This offseason, anytime someone asked North Carolina forward (and future NBA lottery pick, and prospective player of the year candidate, and potential 2011-12 national title contender) Harrison Barnes what about his game he was working on, the answer was almost always "ballhandling." Barnes felt he had to become a better ballhandler so he could help lead UNC's break, but also so he could utilize his size and strength and play off his already-honed ability to catch and score in open space. If Barnes was a constant threat to drive -- in addition to his wide range of scoring abilities -- well, the potential there was downright frightening.
Now, a few months and 10 games later, we can actually see whether Barnes's guard-oriented offseason work has paid off or not. The answer? Well, not really.
It's not that Barnes isn't a good player, because he is. It's just that -- as Jay Bilas memorably said during in-game analysis of Wisconsin's close Big Ten/ACC Challenge loss at UNC -- Barnes is much better when he keeps the dribbles to a minimum. Adrian Atkinson, one of the TrueHoop Network's excellent HoopSpeakU bloggers (if you haven't bookmarked HoopSpeakU already, you need to go ahead and do that now), scouted tape of Barnes's performances thus far this season and found that Bilas's analysis was spot-on. Barnes is great when he can catch and shoot, or when he limits himself to one dribble, but the second he moves in for that second dribble his efficiency plummets:
As seen in the first table, through the season’s first ten games, Barnes’ points per possession (PPP) on catch-and-shoot/0-dribble possessions is a robust 1.51. This includes a sizzling 55.6% (15-27) from behind the 3-point arc. On possessions in which he takes a single dribble, his PPP falls off to 0.81. When using multiple dribbles, it drops further to 0.66. With 2+ dribbles, Barnes is shooting just 31.3% (10-32) through 10 games with an A:TO of 0.33 (3 assists, 9 TOs).
That data charts all of Barnes's performances to date this season. Adrian also looked at Barnes's efficiency in the Tar Heels' four games against top-50 defenses (per Ken Pomeroy, that's Wisconsin, Kentucky, Michigan State, and UNLV), and the results are significantly worse:
Barnes continues his unbelievable efficiency on catch-and-shoot opportunities, posting a PPP of 1.49 (including 8-of-12 behind the arc). He also ramps up his efficiency on single-bounce possessions, knocking down 8-of-13 such shots for a PPP of 1.10 against top 50 defenses. But when using multiple dribbles against the nation’s best defenses, Barnes’ efficiency plummets to a woeful 0.37. This includes 12.5% shooting from the field (2-16) with 4 turnovers. Kudos, Jay Bilas. It looks like you were right again.
Of course, this is not to say that Barnes should just stop trying to dribble the ball altogether, or should stop trying to keep defenses honest with penetration that may or may not include more than one dribble. Arguably, it's difficult to create penetration from Barnes's spot on the floor, given UNC's style and personnel. When Barnes does break defenders down off the dribble, he is usually headed to a paint also occupied by John Henson and Tyler Zeller (and their accompanying defenders). And UNC's system is best when it is spaced as widely as possible, when Kendall Marshall makes those long loping passes to streaking forwards and wide-open shooters. In another offense, you can imagine Barnes frequently inverting on the post, taking a dribble or two near the rim, and scoring with ease over an undermatched defender.
But still, the most likely explanation here seems to be that Barnes just isn't quite the ballhandler he probably planned to be after a summer spent focusing on that trait. That's OK. He's still young, still developing, and still -- in a fashion much more clinical than any 19 or 20-year-old most of us have ever seen -- tweaking and adding to his all-around game.
Still, the results to date indicate the ballhandling Barnes isn't quite there yet. In the near term, UNC's star might do well to restrain his dribbles and elect, perhaps against instinct, to knock down that open shot instead.