Sunday, May 27, 2012

Social psychology and Harrison Barnes.

For those of you who don't know me personally, I recently graduated from university with a double-major in Psychology. During my undergraduate studies I was particularly interested in social psychology, as I intended to pursue a career in sports psychology and a lot of the things you learn in social psych are applicable to sports in general, and team sports in particular. Recently, I've started revising my old social psychology textbook to try and apply some of the lessons to my basketball coaching. The last chapter I read was called "the self in a social world", and it principally concerned the errors and biases of perception people tend to make.

Tucked away in the psychological mumbo-jumbo was an examination of two cultural distinctions on perception of the self; individualist and collectivist. The individualist culture places great importance on having a unique self, being different, and individual success; people in an individualist culture tend to define themselves by the traits they have. Conversely, a collectivist culture places great importance on group success, and collectivists tend to define themselves in terms of the groups they belong to. In terms of motivation, individualists are driven by self-esteem, they are more persistent when successful because success boosts their self esteem. Seems like a given right? Wrong. In contrast, people in collectivist cultures persist more on tasks when they are failing because they are driven to want to meet the expectations of their peers (Heine & others, 2001).

Some of you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Harrison Barnes (some of you might have stopped reading already), and the simple answer is everything. You see, I believe Harrison Barnes is an excellent example of a collectivist, and that his perceived "failings" or "limitations" can be resolved in this light.

Coming out of high school, Barnes was the consensus top-prospect in his class; he hadn't lost a game in recent memory, was extremely mature for his age, was billed as a very hard worker and extremely intelligent. All of these factors led the Associated Press to name him a pre-season All-American before he'd played a single minute of college basketball. Fans everywhere envisioned Barnes coming into North Carolina and being an explosive scorer, putting the team on his back and putting up huge numbers to win games. Those fans didn't know that those same traits the AP and other scouts raved about were the exact reason he didn't meet those expectations.

Barnes' early struggles can be put down to the adjustment period any player goes through when making the leap between high school and college. However, as the season wore on, he settled into a groove and made people rethink their hasty judgement that he was a major letdown. Barnes accomplished some amazing things in his first season with the Tar Heels, whether it was hitting game-winners, dropping 40 points as a freshman (more on that later), or doing a brilliant job locking up the future Most Outstanding Player winner Kyle Singler with his defensive ability in their matchup.

After the strong finish to his freshman year, he would have been a top-5 pick in the NBA draft, but he decided to return to try and win an NCAA championship, and the unrealistic expectations returned with a vengeance. The biggest jump in production in college is usually from freshman to sophomore seasons, and people expected the same jump from Barnes. Most of you reading this will know what happened, Barnes and North Carolina ultimately fell short. Their backcourt was laid low by injuries, and many fans (myself included) expected Barnes to make the adjustment to primary ball-handler overnight, deep in the post-season. Harrison's struggles to adjust and North Carolina's exit from the tournament led to a huge drop in Barnes' draft stock, and many don't even rate him as the first small-forward in the draft class, let alone a candidate for first overall.

Having said all this, let's break down Barnes, his college career and why teams that pass on Barnes are going to be very disappointed.

The first thing that needs to be said is that playing for North Carolina and Roy Williams was a bad situation for Barnes to display his complete repertoire. Sure, UNC has a history of churning out NBA stars at the SG/SF position (Jordan, Stackhouse and Vince Carter to name a few), but that was the old North Carolina with Dean Smith at the helm. Roy Williams and his system are an entirely different matter. UNC's system now is dependent on dominant post-play and scoring in transition.

Roy Williams has always been most successful with one or two dominant big men doing the majority of the scoring, and a PG who can advance the ball in transition to run the other team off the court. He did it with Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansborough and company in 2009, and with Raymond Felton in 2005. During Barnes' time with the team, he was often the 3rd or 4th option offensively, with the offense geared towards getting scores in the post from Tyler Zeller and John Henson. When other players are taking shots, Williams wants his bigs in position to get offensive rebounds, because UNC often had an overwhelming size advantage and this played to their strengths. Unfortunately for Harrison Barnes, this meant that unless the big men were running a pick and roll, they were camped in the lanes, and their defenders along with them. Barnes' role in the this offense was to play off the ball, use screens to create catch and shoot opportunities, and use a two dribble pull-up in isolation plays if he absolutely had to dribble the ball.

