Barnes deserves credit, not criticism for three first-round picks

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Rick Barnes sent three players to the NBA Draft this season, all of whom were first-round picks.
Rick Barnes sent three players to the NBA Draft this season, all of whom were first-round picks.

Normally a program producing three first-round picks would be cause for celebration, but it’s cause for concern for some fans who believe Texas should have had a better postseason.

Rick Barnes took a lot of heat for not making it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament in March despite having two projected lottery picks and several other respectable players. The fact that three Longhorns — Tristan Thompson (No. 4), Jordan Hamilton (No. 26) and Cory Joseph (No. 29) — heard their names called during the NBA Draft’s first round was a stark reminder for Barnes’ critics that he should have gotten more out of his team last season.

With that trio of early selections, Texas had more players selected in the first round than any other team (Kansas and Duke each had two). Since 2006, the Longhorns have seen eight of their players picked in the first round, also more than anyone in the country. During that same time span, Barnes’ boys have gotten past the second round twice and gone 9-6 (.600) in the NCAA Tournament.

This plethora of first-rounders should not be a reason for throwing Barnes under the bus though. That would ignore the fact that Texas had a stellar regular season. Before they lost three of their last five regular-season games, the Longhorns rose as high as No. 2 in the USA Today Coaches poll, won their first 11 conference contests and beat Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse for the first time in school history.

Any disapproving remarks about Barnes would also fail to recall the gauntlet Texas faced in the NCAA Tournament. After hopes of a No. 1 seed were squashed by a February skid that saw them fall to three unranked teams in 10 days, the Longhorns found themselves in a No. 4 slot many felt was an error on the Selection Committee’s part. Some experts also felt Texas’ first-round opponent, 13th-seeded Oakland, was also disrespected by its spot in the bracket and even picked the Grizzlies to pull the upset. When the Longhorns squeaked by with an 85-81 win, they were faced with the daunting task of facing Arizona’s Derrick Williams, the eventual No. 2 pick. Had Texas beaten the Wildcats, they would have gone up against the defending champion Duke Blue Devils, who featured the eventual No. 1 pick, Kyrie Irving, and two more heralded future selections — seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler.

Any claim Barnes is a mastermind of squandering superior talent would also forget the fact that Barnes has talented teams for a reason — he’s a top-notch recruiter and an awesome developer of talent. Thompson, who will join former Longhorn Daniel “Boobie” Gibson on the Cleveland Cavaliers, was the highest-ranked member of the high school class of 2010 when he committed after his sophomore season. But by the time he graduated, he had slipped to No. 10 (No. 17 on Rivals.com). During his short time at Texas, Thompson more than made up for it. He drastically improved on both ends of the floor, becoming a feared offensive threat and an incredible rebounder and shot-blocker.

Joseph, who played alongside Thompson at Findlay Prep, also made significant strides during his freshman season. He scored 10.4 points per game — fourth on the team — but displayed his ability to come through in the clutch when he hit a game-winning jumper to beat North Carolina in December. Most draft experts thought the San Antonio Spurs reached to make Joseph their first-round selection. But when you consider that the Spurs are a franchise with a heavy emphasis on defense, it’s not much of a surprise they went with a guy that would be a defensive asset.

Hamilton likely best illustrates Barnes ability to shape elite college basketball players. In his freshman year, the 6-foot-7 swingman showed flashes of brilliance but also displayed horrendous shot selection and proved to be a defensive liability. Hamilton’s sophomore season went much better. He embraced his role as the go-to guy on offense without taking 25 to 30 shots and routinely guarded the other team’s best player. Hamilton also improved as a rebounder and a defender and was rewarded by landing in Denver after Dallas traded him.

Barnes gets both the blame for falling short in the NCAA tournament with his gifted team without getting any of the credit for having a gifted team in the first place. How else would Thompson have gone from top-20 prospect to top-five draft pick? How else would Hamilton have gone from someone who never met a shot he didn’t like to a pro prospect that a bunch of scouts liked? The answer is short and simple — Rick Barnes.