MENDENHALL CENTER, LAS VEGAS, NV — Last Monday at the US Men’s Basketball National Team workouts, I got the chance to see how the Golden State Warriors‘ Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes would fare, especially amongst the likes of Kyrie Irving, whom I saw last summer and — because of his dizzying array of moves perhaps unmatched by any other ballhandler on this planet — declared the next NBA superstar, gold-medal winner (and thereby Olympic veteran) Anthony Davis, and the much-respect-gained-from-Lebron-James rising star, Paul George.
George happened to be guarding Barnes in the post, low block, left side. As a double-team started taking form, Barnes made a quick fake to the middle then spun towards the baseline. As the double-team emerged, he slung the ball left-handed, almost parallel to the baseline, to a cutting Davis for the slam.
Little did I know at the time, but Barnes’s play at the “3” (basketball’s numeric assignment to a small forward), in this instance directly guarded by George, also a 3, would morph over the course of the week to that of a “4” (power forward). Not only that, but in a subtle yet profound way, he’d be redefining the relatively new hoop term known as the “Stretch Four”, a player who plays the power forward position, but has skills outside those normally associated with the position.
Power forwards (PF’s) predominantly play close to the basket, using their size and strength to provide interior defense, rebounding, and scoring close to the basket. A stretch four is a player that is of power forward size, and usually guards other power forwards. The differences come largely on the offensive end: stretch fours generally have superior ball-handling, passing, and especially shooting skills.
This allows them to “stretch” the opponent’s defense, creating more driving lanes for guards and more post spacing for centers. Rashard Lewis of the NBA’s Miami Heat and Ryan Anderson of the New Orleans (Pelicans) are often characterized as a stretch four — Definition of the Stretch Four on Wikipedia.
Oh, the irony. “Mr. Anderson!” (Agent Smith voice.)
Later in that same scrimmage in which I had walked in seeing Barnes with the nice play against George, as well as the next day, I saw a lot of HB defending the low block against the likes of Kenneth Faried and Greg Monroe. I even saw him post up the same bigger 4’s on the offensive end.
“The international game is a lot different from the NBA game,” Barnes told me after the scrimmage, “A lot of 3’s play the 4, a lot of 4’s play 5, there’s a lot more perimeter action.”
USA assistant coach Jim Boeheim echoed that theme.
“We told this to everybody: You’re going to play out of position. Some guys want to be a point, they’re going to play the 2, or want to be a 3-man, they’ll play a little 4. Anthony Davis is a 4 and we want him to play like a 5. It just works that way. We’re not as much concerned with position here,” Boeheim explained, “We’re concerned, you know, with how you play.”
So how did Harrison Barnes play, you ask? About the only criticism I can come up with is that he wasn’t making all of his shots, but he was certainly creating those opportunities. Whether it’d be a jab step then a long first step to the hole, or a quick crossover and a pull-up, Barnes had his power forward defenders guessing all the time.
Against smaller players such as Irving or Damian Lillard, it was a no-brainer: post up. In the scrimmages last Monday and Tuesday, Barnes physically dominated such 1’s that were forced to play the 2 (or 3, for example, as part of a small lineup playing zone and stuck in the low block against Harrison).
If I were Barnes’s personal scout and hell-bent on perfection, I probably would have advised quicker decision-making before drawing the double-team — or before drawing the foul from the diminutive defender, for that matter — when posting up, rather than settling for the short jumper which he should have been making in the first place, but I’d be nitpicking.
The bottom line is, he’s got not only the size but also the skills down in the block. (NOTE: Lillard did hold his own on one occasion, but hey that’s Dame!) And on the flipside, HB held his own in defending the paint against the likes of Faried and Monroe.
This, however, is more a note of concern for Team USA going forward: the lack of dominating post play. The aforementioned big bodies just didn’t have the footwork a la Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett, et. al., to finish on Barnes once they received the ball near the rim. Harrison had just enough weight, strength, and foot speed to hold his position against the lesser-skilled 4’s. This is perhaps the main reason why DeMarcus Cousins, despite his youth, is being discussed as someone who might make Team USA in ’14 or ’16.
And in the Showcase Game itself on Thursday, HB came out and made his first two three-point attempts, missed a dunk in which he appeared to get fouled — that had it gone in, might have earned Barnes the top two plays on SportsCenter that night! — and showed off his cachet of Michael Jordan-videotape-inspired moves that left him open for pull-up jumpers, or easily getting by the likes of Anderson and Chandler Parsons.
Barnes finished 6-for-11 from the field and 2-for-2 from beyond the arc, to go along with 3 steals, 3 rebounds, and a blocked shot, in just 17 minutes of play. He also went 4-for-4 from the line, the result of cutting to the basket, receiving a nice pass from one of USA mini-camp’s many talented point guards, and getting fouled. If the game was a “showcase”, he certainly showcased himself well.
I caught up with Harrison after the game as he answered some questions from Sekou Smith in regards to playing longer minutes at the 4.
“I’ve been definitely working on my body so that I can get used to that toll down low, such as rebound, box out,” said Barnes, “That Kenneth Faried, you definitely have to hit the weight room for.”
To deal with the physicality at the power forward position, Barnes confirmed to me earlier in the week that he had gained five pounds over the summer and currently weighs 225 lbs (he’d said that his listed weight at 210 lbs, for example on the Warriors site, is erroneous). There’s talk of Barnes facing a “roster squeeze”, but if he continues to dominate opposing Stretch Fours during the forthcoming NBA season, if the USA braintrust looks at the international field and finds a similar dearth of 4-5’s who can consistently score in the paint, and with the apparent loss of a similar versatile 3-4 in LeBron, I might guess that Harrison’s chances of making Team USA will be making a turn for the better.
Don’t laugh when I bring up the name LeBron (listed at 6’8″, 250 lbs, by the way — certainly in a class by himself), because Harrison has been working on his dribbling this off-season.
“I would have liked to maybe show a little bit more off the dribble, stuff that I’ve been working on all summer,” he said after the Showcase.
And if he does get that chance during the NBA regular season, or if he does eventually make Team USA, remember to link this article when his name replaces Ryan Anderson’s in the updated Wikipedia for Stretch Four.