Once the lottery was complete and the Cavaliers learned they were selecting fourth in Thursday’s draft, Harrison Barnes immediately became the obvious choice linked to the team most often. And why not?
The Cavs were high on Barnes last year and probably would’ve taken him fourth had he entered the draft after his freshman season. He is friends with Kyrie Irving and the two have the same agent (Jeff Wechsler).
Barnes is athletic and fills an immediate need for the Cavs, who have struggled to replace the massive hole left by LeBron James at small forward.
But Barnes brings his own set of concerns. One NBA scout lamented how badly Barnes is handling the basketball, a concern that is nullified when Irving is on the floor. But there will be surely moments when Barnes is out there by himself, and he has shown no ability in two years of college to create off the dribble.
No player in college basketball has been as scrutinized the last two years as Barnes, who entered North Carolina as the top-ranked freshman two years ago. He averaged 17.1 points as a sophomore after averaging 15.7 as a freshman and never seemed to meet lofty expectations.
“You just learn to play through it,” Barnes said of the constant scrutiny. “Stay in the gym and work hard. The criticisms are there whether you’re playing well or not. You have to learn to play with that and be as professional as possible.”
His strength and athleticism are obvious. His no-step vertical at the combine was 38 inches, the fourth-highest of all time. He bench-pressed 185 pounds 15 times to equal Thomas Robinson, the bull of a power forward also expected to go in the top five on Thursday.
Barnes is still a lock to go in the top five, but he might not wind up with the Cavs.
The Charlotte Bobcats are believed to be high on Barnes — keep in mind the Michael Jordan/North Carolina connection — but don’t want to take him second overall. That’s why so much speculation persists on the Cavs and Bobcats working a deal that would give the Cavaliers the No. 2 pick and access to anyone not named Anthony Davis, while the Bobcats would drop down two spots, still in position to take Barnes, and would presumably pick up the Cavs’ extra first-round pick (No. 24 overall).
Off the court, Barnes is smooth and polished. He speaks well, seems thoughtful and appeared for media interviews at the combine wearing dress pants and a sweater while almost everyone else appeared in shorts and T-shirts. Barnes said he did it because this was a job interview and he was taking it seriously.
Yet there is a narcissistic side to him as well, given his bizarre announcement to commit to North Carolina three years ago via Skype. The entire strange production was aired by ESPNU.
Asked how he benefited from the extra year in college, Barnes said it helped him to mature.
“Just spending another year getting to know the college game, being more independent and just growing up,” he said. “There’s not a better way to say it than just growing up as a person.”
He said in college, he was surrounded by some of the nation’s top talent. He had one job, which was to score. The NBA game is more isolation plays, he said.
“You have to change your game a little bit,” he said, “and play more of an NBA style.”
How successful he is at doing that remains to be seen. There is still a chance he winds up with the Cavaliers, but it’s no longer the lock it seemed to be just a few weeks ago.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.