Nine games into his career at Garner High, Julius Barnes was a backup point guard on a senior-laden team. Yet the ninth-grader found himself on the court late in a semifinal game of the 2011 Holiday Invitational.
Barnes, 5-foot-8 and maybe 130 pounds dripping wet, was the smallest player on the floor. But he came up big against Kinston, sinking three 3-pointers and two crucial free throws to help the Trojans pull out a 69-65 victory.
“That gave me a lot of confidence,” said Barnes, now a senior. “I was just glad to play. After that game, I was like, ‘I can play at this level.’ ”
And play he has. More than anyone in Garner history.
Barnes has played in a record 99 games for the Trojans, a perennial power under coach Eddie Gray. Barnes was to play in his 100th career high school game Tuesday at rival Southeast Raleigh.
“We’ve only had a handful of freshmen make the varsity over the years,” said Gray, who has won nearly 450 games in 26 years as Trojans coach. “They were all a little different. Julius had the personality to be able to handle the notoriety and to be able to understand his role.
“It’s just been a great pleasure to watch him grow not just as a basketball player but as a student.”
As a freshman, Barnes was a role player – a speedy ball handler who used his minutes in games and more importantly his practice time to improve a game that was already good enough for Gray not to be concerned about a drop-off when the ninth-grader was on the floor.
“That first year, he played with a really good group of seniors,” Gray said. “DeMarcus Sanford was our point guard. Julius got a chance to practice against him every day. We needed a backup point guard and it was a great way for him to learn our system under one of the better guards who has come out of our program.
“Julius was able to break his defender down most nights and get to the basket. Early on, he was always unselfish. Point guards have to be real conscious of their assist-to-turnover ratio and he learned about that very quickly.”
Barnes has grown as a player. He is the unquestioned leader on the floor and can score from the outside or on darting drives to the basket.
Barnes, who had 957 career points entering Tuesday, is on pace to top 1,000. He also has more than 400 career assists, about four per game.
The soft-spoken Barnes just shakes his head when asked about his career numbers.
“I had no clue, especially the points,” Barnes said. “When I was a freshman I wasn’t shooting the ball much. It was mostly pass. I had a lot of good scorers around me. Each year I picked up scoring but I still look to pass first and the points will just come.
“It’s an honor. It’s been fun being coached by coach Gray. He has taught me a lot, especially to play hard every minute. I’m just happy to be playing.”
Being a senior carries its own set of responsibilities, on and off the court.
“Every year, the senior player who is going to get a lot of minutes is always my captain,” Gray said. “Julius has to organize a lot of things at practice and be responsible for certain things.
“That is something that we have always stressed in terms of things you can get out of basketball that have nothing to do with basketball – leadership and understanding how to work with other people. I’ve been really pleased with the way he has grown in that area too.”
Barnes has had to display a lot of toughness to get to the threshold of 100 games. He weighs about 150 pounds these days, but he still hits the floor on numerous occasions every game – taking contact on drives, diving for loose balls, just playing his scrappy style of basketball.
“He is resilient,” Gray said. “He actually played last year with a chipped bone in his wrist a football injury. He played through the pain the entire season.”
Barnes is the focal point for the 18-1 Trojans, ranked No. 3 in the area. But he’s still the team player he has always been.
“Over the last few years, he has developed the 3-point shot which really opens up his dribble-drive moves,” Gray said. “The last two years, we have devised the offense around his talents. He has responded. Overall, he is really a team player. He is really more concerned about how many assists he has rather than how many 3s he makes.”
Gray is hopeful that Barnes will get a chance to play college basketball. Several schools have shown some interest, among them Mount Olive and Hampden-Sydney.
“It’s just a matter of somebody looking past his size and realizing that he has so many more assets than just height,” Gray said. “He is a good student-athlete. His is the total package. If he was 6-4 or 6-3 we might be talking about ACC or upper Division I. But I’m sure that it is going to all work out.”
It’s worked out quite well for the Trojans. With the little guy on the squad, Garner has fashioned an 87-13 record and is closing in on its third Greater Neuse River 4A Conference championship in Barnes’ four seasons.