October 5, 2007

Not your everyday leader in the NBA, Matt Barnes was recently named a team captain for the 2007-08 Warriors. (Don Smith/NBAE/Getty)
To those outside the inner-workings of the Golden State Warriors, the announcement that Matt Barnes was named as one of the team’s tri-captains may have seemed very surprising; in fact, it may have seemed odd.

Barnes is not a superstar player and he is not a 10-year veteran with mountains of playoff experience. Rather, he was a training camp invitee and an admitted role player who was playing on a one-year contract. Like many aspects of a Don Nelson-coached team, Barnes being named a team captain isn’t a by-the-book decision.

But to the players and coaches of the Golden State Warriors, Barnes becoming a captain makes perfect sense.

"Matt will be a very good leader for our team,” said Head Coach Don Nelson, who also appointed Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson as team captains for the 2007-08 season. “He is a guy who earned the respect of his teammates through hard work and dedication. Nothing was handed to this kid. He has overcome a lot of obstacles to be put in this position and that is the kind of player you want representing your team. He plays the game with a passion and that is how I like for all of my players to perform. He can lead by example."

Barnes is a truly unique player in the NBA. A role player who in one year’s time has earned the respect of not only

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his teammates and fans, but also his 67-year-old NBA lifer coach. Barnes is one of the few “non-star” players in the NBA that has the stature to command respect from his teammates and the ability to be a vocal leader.

Off the court, Barnes is a friendly, funny and easygoing guy. He’s very approachable and he treats everybody he encounters with respect, and because of that he is a tremendous locker room presence. However, there are plenty of guys like that in the NBA, and being a guy like this in the league does not make you worthy of being a team captain.

What sets Barnes apart is his other side. His self-confident side. His edgy side. His ability to rally the troops. Barnes can be a leader despite not being a superstar because he has earned his teammates respect. To understand how he earned this respect in such a short time, you have to understand the road Matt Barnes traveled to get here.

After a solid regular season, Barnes rose to the occasion during the 2007 NBA Playoffs.
(Jed Jacobsohn/NBAE/Getty)
Originally a training camp invitee with the Warriors in 2006, the 6-foot-7 forward was not expected to make the team. His effort and performance during training camp and the preseason made it impossible for Nelson to leave him off the roster. He had earned his opportunity. What he did with that opportunity during the 2006-07 season was far beyond what most people imagined. His teammates watched this unfold. They admired it. They fed off it. They respected it.

“Last year was a blessing in disguise,” Barnes said. “If last year didn’t work out, I probably would be done with basketball. I took the tough road, thinking I can play and just needing a chance to do it, but it was really frustrating to not get that opportunity. But then I came here and Coach Nelson gave me a chance and the rest is history.”

That chance that Nelson gave him was one that four teams neglected to do in the prior three years. Barnes was selected by Memphis in the second round (46th pick overall) of the 2002 NBA Draft, but he never played a game for the Grizzlies. Instead, he spent his season of professional basketball with the now-defunct Fayetteville Patriots of the NBA Development League.

Barnes made his NBA debut the following season with the Los Angeles Clippers when he signed a 10-day contract with the club on Jan. 18, 2003. Barnes would stick with the Clippers for the remainder of the season, but signed with his hometown Sacramento Kings prior to the 2004-05 season. But his homecoming didn’t last long, as he was traded, along with Chris Webber, to the 76ers on Feb. 23, 2005.

Barnes wouldn’t appear in another game during that season, and another frustrating season followed when he was waived by the Knicks before finishing the campaign with a bit role back in Philadelphia.

During the 2006 off-season, Barnes pondered his basketball future and wondered if he even had one. He started to explore other options and considered taking an alternate career path – in professional football. Barnes had been a standout wide receiver at Sacramento’s Del Campo High School, earning All-American honors during his senior season in which he led the nation with 28 touchdowns.

