Harrison Barnes turned down a chance to be the No. 1 pick in last summer's NBA draft and the multimillion-dollar contract that would have come with his selection. When he decided to return to North Carolina for his sophomore season, Barnes wasn't worried about possibly getting hurt and damaging his draft stock. Any of those fears were overshadowed by one other concern.
Barnes didn't want to begin his professional career in the middle of an NBA lockout that could keep him from playing competitively this season.
“I was happy for all the guys in my class going to the NBA, but … now they are kind of sitting around waiting to see if they’re going to play this year or not,” Barnes told Yahoo! Sports. “It’s kind of tough. They could have stayed in school and obviously had another year to play.”
Barnes was part of a heralded freshman class in college basketball that included Duke’s Kyrie Irving(notes), Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Texas’ Tristan Thompson(notes), Baylor’s Perry Jones and Kentucky’s Brandon Knight(notes), Terrence Jones and Enes Kanter(notes) – who was suspended for the season. No one, however, had more expectations to live up to than Barnes, who was the first freshman named to the Associated Press preseason All-America team since 1986.
Barnes played inconsistently the first two months of last season, but he improved to average 15.7 points and 5.8 rebounds while helping lead the Tar Heels to wins in 17 of their last 19 regular-season games. North Carolina won the ACC title and fell one win shy of reaching the Final Four.
"It just put a much bigger target on my back,” Barnes said of the hype surrounding him. “I had to adjust to that, adjust to the emphasis to detail on the court and the physical play.”
Barnes considered declaring for the draft and was considered a candidate to be the top overall pick. While Duke's Kyrie Irving and Arizona’s Derrick Williams(notes) ended up going first and second, respectively, in the draft, several NBA scouts said Barnes had the most upside. Barnes consulted his family and North Carolina’s coaching staff while deciding whether to leave the Tar Heels and also spoke with Irving, who was weighing his own decision. Barnes' fear of the impending lockout – which began one week after the draft – ultimately played a large role in swaying him to return to school.
“Obviously, it was two different situations,” Barnes said of his and Irving's decisions. “He didn’t play much his year [because of an injury]. We talked a lot about what it would mean if we left, what it would mean if we stayed. He played in 11 games and they had him slotted so high that it was kind of hard to turn it down. I felt like I had to make up a lot of ground. I don’t think another year would hurt me.”
Three freshmen ended up being taken among the top five picks, and seven freshman overall were chosen in the 2011 draft. Like Barnes, Sullinger, Perry Jones and Terrence Jones stayed in school.
While Barnes returned to North Carolina for his sophomore season, Irving is also currently back at school, taking classes at Duke as he waits for the lockout to end. Irving isn’t seriously considering playing professionally overseas, instead preferring to use the time to pursue his education.
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“It would have been extremely tough,” Barnes said, “because I would have still been at UNC taking classes, working out with the guys and not being able to play.”
As much pressure as Barnes faced last season, he knows the expectations are even higher now. And two heralded freshman big men, Connecticut’s Andre Drummond and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, could be more coveted in the 2012 draft than Barnes if all three decide to turn pro. That doesn't bother Barnes. He has no regrets.
“College basketball starts Nov. 11, and I won’t be going through the lockout," he said. "So I’m feeling good.”
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