Kendall Marshall is "day-to-day" as he recovers from a fractured wrist, but he's nowhere near full strength as North Carolina prepares for Ohio in the Sweet 16 on Friday and (maybe) NC State or Kansas on Sunday. Life without Kendall is a distinct possibility. In that case, this becomes a whole different story.
Harrison Barnes was the No. 1 ranked player in his high school class. He was voted an All-American before he'd ever played a minute in Carolina blue. He's spent most of the past two years bouncing around the top three or four spots of every NBA mock draft. In five years before Harrison's season last year, there had been 14 players ranked in the top four spots of both Rivals and Scout high school rankings, and they all went pro. Barnes was the 15th, and the exception to the rule. This is all part of the plan. As Jason Zengerle writes in this month's Atlantic:
...a big reason he came back to UNC was that he believes remaining in college for at least one more year will eventually increase his endorsement potential. “The longer you stay in college,” Barnes explained, “the better a brand you build.”
Indeed, Harrison Barnes broke new ground last year, and his reason had less to do with books or basketball than it did with his "brand". That's fine, and for anyone who's followed Barnes, it's not surprising. This is the player who called college a "networking opportunity."
The Atlantic profile elaborates on this point:
Barnes is quite attuned to managing his own brand. Although he founded a Bible-study group in high school and paid particularly close attention when he met Barack Obama before a game aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier earlier this season, he’s reluctant to discuss either experience. “Anytime you want to get into religious or political views,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “that can instantly polarize people.” (In this he seems also to be following in the footsteps of Jordan, who, when asked why he wouldn’t endorse Harvey Gantt in a Senate race against Jesse Helms two decades ago, reportedly answered, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”)
Right. Republicans buy sneakers too. The quote that lives on forever as a testament to Jordan's brand consciousness, and the quote that's been misleading everyone since the day he said it.
Jordan didn't sell shoes because he was politically neutral. In the past 10 years or so, Jordan's been revealed as a philanderer, a compulsive gambler, an incompetent executive, and gave the most vindictive, petty acceptance speech the Basketball Hall of Fame has ever seen. His shoes, meanwhile, still outsell any line on the market by a lot. It has nothing do with who he is; Jordan sells shoes because his name became an idea. The name "Jordan" became all about victory, and innovation, and genius come to life, and the idea launched a wave of culture that still reverberates 30 years later. (It didn't hurt that his shoes looked awesome, too.)
Harrison Barnes doesn't wear Jordans. Even after Jordan chastised his sneaker choice during last year's ACC Tournament, Barnes didn't flinch. He wears Kobes. He's consciously different. That's probably part of the brand, too. But what matters this weekend has nothing to do with Nike.
The reasons Jordan's myth survived Jordan's mistakes is the same reason Kobe Bryant can still be a hero to someone like Harrison Barnes after what happened in Colorado. They were so dominant on the court that nothing else mattered. Nobody thinks of a politically neutral pitchman—or a vindictive philanderer failing with the Bobcats—when they hear Michael Jordan's name. They think of the ruthless killer who succeeded because he failed, and never lost an NBA Finals. That's the piece that's always been most important, and the piece that Barnes has been missing for two years now.
It was Kendall Marshall who changed everything for North Carolina last year, when Roy Williams put him into the starting lineup halfway through the season. Suddenly, the Heels became contenders. This year, too, it's Marshall who makes them dangerous. He's the catalyst for everyone else. But now Marshall's hurt, and it's Harrison Barnes' turn to be North Carolina's version of Carmelo in '03.
“I think everyone’s going to have to step up,” Barnes said this week . “Not only me, but we’re obviously going to need more production out of ‘Z’ and John and our bench is going to have to be big for us." But it's especially Barnes. UNC can win without Marshall, but if the team's going to lack the balance and cohesion that got them this far, they'll need a superstar instead.
Barnes can put it all together for a few minutes at a time, but the rest of the game he tends to float—never in a way that makes you doubt his talent, but where you sorta wonder why he's holding back. Or sometimes he WILL try to take over, only he'll do it by settling for bad jumpers, or he'll get clumsy off the dribble, wasting two and three possessions at a time. Then, just when you're ready to write him off, he'll hit a dead-eye, NBA-worthy jumper that takes you back to square one, wondering why he can't dominate more. UNC needs more than that now.
NBA scouts have been debating whether Barnes is worth the hype for two years now, and here's to betting this weekend and beyond will give them a definitive answer one way or the other. It's been 30 years since Jordan and Carolina won the NCAA Tournament in New Orleans, and if there's any chance it happens in New Orleans two weeks from now, it's gotta be Barnes who leads them.
Anyway ... If this all sounds critical, it's not meant that way. If anything, it's wishful thinking from a Carolina fan that's been watching him almost hit the next level for two full seasons.
Either way, Harrison Barnes seems like a genuinely awesome, uncommonly savvy college kid, and someone who understands "the game" as well as anyone else in the game. When he gets to the NBA, his worst case scenario is becoming a valuable starter on a contender. But "the players Barnes most admires are the ones who have achieved just that transcendence," is what The Atlantic wrote.
If that's the case, and if Barnes is the model for the business-conscious college star, it's important for everyone in 2012 to remember that transcendence happens on the court. MJ's not a marketing icon because he didn't endorse senate candidates. And if Harrison Barnes wants to follow the blueprint Michael Jordan minted in New Orleans 30 years ago, the time is now, unless it's never.
For more on the UNC Tar Heels, visit SB Nation's Carolina March.