If you felt a tremor on the West coast recently, it wasn’t an earthquake. It was Harrison Barnes. On Nov. 24, Barnes dropped the hammer on Nikola Pekovic in a game between the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves, sending shock waves through the NBA.
It was just one dunk, of course, and it may seem silly to overanalyze it—but if we take it apart, it tells us plenty about Harrison Barnes’ NBA future.
Harrison Barnes: Momentum Creator
Immediately after Barnes’ earth-shaking smash, Twitter exploded, highlight shows dubbed the one-handed spike the Dunk of the Year, and not least of all, the Warriors came alive. Pre-dunk, the Dubs trailed Minnesota 41-38. Afterward, they went on to outscore the Wolves 58-44 over the remaining two-and-a-half quarters. That could be a coincidence, but the momentum gained from the play seemed palpable.
A talent like Barnes has the ability to ignite a crowd like no other Warrior. Golden State is built to win with defense, rebounding and perimeter shooting. That stuff is effective, yet unless you’re a high school coach or a real appreciator of nuance, it probably doesn’t excite you.
But just watch the tape! The crowd explodes, guys on the bench are saluting, running around like crazy people and holding their heads in disbelief. That’s how you shift momentum.
There will be nights when the Warriors can’t buy a jumper. Heck, there already have been nights like that this year. But if Barnes can do things like this, few games will get boring. He can single-handedly light a fire under the crowd and his fellow Dubs.
We all knew it was in there somewhere. After Barnes tested off the charts at the NBA draft combine, the world was on notice that the 6’8”, 240-pound specimen had a 39.5-inch vertical leap. Not only that, but he also ran the fastest sprint of any player tested.
Barnes had hinted at his athletic potential a couple of times in the early going this season. He’d smoke his defender to the baseline and put in a two-handed dunk or get out on the break and simply outrun everyone on the floor. But those were just flashes. It was clear he still hadn’t totally figured out how to channel his obvious physical talents in a way that yielded consistent results.
The dunk was yet another glimpse of just how athletic Barnes really is. Granted, it was the most impressive one yet, but we’ve still only just scratched the surface of his physical gifts.
What happens when he learns to make a jump stop in the lane and simply elevate over his defender, like Rudy Gay? What happens when the Warriors start to feature more back-door lobs, like the Atlanta Hawks do with Josh Smith? And what happens when he improves as an option in the pick-and-roll game? Barnes won’t be a guy big men will want to step in front of after what he did to Pekovic.
He’s already shown the ability to outmuscle smaller players on the block, and now we know Barnes can also jump over bigger ones when he has a running start. Put simply, Barnes has a vast reservoir of untapped athletic potential. The Warriors and their fans are really going to enjoy watching him as he figures out how to put all of it to good use.
Seeking Out the Moment
Barnes’ flush also let us know that he’s going to be a player who can appreciate “the moment.” No, I’m not talking about the little stare-down he gave Pekovic after he returned to earth (although that was pretty awesome and helped to shift the momentum). What I mean is that Barnes has the ability to step up when his team needs him.
So many players disappear when the going gets tough, but Barnes has shown the ability to raise his game when his team has nowhere else to turn. When he went airborne over Pekovic, Barnes elevated his team, pulling the Warriors out of a funk and pushing them toward a badly needed win.
How about another example? The Warriors played the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 14, coming off two straight losses—including an overtime heartbreaker to the Denver Nuggets. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to shoot 6-of-23 from the field that night against the Hawks, but Barnes stepped up and turned in his best professional performance. He poured in 19 points and 13 rebounds in 40 minutes, all of which were team highs.
As a rookie, he had no business leading the team, and nobody would have criticized him if he’d taken on a lesser role. But his performance against the Hawks and his dunk on Pekovic show that he’s not afraid of big moments.
Still Plenty to Learn
While the dunk against Minnesota showed that Barnes already has the size, strength and athleticism to be an excellent offensive player, we still haven’t seen him put together a complete game.
Barnes has yet to top four assists in any game, and given his athleticism, he should be getting to the line more than 2.6 times per contest. In addition to that, he still needs to catch up to the speed of the NBA game on the defensive end; too often, he finds himself lost or out of position.
Of course, we’re nitpicking. Barnes is still just 20 years old and is exceptionally mature for his age. And as we’ve discussed, he’s got the attitude, poise and ability to become a great player.
We may look back on “The Dunk” in a few years, maybe after Barnes makes a handful of All-Star games, and smile. Certainly, we can appreciate it right now for what it is: the early frontrunner for Play of the Year. But down the road, there’s a good chance we’ll remember it as the moment Harrison Barnes rocketed off the launch pad toward NBA stardom.