The lasting image of Harrison Barnes after UNC’s loss to Kansas in the Elite 8 on Sunday was of him sitting in the locker room for 15 minutes with a towel draped over his head. Barnes hadn’t just lost a game; he’d seemingly lost his way. There wasn’t a Drake song playing in the background, but there might as well have been.
“I missed a lot of shots I usually make,” Barnes told the media when he came up for air. “And big-time players come through in big-time games.”
Things weren’t supposed to be nearly this complicated for the former No. 1 recruit in the country, who seemed from the start to have it all put together.
Everyone knows about Barnes’ weird, over-rehearsed college announcement, when he Skyped his decision to an ebullient Roy Williams. Likewise, it was no secret that Barnes eschewed the NBA after his freshman year in order to pile up accomplishments and infamously “build his brand.” As he elaborated in a pre-tournament interview with The Atlantic, the image of him cutting down the nets in New Orleans this spring would be a perfect frame in his first Gatorade commercial.
But it’s not when things are going good that you truly show who you are, but rather when you face adversity.
The anecdote that stuck with me: Barnes started slow his freshman year, and on New Year’s Eve, he grew introspective. Averaging 12.1 points and shooting 36 percent at the time, Barnes placed a call out of the blue to Fox Sports reporter Jeff Goodman, who had picked him as preseason National Player of the Year. Barnes wanted to know if Goodman still believed he could win the award. He also asked Goodman whether UNC could win a National Title, another brick in the wall of the kingdom he’d constructed in his head.
Barnes obviously still clung to the preseason hype, both the media’s and his own, and in that moment he was a college basketball version of Walter Mitty. But I thought it a rare crack in the veneer that Barnes was insecure enough to rely on the media’s approval rather than an innate belief in self. For someone who worships Michael Jordan, that’s a decidedly un-MJ-esque way to go about things.
Things picked up last January when Williams handed the reins to talented point guard Kendall Marshall, who piloted the Tar Heels to a 17-3 record the rest of the season. Barnes found his smile, had a 40-point game in the ACC Tournament and averaged over 20 points in the NCAA’s. But he stayed in school in search of that Jordan vs. Georgetown moment.