OAKLAND -- It remains to be seen if Warriors forward Harrison Barnes will be named to the NBA's All-Rookie first team sometime in mid-May. It's too close to call.
What isn't too close to call is who the best rookie in the first round of the NBA playoffs is. It's Barnes, and it's a two-handed, reverse slam dunk from every angle you look -- minutes, points, defense, and with that unforgettable high-flying Game 2 backward slam, dramatics.
"That was completely spontaneous," said Barnes, smiling. "When I jumped, I didn't even know I was going to dunk it. I just got up there and it happened. I didn't even look back to see if it went in. For a second, I actually didn't think it did."
But the phenomenal dunk only serves as an exclamation point to the fact that Barnes, as the highest-drafted rookie in the playoffs, is playing like it. Picking up the offensive slack for injured David Lee, he's almost doubled his regular-season scoring average of 9.2 to 17.0. He's shooting 56.7 percent. He's averaging 35 minutes. On all counts, no other rookie in the playoffs is even remotely close.
After his breakout 23-point effort against the Nuggets in Game 2, Barnes got off to a slow start in Game 3 at Oracle Arena. He didn't make his first basket until 7:05 remained in the second quarter, but still wound up with 19 points, seven rebounds, two assists and a block.
"He's elevated his game in the postseason," said coach Mark Jackson. "In these three games, he's been consistent and he's shown tremendous poise. I really do think he's just one of those guys who plays better when the lights shine the brightest and he's not afraid. He's been great for us."
It's the completeness of his game that stands out, particularly defensively. Barnes readily admits he was not a good defensive player until he fell under the tough-love tutelage of Warriors assistant Darren Erman, who continues to work with him every day.
"It's funny, when I got drafted, (Erman) told me I was the worst rated defender to come out of the draft," Barnes said. "The first very day I came out, I was dribbling the ball and shooting and he said, `Put the ball down. We're going to work on defense. You're a terrible defender, and we're going to make you better.' "
Jackson remembers that time well with Barnes.
"The thing I love about it, and he'll admit it to anyone who asks, he wasn't ready when he first came here," the coach said. "He put the time in every single day, on drills that didn't mean anything when he was doing them, but all of a sudden has put him in the position to be the player he is today. He's become a big-time defender, but it's the time he put in when the lights weren't brightest that allows him to flourish when the lights come on."
Barnes maintained he hasn't made a conscious effort of stepping up his game offensively since Lee went down in Game 1.
"It's probably just more opportunities," he said. "That, and the fact that this is the best time of the year. Growing up as a kid watching the playoffs, this is what you dream of -- getting in and seeing how far you can go."
Barnes is very proud of the fact that he's the highest-drafted rookie standing.
"When you're a player who gets picked in the lottery, you know you're going to a team that didn't make the playoffs," he said. "So you want to make a difference for the team you go to — improve the number of wins, maybe go to the playoffs, and we've done that. Now we've got a road win, we're up 2-1 in a series ... it's not just a testament to me being part of this team but the whole organization and the coaching staff changing the culture."
Barnes also gives Jackson considerable credit for not only trusting him, but also fellow rookies Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green, to contribute significant minutes in key situations.
"When you look at when the game's on the line and me, Festus and Draymond are all in the game, I know many coaches in the NBA wouldn't show that kind of faith," he said. "It just shows how much confidence he has in us. It makes you want to reward that confidence."