Projecting Harrison Barnes’ Sophomore SeasonPosted by KCarpenter on November 3rd, 2011
You would think that after naming Harrison Barnes an All-American before he played a single game, and then having him struggle through the early part of North Carolina’s season, that folks would be a little bit hesitant to predict how well Barnes is going to play this season. Yet, here we are, without a game in the season played yet, and once again, he’s a preseason All-American. I mean, he did have a sensationally strong close to the year, highlighted by a 40-point outburst against Clemson during the ACC Tournament. Still, for a player who so publicly failed to meet the sky high expectations laid out for him last season in the early going, the skeptical few have to at least entertain the possibility that Barnes is once again overrated relative to what he’s actually accomplished and is capable of. Yet, despite this cautious approach, some take the other tack; suggesting that Barnes is, despite being a clear leader on a dominant team, somehow underrated. What can we expect from the sophomore wing when the season tips off? Is Barnes over-, under-, or appropriately rated?
Well, to turn to a totally impartial panel, Barnes, Roy Williams, and his teammates all think that he’s gotten even better than he was in March. ”Exponential” is the word Williams uses for his rate of improvement. Citing improved ball-handling, better physical conditioning, and simply learning the offense, there is a strong case that Barnes totally deserves his preseason plaudits. Still, the skeptics have to wonder? Is improvement for Barnes even a likely outcome? Is the “sophomore slump” a real phenomenon or just a turn of phrase?
Fortunately, wiser minds than my own have taken the time to ponder the question of sophomore improvement. Notably, Andy Glockner takes up the question in a column that addresses many explanations and aims for analysis with a comparison-based approach. Initially focused on Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger (and how he might compare to other similar sophomore big men like Blake Griffin and Brook Lopez), the inquiry expands to look at Barnes, as well as Baylor’s Perry Jones. In examining Barnes, Glockner comes up with a comparison to James Harden as a reasonable analogue, using the logic that both players are less than super-athletic wing players who have make perimeter shots but who might not actually be great shooters. It makes a certain amount of sense, but I can’t help but imagine that there must be better comparisons.
As almost always, the answer comes from Ken Pomeroy. In early September, Pomeroy launched an automated comparison finder that scoured his database to look for player-seasons that closely matched a given player. Given the whole thing is driven by stats and blind to more intangible biases, the results are pretty clever (enjoy them until the paywall goes up!). For Barnes’ freshman season, the tool highlights the freshman seasons of Jordan Hamilton, Da’Sean Butler, Kyle Singler, Thaddeus Young and William Buford. All of these comparisons, in my opinion, work a bit better than James Harden as they manage to more fully capture the versatility of Barnes.
So what do these comparisons mean? Well, if you think the Harden comparison is more accurate, it would suggest and predict increased usage but a drop in efficiency, though still producing at an outstanding rate. If you buy the Pomeroy comparisons? It’s good news for Tar Heels fans. Excluding Young, who only played a single season, Hamilton, Butler, Singler and Buford all went on to have even more efficient and productive sophomore years. If Barnes follows the pattern of his statistically-similar brothers, there will be no doubt that he’s deserving of the All-American moniker.