UNC draft prospects embrace new beginning, and new expectations

Expectations not such a burden for 4 Tar Heels

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 28, 2012 

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NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 27: Draft prospect John Henson speaks to the media during the 2012 NBA Draft Media Availability on June 27, 2012 at Westin Times Square hotel in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2012 NBAE (Photo by Jeyhoun Allebaugh/NBAE via Getty Images)

JEYHOUN ALLEBAUGH — NBAE/Getty

— When last they gathered together in a setting like this – surrounded by microphones and cameras, under the glare of a bright public spotlight – North Carolina’s season had just ended.

It was March, and Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller sat quietly in the Tar Heels locker room in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. They spoke in somber tones of a journey that concluded with an 80-67 defeat against Kansas in the NCAA tournament Midwest regional final.

“It was very difficult,” said Barnes, who sat in front of his locker for nearly 20 minutes after that loss with a towel covering his head. “But, I mean, that’s part of the game. You play, and unfortunately we weren’t able to get over the hump. But we gave it all we could and now it’s time for another stage in my life.”

He spoke Wednesday in a posh Times Square hotel, surrounded by national and international media. Henson was at the next table, and Zeller, wearing large gray low-rise Chuck Taylors, walked in after a while. Their new journey will begin Thursday, when they will learn their fate in the NBA draft.

Barnes, Henson and Zeller are three of the 14 players the NBA invited to attend the draft. Kendall Marshall, the Tar Heels’ former point guard, won’t be in attendance but he could be selected among the top 14 picks, too.

More than seven months ago, the foursome represented the primary reason North Carolina began the season ranked No. 1 and the overwhelming favorite to win a national championship. Now, in a strange way, the three players here appeared calmer than they did then, as if they’d been traveling with fewer burdens.

“He’s relaxed, man,” Henson said of Barnes, as if it hadn’t always been that way.

Yes, Henson said, there had been some moments last season when things were good, and when Barnes seemed carefree.

But then there were other times. The further the Tar Heels advanced in the NCAA tournament, the more Barnes’ shot seemed to elude him. In his final two college games, he didn’t resemble the player he’d been at other times during his two seasons at North Carolina.

“Obviously, (he took) a lot of criticism,” Henson said. “And that’s something you have to deal with when people expect great things from you. And I told him it’d be a lot worse if people didn’t expect anything from you.”

The expectations, so grand then, have changed. They have, in some ways, become easier to handle.

Henson and Zeller, the ACC Player of the Year, will enter the NBA as complementary players with an understood learning curve. Marshall, who sometimes bristled during the season at the notion that North Carolina underachieved, likely won’t be expected to lead his new team to a championship.

Barnes, though projected as high as the No. 2 overall pick, won’t be burdened by the savior label he carried with him to Chapel Hill. The thought that things might be easier now brought a smile.

“Well, I have no record right now,” Barnes said, “so things are pretty relaxed and there’s no expectation. I’m trying to really just enjoy myself right now. I’ve worked very hard to get to this point, and I’m just trying to enjoy every moment.”

Barnes, Henson and Zeller seemed to be. About an hour before he was obligated to meet with media members, Henson strolled into the hotel with his hands full of shopping bags. He raved about all “the free stuff” he’d been given, and about how he can accept such things now that “we’re not in college anymore.”

If the trio was worried about where they might be headed, about which teams might draft them, they didn’t show it. Barnes’ most difficult pre-draft workout, he said, was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Zeller said his was with the Houston Rockets. For Henson, it was the one with the Detroit Pistons.

They all had something to prove. Different things. Athleticism for Barnes, strength for Henson, shooting ability for Zeller.

Now comes the moment they’ve been waiting for. Barnes, Henson and Zeller said they have kept in touch in recent months. They have talked often among themselves, and with Marshall. Henson and Zeller went through many of the same workouts with NBA teams.

Now the foursome will go their separate ways. Barnes, Henson and Zeller will travel Thursday from Times Square to Newark, N.J., to hear their names called.

“It’s a lot more relaxing than my college decision,” Barnes said. “Because that was all on me. So I just get to sit back.”

Carter: 919-829-8944

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