Barnes has unfinished business at UNC

The phone rang around 6 p.m. or so on New Year’s Eve.

The caller ID read: Harrison Barnes.

North Carolina’s highly touted freshman had only 13 games under his belt and was struggling, at least according to the expectations. He was averaging only 12.1 points and was shooting 36 percent from the field.

His buddy, Duke freshman Kyrie Irving, dominated out of the gates down the road, but the adjustment for Barnes took time. Now, Barnes was searching for answers.

The consensus No. 1 player in the freshman class coming out of high school in Ames, Iowa, had three questions for me.

1. Did I think he still had a shot of being an All-American?

2. Did he still have a chance of being the national Player of the Year?

3. Most important, did I think the North Carolina Tar Heels could cut down the nets?

This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill call that I normally field from an 18-year-old freshman. This was unique.

I’ve been around thousands of high school players over the past decade or so. Barnes is unique.

He’s thoughtful, cerebral, mature well beyond his years and extremely intuitive.

I proceeded to answer the questions as honestly as possible, telling Barnes his chances of winning the national Player of the Year were essentially over, that he would have to dominate from that point forward (which he did not) in order to earn a spot on the All-American team and that UNC’s chances of cutting down the nets appeared slim to none.

Then Barnes politely thanked me and hung up the phone. That was the day I truly realized Barnes’ uniqueness.

The announcement on Monday morning that he was returning for his sophomore season didn’t shock me all that much.

Barnes’ mother, Shirley, had told me all along that she expected her son would reside in Chapel Hill for more than just one go-around.

“It was an exhausting process,” Shirley said on Monday morning, shortly after the news came out. “I’m proud of him.”

Barnes looked like an entirely different player the second half of the season. It’s no coincidence that the change coincided with freshman point guard Kendall Marshall being inserted into the starting lineup in mid-January.

That’s when Barnes regained the form that nearly everyone — myself included — had seen on countless occasions while he dominated on the summer circuit over the past couple of years.

Barnes would have been a lottery pick. That’s a given.

Maybe he would have been taken anywhere from fourth to eighth — as some have reported that is what North Carolina coach Roy Williams had informed his 6-foot-8 emerging star.

There’s even a chance — according to several NBA executives — that Barnes would have gone No. 1 overall if he had gone through workout and the interview process with NBA teams.

But Barnes spurned becoming a millionaire this year and will put his NBA dreams on hold for at least another year.

Now, depending on the fate of Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones and their decisions whether to return to Kentucky, Barnes’ decision puts the Tar Heels in a position with the bull’s-eye on their back entering the 2011-12 campaign.

All five starters are back, plus they will have a healthy Reggie Bullock and add one of the top freshman in the nation, forward James McAdoo.

But Barnes is the difference maker. At least he was down the stretch last season, putting up 40 points against Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and averaging 21 points per game in the NCAA tournament — a run that ended with a close loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

“He really had no wrong decision to choose, but I believe he is coming back to school because he enjoys college basketball, he enjoys the University of North Carolina and he enjoys his teammates,” Williams said.

Part of it was enjoying the college life and part was not accomplishing what he had set out to do so.

“The NBA isn’t going anywhere,” his mother said. “And he has certain goals.”

Three of them that he’ll have another shot at.