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Harrison Barnes on the Trade Deadline, COVID Protocols, and His Career Season

The Kings forward is in the middle of his most efficient season ever, which has caused his name to get mentioned in plenty of trade rumors. Last week, he spoke about how he’s handling that, new habits he picked up in quarantine, and more.

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Harrison Barnes has done so much reading this season that he’s had to keep a running list of the books he’s burned through on his phone, complete with pictures of each one. The Kings forward has used reading as an escape from this tumultuous NBA season, finding solace by burying his head in everything from novels to memoirs to self-help books.

But though the past few months have been tough off the court, Barnes is having one of the better seasons of his career: His effective 56.4 field goal percentage is a career high, as is his 3.5 assists per game average. The Kings, however, are 15-24. So it’s no surprise that Barnes’s name has been mentioned in plenty of trade rumors over the past few weeks, putting him in what he says is a familiar position. Barnes has been traded before. But this season it feels like he’s not just a contract teams want to get rid of. He’s a player whom potential playoff teams really want.

I caught up with Barnes last week to talk about the work that’s gone into this season, how tough it’s been to build team camaraderie, his work off the court, and much more.

This has been a unique season, with all the COVID-19 protocols and testing. What has all that been like for you personally?

It’s been a different experience, especially with how we travel and how we move. Everything takes a lot more time—the extra hour waiting for the rapid test, testing on off days, testing on All-Star break, having to test every day. All the little things add up over the course of the season.

What do you think has been the toughest part for you?

The lack of team events. A lot of times during the season, you’re able to go to team dinners on the road or do team events. And when you’re at home—whether it’s a movie screening, going to Topgolf—just all of those little things that allow you to build team chemistry. And this year has been very different. Not saying that you can’t still do activities that are socially distanced and appropriate, but it’s just much more difficult to do those types of things.

What are some of the things you guys have been able to do?

That’s a great question. Socially distant ballroom hangouts? And watch games in socially distanced ballrooms on the road. And … that’s pretty much it.

I’ve talked to a few players about the huge amounts of downtime players have on the road now. I’m wondering what you have been doing to fill that downtime, since you guys aren’t doing these team-building activities or hanging out together.

Yeah, I mean for me, when it’s not, like, getting treatment, watching tape, and things like that, it’s a lot of reading. That’s what I try to spend my time with. [With] rapid tests in the morning, you have 45 minutes, an hour every day [of waiting]. We’re just gonna be sitting there. So I try to lock in an hour of reading a day to make the time more productive, whether I’m reading a newspaper, a book, or listening to podcasts or an audiobook or whatever it may be. I think those are the types of things. I try to keep my mind active.

What have you read this season?

One was called Heavy [by Kiese Laymon]. That was really good. Another one was Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. Another one, The Nickel Boys. Another one was called Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke. I just finished Green Lights by Matthew McConaughey, which was phenomenal. And then, I’m currently reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

When you’re out there on the floor, do you feel like the quality of the game is different because of the protocols and lack of team-building activities?

I think the quality has actually increased. I mean, if you look across the league, look at how many teams and players are scoring, having career nights. Just like every single time you pull up the NBA app, it’s like somebody is doing something remarkable. And I think a lot of that is really just all of the limited distractions and all the isolation. Now the flip side of that is, how do you get back to normal activity [and still have] these performances?

You guys haven’t had fans in Sacramento so far this season. When you go around the league and you play against other teams that have fans, do you feel the difference?

We had fans when we went to Houston earlier this year, right around New Year’s. And there couldn’t have been more than 3,000 fans in there, and those 3,000 fans honestly sounded like 20,000. Just because it was the first time that you actually had some type of atmosphere. And it was so, so different. I think the toughest part that I’ve seen is when you start off a game slow because your team doesn’t have energy. Guys feel that rush, they feel that adrenaline right when you’re getting ready to do the jump ball and the crowd is going crazy, and you can feel that tension in the air. But a lot of times now, with us, we’ll come out flat. And it’s like, if we don’t have that energy from within our team, from within the players that are on the floor, we’re not getting it from any type of environment that is in the area that night.

You’re having one of the most efficient shooting seasons in your career, and your assists are also at a career high. What do you think has led to the type of season you’re having?

Over the past two years, I’ve really just been putting in a lot of work in the offseason with my development coach Noah LaRoche. We’ve been working very hard to just try to improve my all-around game, see what areas I need to improve, and just how to be effective with the touches that you have. A lot of times it’s easy to look at tape and say, “Well, if I’m shooting, you know, 40 percent, I just need to get more shots to be more productive.” But it’s more about how can you maximize the touches you have? How can you maximize your off-ball movement? How can you maximize defensively and try to create extra possessions offensively? How do you get extra rebounds to try to get your team more possessions?

I’m always curious what players’ training regimens look like and how the things they focus on over the summer evolve throughout their career. How do you feel like your priorities or goals have shifted in that way?

Noah does a great job of putting players in positions to just think differently and not [do] your traditional workout. It’s “How do you make these reads? Let’s look at tape—OK, based off this tape we’re going to work on this today.” And so everything has a rhyme or reason, so that when it all comes together, it’s right. Whether it’s just going out there and playing pickup, or going out there and practicing, or a game, you start to put together all the little “guide rails” as he calls them into practice.

You’ve been traded before in your career. With the trade deadline coming up, is there a way you prepare yourself for the possibility of being traded?

