UNC's Harrison Barnes a leader in the making

UNC freshman's work ethic inspiring teammates

Staff WriterAugust 8, 2010 

  • Guard/forward, 6-6, 205 pounds

    Hometown: Ames, Iowa

    High School: Ames

    Notes: Ranked the top incoming recruit in the country by Scout.com, he scored 1,787 points in high school to help Ames win consecutive state titles. An honor roll student, he announced he had chosen UNC live on TV, saying he would be attending the school of the coach he was about to Skype. On the other video line: Roy Williams.

  • Reggie Bullock 6-6, 185 SG, Kinston: A pinpoint 3-point shooter who can also get to the basket, Bullock should add firepower to a position that was lacking it last season. He will compete for the starting shooting guard slot and can also play small forward.

    Justin Knox 6-9, 240, F, Alabama: The late-addition graduate school transfer will be a much-needed backup for starting forwards Tyler Zeller and John Henson. The surprising transfer of the Wear twins after last season means that Knox is only the third player on the roster 6-9 or taller. He should also add some bulk in the lane.

    Kendall Marshall 6-3, 180 PG, Arlington, Va.: The Tar Heels were hurt last season by having only one true ballhandler, so adding Marshall, a McDonald's All-American, is an instant help - regardless whether he starts. He'll battle Larry Drew II, who came on strong in the NIT last season, for minutes.

    Robbi Pickeral

The second story in an occasional series about incoming recruits at the Big Four schools.

North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes was practicing moves at the Smith Center on July 3 when he spotted strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian.

"So, are we going to do a workout tomorrow?" the top incoming recruit in the nation asked.

The next day - a holiday Sunday - the 6-foot-6 wing completed his 9 a.m. solo session with Sahratian with a similar question: "What time tomorrow?"

"Then the next morning, he comes in at 8:30 a.m. ... with Kendall [Marshall], Will Graves and Dexter Strickland," Sahratian remembered. "I said, 'I thought you were coming by yourself.' He said, 'I can't do it all alone.'

"Right then I said, 'OK, we're going to be all right.' "

Barnes - projected as the No. 1 overall NBA pick next summer in several mock drafts - is already known for his smooth outside shot, athletic rebounding and honed court smarts. But the Iowa native also boasts an intangible quality that might be even more important as the Tar Heels try to ricochet from the worst season in the Roy Williams era: leadership.

One of the things Williams lamented about last season's freefall - when the reigning national champions finished 5-11 in the ACC, failed to make the NCAA tournament and only managed to win 20 games because of an NIT run - was his team's failure to consistently work hard.

He won't have that problem with Barnes, whose summer session dorm room boasted a pile of basketball books but no TV; who can be found working on his dribbling skills in the weight room if the court is taken; and who has become a pied piper, of sorts, when it comes to working out.

"[Coach Williams] is not going to call him a leader, because he's a freshman," said Strickland, a sophomore guard. "But actions speak louder than words. You don't have to say anything, you can play, you can work out, you can set an example - and the way you present yourself can make you be a leader, alone."

Competitive youth

Barnes has been showing those leadership qualities for years. Off the court, he was an honor roll student through high school who plans to major in business administration at UNC while, he has said, pushing for the top GPA on the team. He played soccer and the cello as a youth and still occasionally dabbles on the saxophone.

As the son of former Iowa State basketball player Ronnie Harris, who left the family when Barnes was young, basketball has always been a part of his life. But he has often credited his mom, Shirley Barnes - who works in the department of music at Iowa State, and raised him and his sister alone - for instilling his love of the game. And for keeping him humble and cementing his focus. Efforts to reach her were unsuccessful.

Team rules prohibit UNC freshmen from talking to the media once they reach campus, until after they play in their first game.

But Vance Downs, Barnes' coach at Ames (Iowa) High, said of the player's mother: "She's very driven. And I'm not sure she sleeps - she's the type of person that's always doing so much, I wonder if she ever goes to bed. ... Without a doubt, she's unbelievably strong, and she's instilled that work ethic in Harrison."

It showed early on.

Barnes' fifth-grade coach, Jafar Azmayesh, sensed the player's maturity the first time they met.

"That first day, we showed up to nine 10-year-olds standing there for practice, their behavior, their actions, how they carried themselves, were all on par with what 10-year-olds do," Azmayesh told the Iowa State Daily. "Except Harrison was more like a 17- or 18-year-old."

His competitive spirit only grew as he did, as he worked to be the best at everything - be it eating the most spaghetti at dinner with friends or burying the most free throws at practice.

"With Harrison, the simplest drill becomes a cutthroat experience," Downs said. "It just spreads, everybody becomes challenged. And the team gets better."

Now, fans are hoping that carries over at UNC, as well.

In just the couple of months Barnes has been in Chapel Hill, sophomore John Henson said, teammates have seen him staying after pickup games to shoot - and they stay, too. Roommates hear him getting up early to work out, and they do, too.

His drive is so tangible that it has drawn comparisons to Tyler Hansbrough, UNC's all-time leading scorer who helped the Tar Heels surpass expectations his freshman season in 2005-06 and ultimately pushed them to the 2009 national title.

"He is the high school version of Tyler in some ways, because he's the most focused high school player I've ever recruited, the most disciplined high school player I've ever recruited," Williams said. "Tyler was that way and took it to another two or three levels after he got here."

A 'workaholic'

Now the question is: Will Barnes do the same?

Like Hansbrough in 2005, the 205-pound wing joins a team with question marks. But unlike Hansbrough in 2005, he has been dubbed the preseason savior - something Williams thinks is far from fair.

The coach has insisted he doesn't need Barnes to be the team's leader. Instead, "I need him to play his rear end off." But asked if a freshman can lead, he gave two prime examples. There was Jacque Vaughn at Kansas, to whom "everybody listened, and if Jacque said it was sunshiny - and it could be raining like crap - 13 people believed the sun was shining." And there was Hansbrough, who didn't talk much early on but set an example by scoring 40 points against Georgia Tech his freshman season and outworking everyone in the weight room.

"That's the reason he was a good leader," Williams said, "because people watched him and said, 'He's pretty good, we'd better play ourselves.' "

Sound familiar?

"[Harrison] is a workaholic, he wants to get better, and that factor alone drives me," Strickland said. "His work ethic alone should motivate everyone on the team - not, 'I want to be as good,' but 'I want to be better [than him].' So I look at it as a motivation tool. ... And hopefully, it will make all of us better."

Barnes, who joins point guard Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock in a star-studded recruiting class, is expected to start - and put up impressive numbers from the outset. But it's the tone he is setting off the court now that could impact UNC's season the most.

Downs, his high school coach, likes to tell the story of the time that, as a 14-year-old freshman, Barnes phoned, begging to use the team's weight room - even though Downs had given the team a week off for spring break.

"Coach," Barnes told him, "we aren't going to win state championships by taking a week off."

So Barnes didn't take the week off. And he went on to score a school record 1,787 points, and help the Little Cyclones win back-to-back titles, before he graduated.

robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8944

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