PORTLAND, Ore. – Harrison Barnes stepped onto the court Friday afternoon feeling more like he was on a job interview than at another high school practice. And, in a lot of ways, he was prepping for his future career.
Barnes was at the Portland Trail Blazers' practice facility to work out with his teammates in advance of Saturday night's Nike Hoop Summit, which matches a team of the best U.S. high school seniors against some of the top international prospects. Hanging above Barnes was a banner commemorating the Blazers' 1977 NBA championship, along with the jerseys of 12 retired players. As Barnes looked along the sidelines, he could see more than 50 NBA scouts and executives, including Sacramento Kings president Geoff Petrie and Utah Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor, surrounding the court.
"When we came, we saw the USA uniforms and they were just sitting there with your name on the back and on the front was a nice, shiny 'USA,' " Barnes said. "Then you see this whole gym packed with NBA scouts. This isn't just trying to make a highlight. This isn't like an [And1] Mixtape [game]. This is like, you're trying to make your future here and make sure you leave a good impact."
In a year, those same scouts could help determine where Barnes is selected in the NBA draft. U.S. high school players can't enter the draft until one season after they graduate, but the Hoop Summit is usually filled with future prospects like Barnes. Last year's game included John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Xavier Henry and Lithuanian center Donatas Montiejunas, all of who could be selected in the NBA draft's first round in June.
Barnes, a 6-foot-8 guard who is headed to the University of North Carolina, could be in a similar position next year. Scouts consider him to be an elite prospect, and while he has considerable work to do to improve defensively, he's already made an impression on the other end of the court. He didn't disappoint Saturday, leading the U.S. to a 101-97 win with 27 points and seven rebounds.
"Offensively, he's the most mature kid out of the bunch," one NBA scout said. "He scores baskets any way, shape or form. He rebounds and gets baskets. He'll try to get steals to get baskets. He can knock down mid-range shots. He can finish around the rim. He can score from distance. He's probably the most prolific scorer out of the group."
Even if the rules permitted him to go straight to the NBA, Barnes says he would have still made the decision to attend North Carolina first. But will he stay in college longer than a season? That remains to be seen. Five heralded players from the 2009 high school class – Wall, Cousins, Henry, Derrick Favors and Lance Stephenson, have already put their names in the 2010 draft. Barnes claims he isn't in a rush to get to the NBA. A possible lockout before the 2011-12 season also could convince him to stay in college beyond his freshman season.
"I have no problem going to college," Barnes said. "Just to develop your game makes you that much more ready. I just take [the NBA talk] all in stride and see what happens. To me, you leave when you're ready. Maybe it's after one, maybe it's after two, maybe it's after three. You can't leave when everyone else wants you to leave. You have to leave when you're ready to be an impact player in the NBA."
Barnes is expected to make an immediate impact for the Tar Heels after a stellar high school career. He led Ames High to a 53-0 record and two straight Iowa titles, finished his prep career with 1,787 points, played in the McDonald's All-America Game and will soon play in the Jordan Classic. Ranked No. 2 overall in the senior class by Rivals.com, Barnes averaged 26.1 points, 10 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.2 steals as senior.
"What does this guy not do?," former NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo said. "He's a good shooter. He's a good rebounder. He seems to have a complete game and is equally as impressive as an individual. It's hard to find someone who has his size, his athletic ability, runs it, passes the ball. He's a young kid, but he doesn't really seem to have any holes in his game. It's impressive that he has that rounded of a game at his age."
Barnes hopes to become more versatile and knows he needs to improve his ball-handling and move his feet quicker on defense if he hopes to defend athletic guards. Jared Sullinger (Ohio State), Kyrie Irving (Duke), Will Barton (Memphis), Patric Young (Florida) and Brandon Knight (undecided) are among the other U.S. players in the Hoop Summit drawing interest from scouts. But everyone seemed to agree that Barnes is the most gifted scorer of the group.
"It just motivates me to work harder to develop my craft," Barnes said. "On the next level, I have to start new again. I'm a freshman. I haven't felt what that is like in a while. I'm just wanting [to work) to be the best at this game.
"This isn't my first time being round NBA scouts, but it's my pleasure to just come play in front of them and to showcase them your talents to see what they think about it. They see how you conduct yourself, see what type of body language you have, see what your attitude toward the game is and your teammates. I want to make this game as a professional, so you have to know all the little things that go on."