With two big-men defenders in the paint, opportunities for Barnes to beat his man off the dribble and score before help arrived were non-existent; the help was always there. However, Barnes' maturity and collectivist tendencies allowed him to put the team first and embrace this role as his freshman season wore on, eventually settling into a groove as an occasional shot-maker as 3rd or 4th option with the shot-clock running down. His role in the offense prevented him putting up the huge numbers people expected unless he absolutely shot lights out, and rather than attribute this perceived lack of production to the external factors (the offensive system), many fans put it down to some failure on the part of Barnes.

Now about that 40 point game... I was one of the many people waiting for him to breakout and become a huge scorer for the Tar Heels in his first season, so when I saw that he had dropped 40 points, I set aside some time to watch that game, expecting to see a more aggressive Barnes taking it to the hole, making spectacular moves and showing another side to his game. As the game progressed though, it was just the same Barnes, doing the same thing, you couldn't even tell that he was having a big game because it was all coming in the flow of the offense. He wasn't doing anything different, he was just making an extraordinary percentage of his shots from both the field and the FT line. This was Harrison Barnes in a nutshell, even on a night where he seemingly couldn't miss, he only had 17 field goal attempts - only four more than John Henson, who scored 18, compared to Barnes' 40 - always playing his role, refusing to force the issue and putting the team-first. That game for Barnes was all about persistence, he had failed early on in the season, but determined to meet the expectations of other people he didn't complain and managed to finally impress people in that role.

The problem was, most people wouldn't have seen that whole game, and would have just seen the box-score, which meant they didn't appreciate that it was an anomaly to drop 40 in that offense and was unlikely to be replicated. As a result, people expected him to greatly increase his numbers across the board in his second season.

Those people were ignorant to the reality of Barnes' role at North Carolina. Despite outsiders clamouring for Barnes to be the "go-to guy" for North Carolina in his sophomore year, Zeller and Henson were still on the team, and that meant Williams was still going to press that size advantage as long as he had it in pursuit of a championship. Barnes didn't have that huge leap in production between seasons because he was already producing about as much as he could in the role his coach had given him as a sophomore, and that role didn't suddenly change. Barnes is all about winning, so he accepted this with a stoicism rarely seen in athletes of his age (or people in general), and continued to work on the skills which would allow him to succeed in that role - his outside shooting, the pull-up after two dribbles and adding the beginnings of a post-up game. That hard work in the off-season allowed Barnes to improve his numbers across the board (if only marginally) and be more efficient with his scoring, but it wasn't enough of an increase to silence the naysayers, especially after an injury in January slowed him down.

Then we get to the post-season, where Kendall Marshall goes down with a broken wrist, and all hell breaks loose. Whenever a team loaded with enough talent to send all of its starters to the NBA loses, there is always a scapegoat. In this case, it was Barnes, who was thrust into the role of playmaker and penetrator overnight, and was panned by critics for persisting in trying to create off the dribble despite repeated failures. Some would say he tried to do too much and cost his team the game against Kansas down the stretch.

To those people I say this, meet Harrison Barnes, the collectivist. When he's told to do something for the greater good, he'll persist in the face of failure and blame only himself for his lack of success. Is it his fault that his point guard and back-up point guard were both injured? Is it his fault that he tried to pick up the slack in an area outside of his strengths? Is it his fault that he did what his coach asked him to? No. Barnes has always put the team-first, and this was a team failure which was first and foremost brought about by injury.

After reading this, some of you might be thinking that Barnes is going to be a glorified role player in the NBA because that's what I've just said he was in college. That's the wrong lesson to learn from this article, the right one is that Barnes is going to work at whatever role he's given at the next level, whether it's sidekick, franchise player or role player. He might drop on draft night, he might underwhelm initially, who knows what the future holds. But you know one thing; he's going to keep working at it until he drops 40.

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