It didn’t take Ames High School head coach Vance Downs long to realize he had something special on his hands prior to the 2006-07 season.
Harrison Barnes, then a freshman, had arrived.
“On the second or third day of practice as a ninth-grader, he was working with the posts and catches, turns and just about brings our basket support down,” Downs said. “I had to compose myself and kind of look away. There was no way a freshman was going to see me in awe.”
Downs was the first of many to experience a similar reaction to the future North Carolina Tar Heel, who has been named MaxPreps.com’s 2009-10 National Player of the Year presented by Milk..
As a senior, Barnes averaged 26.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 3.0 assists per game, leading Ames to a 27-0 record and its second straight Class 4A state title. With the versatile 6-foot-8 guard/wing/forward in the lead, the Little Cyclones won 53 games in a row over two complete seasons.
Ames is ranked No. 3 in this week’s MaxPreps Xcellent 25.
“It’s been a unique experience working with a player as talented as Harrison. Not many coaches get to do that,” Downs said. “You really can’t get away from the 53-0 and two state championships. When he leaves there is going to be a void in this community and the state.”
The Little Cyclones beat Southeast Polk 47-37 for the state title March 13 in front of 13,000 fans seeking to witness a piece of Iowa high school basketball history – the final game of Barnes’ storied career.
“It was surreal,” Barnes said of the state championship experience. “It’s really hard to grasp, going 53-0, back-to-back state championships. ‘Hysteria,’ that’s probably the best way to describe what I felt.”
ADDICTED TO WINNING
The word ‘competitive’ comes up constantly in discussions about Barnes. His desire to win games and even dominate drills in practice changed the culture of the Ames program, according to Downs.
“You would think that at times, being as talented as he is, he would let down,” Downs said. “But there is no letdown with him. It’s like a disease; he has to win. He is so unique in that regard. He is such a polite, well-mannered kid but once you step on the floor he really takes it to another level.”
“The drive that I’ve always had is to be the best,” Barnes said. “Getting a state championship a year ago (as a junior) was unbelievable. Then I had to get another and keep pushing. It’s kind of like an addiction, but it kept me focused.”
He has a cutthroat mentality on the court, doing whatever it takes to put his team over the top. It was on display even on the summer circuit, where he turned in a 46-point, 14-rebound masterpiece while representing the USA in August at the Nike Global Challenge against a Serbian team. There were no bright lights shining in Portland that day. It was a consolation game with less than 200 people in the gym looking on.
FUTURE TAR HEEL
Barnes provided a window into his unique personality when he committed to the University of North Carolina last November.
Not content with appearing on ESPNU and playing the hat trick for a national television audience, Barnes held court like a CEO during the announcement. The 10-minute presentation included a touching tribute to his mother, Shirley, a genuine ‘thanks’ to all the schools involved in his recruitment and closed with an orchestrated live video look-in at Tar Heel coach Roy Williams and future teammates as they reacted to the news.
North Carolina won out over Iowa State, UCLA, Duke, Kansas and Oklahoma, a decision that went much deeper than basketball.
“One of the biggest things was just how comfortable I felt there,” Barnes said. “They have one of the top five undergraduate business schools in the country. I love the basketball program and they have a coach that knows how to work with pros and win championships. Just the campus itself, it’s one of those homey atmospheres.”
Despite his billing as arguably the top player in the 2010 senior class, Barnes managed to escape the taint involved with the recruitment of many elite high school basketball prospects. Shirley Barnes believes growing up in Ames helped shelter her son from the hangers-on and undue influences many of his peers crossed paths with.
“I think it most definitely did. That and we just made it known very early in the process that it was going to be him and a close inner-circle, myself and his sister, Jordan-Ashley,” Shirley Barnes said. “For the most part people respected that.”
More good news for Tar Heel fans – Barnes won’t be in any hurry to leave Chapel Hill. While he isn’t ruling out any scenario, he has a course plotted to graduate in three years and isn’t talking like a player that will bolt for the NBA a year from now.
“I’m going to graduate in three years and want to win a national championship and leave a legacy, have my number retired and in the rafters like all the past stars at UNC,” Barnes said.
Barnes possesses a Tim Tebow-like “too good to be true” quality that leaves people wondering where the flaws are – on and off the court.
“He’s like a 30-year old Harvard student – he’s extremely polished,” Downs said. “But he is still a kid, still 17 years old and still having a lot of fun with life.”
Barnes’ success and grace in handling it has helped cultivate a rock-star following locally. Only this rock star shows up to lend a helping hand at elementary schools, charities and churches to go along with a full load of advanced placement courses and, of course, plenty of work in the gym.
“Harrison, along with his teammates, not once have they hesitated to help people,” Downs said.
“He is quite a caring brother and the best son I could ever wish for,” Shirley Barnes said.
After a little prodding, mom confessed that her son did veer off course once as a junior. The transgression came in the Ames High School computer lab when he visited an unauthorized Web site.
“Harrison lost his computer privileges for a week,” Shirley said with a laugh.
The site? NBA.com.
Barnes was checking out LeBron James’ stats. With his competitive nature and attention to detail in mind, perhaps he was just scouting future competition.