. Now, the First-Team All-Rookie Warrior is the only top-15 pick from his Draft class to have logged meaningful post-season minutes. He helped upstart Golden State upset Denver in the first round and scare the crap out of eventual Western Conference champion San Antonio, which sent him home with some battle wounds in the process.

“I remember going to the Draft Lottery last year with Andre Drummond and Thomas  Robinson. I remember some of those NBA guys that were there saying, ‘You don’t want to be here as an NBA player. You want to be here as a draftee but you don’t want to be here as an NBA team,’” says Barnes. “Just to be able to not only play your rookie season and get minutes, but be a rookie and get minutes in the Playoffs, you definitely see how valuable that is. And you don’t take that for granted.”

Before the head gash that knocked Barnes (and arguably, the Warriors) out of the Playoffs, the 6-8 dynamic forward had begun to show flashes of the player many expected him to become when he was the No. 1-ranked recruit in the country as a high school senior in 2010. After starting all year and posting respectable averages of 9.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg and 1 poster-worthy jam per month over his first 81 regular-season NBA games, Barnes exploded for 16.1 and 6.4 in the postseason, filling the void left by an injury to All-Star PF David Lee.

It was a stretch that included Games 4 and 5 against the Spurs, when Barnes became the first player in League history to score 25 points or more in consecutive Playoff games after never having scored that many in any career game to that point, and the first rookie to score 25-plus in back-to-back post-season tilts since Tim Duncan. Timmy, of course, did it back in ’98—when Harrison was still a couple weeks away from celebrating his 8th birthday.

“Coach [Mark] Jackson came to me after David got hurt in the Denver series,” explains Barnes, “and told me, now I’m going to be playing some 4. And I’m going to make some mistakes, but he needed me to go out there and to be a player. I can’t continue to be playing at the level I was playing at—I can’t continue to go out there and give the team 9 points and 4 rebounds, because we’re missing a guy who was giving us 20 and 10.”

Heed his coach’s words, Harrison did. “The guy has grown up before our very eyes. He had an off-the-charts regular season, which put us in position to be the sixth seed, and he’s elevated his game in the postseason. It’s great to watch,” Jackson remarked after Barnes went for 26 and 10 in the Warriors’ Game 4 win over the Spurs. “He’s obviously a guy that embraces the bright lights.”

Barnes credits Jackson with instilling the confidence in him not only to play and defend multiple positions, but to play at a high level in whatever role the versatile rook was asked to assume. He laughs before recounting the story of one pre-game talk during last season when Jackson—known for his spirited motivational speeches—pulled Barnes aside and told him, “When you’re on the court, I need you to act like you’re the baddest dude out there every single game.”

Coachspeak is one thing. Putting a 20-year-old rookie on the court in pressure-packed Playoff situations, then giving him the rock and running isolation plays for him, is another. And Barnes is keenly aware of that. “It meant everything to me,” he says.

Between chats with Jackson, tips from veteran mentor Richard Jefferson and studying budding superstar Steph Curry on a daily basis, Barnes knows he got himself a damn good education in Year One. Last year’s No. 7 Draft pick worked hard to improve his post game, his three-point stroke and his defense along the way.

Other times, though, Barnes let his natural instincts take over. Just ask Nikola Pekovic.

During the second quarter of a 96-85 Golden State victory over visiting Minnesota on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Barnes—then with only a shade over a dozen pro games under his belt—cut hard through the lane, gathered a bounce pass from Lee and delivered a ferocious tomahawk jam over a helpless Pek’s 6-11 dome. If not for DeAndre Jordan’s baptism of Brandon Knight later in the season, Barnes’ Bay Area smash might have taken Dunk of the Year honors.

“That was my ‘Welcome to the NBA’ moment. I just remember, ever since that day, it was just different,” says Barnes. “My phone pretty much shut down for the night. I got too many texts. My Twitter app stopped working. It was crazy.”

Nowhere was it crazier than inside Oracle Arena, where with Barnes added to the mix, the Warriors went from a 23-win team in ’11-12 to a 47-35 record in ’12-13, earning Golden State a trip back to the Playoffs for the first time since Baron Davis and Co’s ’07 “We Believe” squad.

Barnes says that from the moment he was drafted, he could sense the Dubs wanted to change the way the organization operates and how the team views itself, which in turn has changed the outside perception. And the diehard Oracle crowd provides plenty of motivation on a nightly basis.

“Bay Area fans are by far the most passionate fans I’ve ever been around,” Barnes says without a hint of hesitation—amazing, considering the kid spent two years as a North Carolina Tar Heel. “I know,” he adds, sensing mild astonishment on the other end of the line.

Given GSW’s progress this season, the Yay should have plenty to get fanatic about next season, too, especially with another summer for Barnes to develop.

HB is already watching film instead of watching the Playoffs, he’s ready to play more stretch-4 if called upon, and when he talks about improving his overall game, he mentions names like Paul George, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. He’ll spend his summer traveling to China and back home to Iowa, all while listening to J. Cole’s latest. But beyond that, Barnes has trouble listing summer plans that don’t revolve around basketball.

On the heels of a breakout Playoff performance, the Harrison Barnes bandwagon is leaving the station, and barring another face-to-face meeting with the hardwood, it’ll be right on schedule. Don’t be late.