Harrison Barnes recently announced that he will return to North Carolina for his sophomore season, a decision that instantly propelled the Tar Heels to the top of various very-very-early top 25 lists for 2011-12. The great expectations for Roy Williams' team are understandable. Two of Barnes' teammates, Tyler Zeller and John Henson, have also chosen to return to Chapel Hill, even though they too could very well have found themselves selected in the first round of this summer's NBA draft.
Barnes isn't the only high-profile player who's decided to come back for his sophomore year, of course. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Baylor's Perry Jones have also announced that they will forego "the next level" for at least one more season. Perhaps the likelihood of an NBA lockout next season helped drive these decisions -- certainly it had to be a factor in the mix. Then again, maybe the league's current labor strife wasn't such an elephant in the room after all. Sullinger, incredibly, has said he didn't even know of the NBA's looming work stoppage until after he'd made his decision (Ohio State apparently needs to beef up the current events portion of its curriculum), while Henson has admitted candidly he likely would have entered the draft if he were projected as a top-five pick.
To me, however, it's Barnes' choice to stay that really stands out. Here are my thoughts on what just happened and what it all means.
Barnes has made the most surprising decision of the one-and-done era.
I have no doubt that Sullinger and Jones would have heard their names called very early on draft night, but that being said it's not terribly surprising that freshman post players in 2011 are thinking twice about jumping to the NBA. For better or worse the recent track record of one-and-done players who don't shoot threes is not uniformly impressive. Kevin Love is a star, and DeMarcus Cousins had a fine rookie season, but for every Love or Cousins there's a Byron Mullens or Anthony Randolph. If the NBA is truly becoming a guards' league, we shouldn't be too surprised to see teenage big men are hesitating to join up.
But for a small forward like Barnes who's projected as "a very likely top-five pick" to stay in school verges on the unprecedented. Not only is it probable that the freshman from Ames, Iowa, would have been selected at the top of the draft, he may even have been able to contribute to an NBA team right away (again, assuming professional basketball is played next year). Players with that profile simply don't hang around the college game. Until now.
Just don't confuse a surprise with a new era.
North Carolina fans are rightly ecstatic that their Elite Eight team is returning next year virtually intact, but of course Kentucky fans weren't so fortunate. Wildcats like Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, and DeAndre Liggins apparently didn't get the memo that sticking around campus was the next big thing. As I write this we're still a couple days away from the deadline for college players to declare their intention to enter the draft, so the final numbers still aren't in. Nevertheless, it looks like the number of undergraduates putting their names forward (whether or not they withdraw them later) may not be far off what it was last year, even with the threat of a strike looming.
Barnes is better than his stats.
It's no secret that Barnes improved as his freshman year progressed, but his early struggles were so pronounced (remember the 0-of-12 effort against Minnesota in Puerto Rico?) that they inflicted permanent damage on his season totals. I recommend ignoring the early struggles entirely. They happened in calendar 2010, back when no one had heard of Rebecca Black. (Imagine!) In the more recent past, however, Barnes was outstanding. Over the course of the Tar Heels' last 23 games (conference play and the ACC and NCAA tournaments), the freshman drained 51 percent of his twos and 36 percent of his threes -- all while personally accounting for a Kemba Walker-like 31 percent of UNC's shot attempts during his minutes.
Don't fret too much about Carolina's perimeter woes -- yet.
In ACC play last year the Heels made just 29 percent of their threes, and I'll admit that whenever I saw an opposing team extend its defense against North Carolina the same thought always flashed through my mind: Why? So it's no surprise that the inability of this team to connect from long range is already being brought up as an Achilles heel (har!). Fair enough, but there's also this: Connecticut made nine percent of their threes in their games against Kentucky and Butler at the Final Four in Houston. Repeat: nine, a number so low you can spell it. The Huskies (who by the way made just 32 percent of their threes in Big East play) won the national championship anyway. I'm not saying threes don't matter. I am saying this is an odd moment to hold forth on the paramount importance of a team's perimeter shooting.
Back in 2009 when Barnes announced that he would attend North Carolina, he famously held a nationally televised press conference and placed a Skype call to Williams. By contrast, his decision to stay in school was communicated via a simple written statement. The medium may have been understated this time around, but the message was overwhelming: Barnes, the sure-thing top-five pick, is coming back. We will be feeling the effects throughout the 2011-12 season.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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