As the 2006-07 season went on, Barnes continued to earn the respect of his teammates. (Glenn James/NBAE/Getty)
Barnes was contacted by a handful of NFL teams that were willing to offer him a tryout, but in the end, he decided to give basketball one more shot. Upon signing with the Warriors, he quickly felt comfortable with his decision. He was back playing with former college teammate Baron Davis, he had an instant chemistry with several other teammates and he was playing for a coach that gave him the freedom and the confidence to play his own game.

“I bounced around three or four teams,” he said. “I felt the whole time I was good enough to play, but there were reasons here and there that the coaches and staff felt I wasn’t. Coach Nelson believed in me and gave me an opportunity to play and I really tried to take full advantage of that.”

Taking advantage is exactly what Barnes did last season, averaging career-highs in points (9.8), rebounds (4.6), assists (2.1) and minutes (23.9). Barnes played in 76 games and he matched his three-year career total with 23 starts last season. But his impact stretched far beyond the statistics. It was more of the fact that he played through pain. During the 2007 Playoffs, Barnes held his own despite suffering from a pair of tweaked hamstrings and a fractured finger on his shooting hand.

Barnes, perhaps more than any other Warrior, plays the game with a tremendous sense of motivation. He’s not the most skilled player on the team, but he maximizes his potential with his all-out effort. And when he went up against his former teams, he raised his game to another level. He had a pair of 30-point games last season, torching the Kings for a then-career high 32 points on Dec. 12 before upping that mark to 36 points against Memphis on Jan. 3. In addition, he tied what was then a franchise record by knocking down seven three-pointers during a 25-point night against Philadelphia on Dec. 26.

Barnes’ three-point shooting was a revelation last season. Just 10-for-50 in his career from behind the arc heading into the 2006-07 campaign, Barnes was a legitimate three-point threat with the Warriors (106-for-290, 36.5 percent).

With Barnes showing tremendous improvement, Nelson and Warriors Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Chris Mullin were more than happy to have the versatile forward return to the club this season.

With his gritty style of play, Barnes quickly became a fan favorite at ORACLE Arena during the 2006-07 season. (Jed Jacobsohn/NBAE/Getty)
“We're extremely pleased to have Matt back with us," Mullin said upon re-signing the free agent forward in August. "He was a key contributor to our success last season and we anticipate that he will play a vital role with our club again during the upcoming season. The intangibles that he provides our team – energy, hustle and effort – are a tribute to his work ethic and have certainly aided his development as a player. Plus, he is a very good fit for our team."

Barnes wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“It’s very exciting,” he said. “I’m blessed and very happy to be back here with Golden State, very happy to have another opportunity to play for Coach Nelson. He’s a great person and the best coach that I’ve ever played for.

“I would love to finish (my career) here. We have a great team, a great coaching staff and I’m in a great city. If I have the opportunity to finish my career here, I’ll take it.”

If the team’s recent actions are any indication, the Warriors would be welcome to the idea of Barnes being part of the team in the long term. Along with being named a team captain, the trade of Jason Richardson to Charlotte should result in Barnes taking a more prominent role with the club this season.

“J-Rich was a really good friend of mine so it was really tough to see him go,” Barnes said. “But as far as him leaving, it’s definitely going to open up more minutes for me. You’ll see more shot attempts from me and more of a leadership role on this team because J-Rich was one of the main leaders. With him gone, I feel confident and comfortable stepping up and trying to be one of the leaders on this team.”

Being a leader isn’t the only challenge Barnes will face this season. One of the areas he focused on during the off-season was improving his ball-handling and mid-range game, but more than anything else, Barnes is out to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke.

“Some guys have one good year and fade away,” he said. “I’ve worked too hard to get here and it’s took me too long to just fade away.”

With the pieces the Warriors have puzzled together for this season, Barnes is confident that they won’t be sneaking into the playoffs this year. Rather, he plans on competing at or near the top of the Western Conference.

As for his individual play: “If I don’t start, I’d like to try to win Sixth Man of the Year,” he said. “And whenever I’m on the court, I’m just going to give it my all.”

Go ahead and doubt him, and then see what happens.

For the latest news on the team, visit Warriors Training Camp Central.