As a veteran in the league, ever since my first year, I don’t think there’s been a deadline or an offseason in which the conversation about me being traded has not come up. And it is one of those things where that’s just a part of the business. There’s always going to be the possibility. Now, whether that possibility is more realistic or more of a dream, that’s for the GMs to decide. But for me, I think the biggest thing I try to do is just always stay prepared or ready to adapt. If I’m in Sacramento for the rest of the season, that’s great. If I get traded to another situation then, you know, I’m gonna try to be the best player I can be in any situation. A lot of these things are out of my control, but the things that are in my control, you try to make peace with that.

You said you’re always in that conversation, but it seems like this year, you’re someone teams are going after because of the way you’ve been playing. Does that feel different, or validating in some way, to feel like the teams that want to trade for you have playoff expectations?

I mean, it’s always nice to be appreciated. The biggest thing is it’s validation for the work that you put in. When you come into an offseason, you’re coming up with a plan of “How do I want to get better?” and “These are the things I want to work on.” It’s good to have those things affirmed by this and to know that this is working. My goal and my focus is to continue to get better, to continue to try to improve, and not be complacent and try to always figure out ways to be more productive and more efficient.

Obviously if you get traded, you’ll have to uproot your life in the middle of the season, and it feels like this year it might be even harder to do that. How do you deal with that aspect of it?

So nine years in the league, I’ve had to switch teams in the offseason and I’ve had to switch teams at the last minute in-season. So I’ve seen both sides, and I know how that can work. There’s a challenge and a difficulty. But like I said, a lot of that is out of your control. There were times when I thought I would get traded and I didn’t, and times when I didn’t think I was going to get traded and I did. It happens that way, but the biggest thing is you just have to be ready to adapt. And once it happens it’s “How do you keep thinking and moving forward?”

The way contracts are viewed in the NBA changes so much from year to year. One year a contract might be maligned, and then two years down the road it’s suddenly extremely tradable. Given that your deal was once viewed as an overpay and now teams want it, is that something you think about at all?

So much of why you get paid is [based on] what your projected value is going to be, what your projected growth is going to be, how are you going to get better as a player, and how this number is going to factor into the cap. All those things are up in the air. No one can say “This person is going to increase by this much, at this rate,” right? No one knows. And so for me, my focus is always on continuing to get better, because there was a lot of people who weren’t happy with my first contract, a lot of people who are probably still not happy about my current contract. But at the end of the day, the goal and the focus is to get better to be productive for your team, and to help your team win games. There will be people who like your contract this week and don’t like your contract next week, but you know you can’t live for the opinions of others.

Related to that, has your relationship to social media or the reaction around you and the team changed as you’ve gotten older and spent more time in the league?

I think that you’re always going to be aware of the chatter, the criticism, the praise—all those types of things that happen on social media. But I think social media, in terms of the NBA, is a microcosm of a close game. If you go through and you look at just the reactions on Twitter on your feed during a game in which you were down, your guys battled back, and you won at the last second, it would go from “Trade all of these guys” to “I really love how we fight and grit of our of our team,” right? You can’t control all that stuff. It’s always going to be an “as the tide goes” type of mentality. ...

As I’ve gotten older, I try to limit my social media until after a game or after a practice just because it can be really time consuming. You can always get into a rabbit hole and just get stuck in the vortex of randomly scrolling, randomly reading different threads. You’re like, “OK this is not productive.” That’s why I’ve been able to read more actual books this year because I’ve been on social media less.

You’re now more than a few years removed from your time with the Warriors. How do you look back on your years there, and where do you see the team going from here?

The Warriors will forever be my foundation in the NBA, and a lot of those relationships with those guys I still have and will have for the rest of my life. The franchise is built around Steph [Curry], his development, and his ability as a unique superstar, to not only make his teammates better but the way in which he makes his teammates better. He doesn’t have to be loud, he doesn’t have to be in your face, but his game and his character speak and really carry and move that team forward. They won three championships, but where it goes from here, your guess is as good as mine. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle that moving forward, because Steph is still playing at an MVP-type level. You got Klay [Thompson] there, you have Draymond [Green] there, but you have younger pieces. So them trying to speed that timeline up will be interesting to see.

You had a front-row seat to those Steph years, and you mentioned how he’s playing at an MVP level now. How do you think he’s been able to do that?

A lot of people may have forgotten just how good he was because he was hurt last year, but you can tell by the way he’s playing that he’s just really motivated, not only to win, but to also remind people of who he is.

I wanted to ask you about your involvement with the League of Financial Freedom. Can you tell me how that came to be and what your motivation was behind helping out with that?

You know, when I first heard the idea of Goalsetter, it just seemed like a no-brainer to be able to give kids the opportunity to have money in a savings account, to be able to learn about financial literacy and have the opportunity to really have tools and knowledge that they’re going to need for the rest of their life. There’s not a point where you say, “OK, I know everything about financial literacy, I know everything about investing and saving and spending that I don’t really need to learn anymore.” I’m 28, I’ve had tons of conversations since I’ve been in the NBA, and I’m still learning things every single day—about personal spending, personal savings, personal investing. So to give those kids that opportunity to have the conversations early in life and to have that as a part of how they live, I think it’s very important.

I think there’s always the need to want to help your community, and especially when you look at the widening wealth gap between the Black and brown community and the rest of America, I think that’s very alarming. How do you go about changing that? What are the things you can do?