Lowell Cohn: The revival of Harrison Barnes

OAKLAND - When Steve Kerr became coach of the Warriors, he told Harrison Barnes there was hope.

Barnes did not play well last season, his second in the league. Kerr told Barnes he approached the game wrong, had become a one-on-one player on offense, an “iso” player - trying to isolate himself against the man guarding him. Barnes would pump fake and make all kinds of Carmelo Anthony moves, and the other Warriors stood around like stragglers at a bus stop.

There were reasons for the way Barnes played. He had been demoted to the second team, made into a bench player. When he finally came onto the court long after the game began, he wanted to make an impact. Wanted to make things happen.

The second team needed a scorer - Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were on the bench - and Barnes would carry the load of scoring. He noticed something else coming off the bench. When he played alongside Curry and Thompson on the first team, he had infinite room for shots. When they were not on the court with him, the room became decidedly finite. The floor looked different.

Kerr told Barnes to forget last season. Kerr emphasized moving without the ball, working in the context of the team. He told Barnes the Warriors would play the style Barnes played at University of North Carolina, the ball in constant motion. “You can make a lot of strides,” Kerr told him. “I think I can help you. I’m not telling you you’re going to start, but I think there’ll be an opportunity for you to be successful.”

Barnes liked what Kerr said. “I was on the trading block,” he said after Sunday’s practice. “I’d had a horrible season. I was just trying to focus on improving.”

Kerr had given him hope. Not to be a starter. To be a contributor.

Last season, Alvin Gentry watched Barnes from the other side. He was Doc Rivers’ chief assistant at the Clippers and now he is Kerr’s top assistant with the Warriors. Gentry studied Barnes during last season’s Warriors-Clippers playoff series. “We didn’t think he played relaxed in some of the games we watched last year,” Gentry said. “It could have been he was putting pressure on himself. You come in and think, ‘I’ve got to do something to stay out on the floor.’ When you do that, it usually does just the opposite.”

Part of the reason for Barnes’ lack of relaxation was former Warriors coach Mark Jackson who never understood Barnes’ skills. Barnes is the player Jackson whiffed on. Jackson retarded Barnes’ game. Barnes never said this to me - he is too polite for that. I am saying it.

Kerr and his staff revived Barnes’ game, revived it so much that Barnes is shooting better than ever, defending better than ever, is a starter, a key member of the team. And he is the scorer the Warriors need in the front court to compensate for Andrew Bogut, not such a scorer. All credit to Andre Iguodala but he can’t score like Harrison Barnes.

“We saw him as a tough guy to match up with in the playoffs,” Gentry said. “Bigger guys he’s quicker than. We tried that. We also tried a 3-man (small forward) on him. We wanted Jamal Crawford in the game, but it was a tough matchup for Jamal defensively. Harrison is strong enough to be a 4 defensively but he also has an advantage in quickness. He’s quick enough to be a 3-man defensively and he’s strong enough to have an advantage there. That’s the niche for what Harrison is going to be in this league.”

The niche is this. He can play small forward and power forward and have an advantage at each position. He can guard spots 1 through 4 - point guard through power forward. His offense has improved but it still lags behind his defense - that’s what he told me.

On Oct. 28, Kerr sat the players on black folding chairs at the side of the practice court. It was the day before the first game of the season which would take place the following night in Sacramento.

“We didn’t know what Coach Kerr was going to do,” Barnes said. “Coach said, ‘The lineup that started the last preseason game, that’s the group that’s going to start the year.’

That’s how Barnes found out he’s a starter.

“I was a little shocked,” Barnes said. “At the same time, I was honored by the coach’s confidence in me especially after last season. He easily could have buried me on the bench. He could have said, ‘Look, we’re going to stick with the lineup we had.’

“It’s not like we were a bad team last year. We won 51 games. For him to have that confidence in me meant a lot. Not only his confidence in me, but he kept his word. He didn’t guarantee a starting spot, but he said I would have an opportunity to be successful from our very first meeting.”

Barnes said he shoots 100 free throws after each practice, shoots 100 free throws before he leaves the gym. “Every player has that one little quirk to do before they leave the court to put them at ease,” he said. “It’s like a clock you wind every day, that little routine.”

Nothing unusual about Barnes practicing free throws. Although when I was talking to Gentry, Barnes hadn’t even gotten to the free throws. He was taking jumpers. He was the last player in the gym and Gentry stared at him and laughed.

It’s what Barnes does after the free throws that causes interest. He walks into the locker room, finds his journal and writes how many shots he sank and if he was over or under 90 percent.

Barnes is a journal writer. After every game, he writes a self-critique in his journal. He keeps notes about opponents in his journal. After every game, he watches tape of his minutes with assistant coach Ron Adams. They go over what Barnes did well and didn’t do well. It is a private tutorial. Barnes takes notes in his journal as Adams talks.

The journal is Barnes’ ongoing Basketball Book, his hoops autobiography, “the hard evidence,” to use his term. Many chapters still to write.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at

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