Harrison Barnes’ growth shows off the court

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — While the college basketball world has analyzed every shot, dunk, pass, foul and turnover associated with Harrison Barnes the past two seasons, the North Carolina sophomore has worked through a more personal side of life away from home.

Unbeknownst to most onlookers, Barnes didn’t arrive at Chapel Hill completely care-free, like many top-flight basketball prospects. Barnes saw life at the university 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 widely covered announcement via Skype that he would attend North Carolina. Barnes later spoke about his intent to try to equal, if not surpass, Michael Jordan’s accomplishments at Carolina three decades earlier. That only added to the pressure of being the new top dog at 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 2 years old and then coming to Carolina, a big media hot spot, and the fact that it’s a lot at one time,” said Barnes, who is from Ames. “Media critiquing you in a way you haven’t experienced before, you have pressure not only from the team but school and a social life.

“Now, I’m a year older, much more mature, much more adept at handling the situation. That’s the beauty of stuff, it’s not burdensome anymore.”

But it was, and it impacted his play some. Barnes didn’t acknowledge that, but he didn’t refute it, either.

“I was a 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 ‘you’re not shooting well,’ and ‘your facial expression, you don’t seem like you’re into the game, are you OK with it?’ Do I look like I’m OK 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 debut campaign. The 6-foot-8 forward closed last season strong, helping lead Carolina one game short of the program’s 19th Final Four.

He averaged 15.7 points for the year, but was at 19.6 over the Tar Heels’ 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 North Carolina fans for not being the superstar they expected.

An unemotional player most of the time, Barnes has been misunderstood, perhaps even by some teammates. He has been described as “aloof” by more than a handful of people who have dealt with him.

“I’ve 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 Tar Heels 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 adviser 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 you’re attracted to and the words just flow. You can learn a lot that way.”

OK, does he have a Spanish-speaking girlfriend?

“No, I don’t,” he said, smiling even brighter. “(But) I wish.”

North Carolina has a Smith Center policy that doesn’t 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, “That’s not Carolina. That’s a darker blue, like 8-miles-down-the-road blue.”

Barnes isn’t ever going to make a living doing stand-up, so when attempts at humor dance from his lips, it’s clear the 19-year-old is feeling really good about things. He doesn’t use humor as a façade.

And a happy, comfortable and relaxed Barnes is exactly the player the Tar Heels need 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. It’s almost as if he’s 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; you’re playing for March Madness. If you go out on the court now in these last two or three games and you don’t 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 acknowledged that winning a national championship likely would give him reason to turn pro, but he would rather talk about the task at hand. He certainly comes across as someone leaving for the NBA after this season, regardless of how far the Tar Heels advance in the NCAAs, but he just doesn’t want to say it. He’s more than halfway to a degree already, and he just seems like he’s finally in control of everything. 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, he’s becoming that player now,” point guard Kendall Marshall said. “That’s not to insult his game at all. Sometimes, players have to grow into that, and I think he’s done a great job of adjusting into that role.”

Barnes is averaging nearly 21 points and seven rebounds per game the past few weeks. Relaxed and assertive is the perfect combination for a basketball player, even more so for Barnes.