- James Walker, ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter
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AMES, Iowa -- In the midst of farmland, snow-covered streets and single-degree wind chill lives the hottest basketball prospect in the country.
He stands 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan, has a silky-smooth jumper and handles the ball like a dream. In the paint, he collects dunks and rebounds like a toll booth collects loose change. Last week he showed off his vertical leap when his entire forearm hung above the rim for a tomahawk slam.
Introducing Harrison Barnes: basketball's next big thing.
If you don't know the 17-year-old Iowa native by now, you will next fall, when he suits up for the University of North Carolina. Barnes averages 27.1 points and 10.4 rebounds and shoots 64 percent from the field, including 43 percent from 3-point range, for Ames High School. The Little Cyclones (18-0) own a 44-game winning streak and are rated 17th nationally by ESPN RISE.
Barnes, the top-rated recruit in the ESPNU 100, is expected to be in attendance Wednesday to watch the Tar Heels host the rival Duke Blue Devils in Chapel Hill (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). For more than a year, both programs were in a recruiting battle for Barnes away from the court. Now Duke and North Carolina will face each other on the court with Barnes in the building.
Coach Roy Williams separated North Carolina's program from the others by challenging Barnes, and those close to the small forward know he doesn't shy away from challenges.
"[Williams] said he would work Harrison so hard that sometimes he's not going to like him," Barnes' mother, Shirley, said. "I think that appealed to me and that appealed to Harrison. He said, 'You know what? Let me check this out a little more.' That was one of the initial sparks and we started paying closer attention."
Barnes enjoyed the recruiting process. Despite hundreds of letters and phone calls, he remained thorough and organized.
By the end, Barnes said his decision to go to North Carolina was obvious.
"Honestly, I really didn't have a second choice," Barnes said. "It was that clear-cut."
There were 22 schools that Barnes initially considered. It was later reduced to a group of finalists, which included North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, UCLA, Oklahoma and hometown Iowa State.
Barnes tried to learn something from each visit and soak up as much information as he could to help him down the road.
"It was great for me to see how big programs do it and meet a lot of their players and see how everyone does something different," Barnes said. "The thing that sticks out in my mind the most is you always have to work hard.
"It doesn't matter what you did in high school. When you step on the college campus, they don't care about that."
A strong work ethic has always been a core characteristic for Barnes.
As a freshman, Barnes missed several free throws late that contributed to a loss on the road to West Des Moines Dowling. Bothered by the outcome, the then-14-year-old immediately left the locker room after the postgame speech and shot free throws until the bus was ready to leave.
Onlookers tried to talk to Barnes, but he ignored the distractions and kept shooting.
"I was just trying to get better," Barnes said. "Things that most irritate me when I lose a game, or even if I have a good game, is missing free throws and playing bad defense. Especially when you miss a lot and you lose the game, that just sticks with me."
Barnes is a perfectionist. He works on his game constantly before and after school. In the back of his mind, Barnes knows someone else could be doing the same.
ESPNU's top-rated basketball recruit still doesn't own a driver's license because "it's not a priority." At this stage, Barnes would rather spend his free time driving the lane than in drivers ed. He often hitches rides with teammates to and from practice, even if that means squeezing his 6-8 frame into the passenger seat of small cars.
"I've been getting rides for four years now, so I know how to maneuver around," Barnes said, smiling.
Barnes' endless dedication to his craft is paying off for the Little Cyclones, who haven't lost a game in nearly two years. Ames will try to win its second consecutive state title in March.
Among his teammates, Barnes is just one of the guys. He can dish out jokes as well as take them.
Two years ago, after the team lost in the playoffs, Barnes felt the team may have been too uptight. So before last year's state final, Ames coach Vance Downs came across a tape of Barnes singing on stage in elementary school and surprised the team by showing it before the big game.
Everybody, including Barnes, got a good laugh out of it, and the day was complete when Ames won the state championship.
"Harrison was good about it and laughed at it, and that was really good for our team," Ames center and teammate James Kohler said. "At the time, he [couldn't sing]. But he's getting better at it."
Barnes also is an honor student and runs a weekly Bible study class. He can recite his favorite verse from memory. Barnes wants to run his own business, which is the subject he plans to study at North Carolina.
Barnes possesses a unique combination of on-court charisma and humility away from the court that has drawn praise from observers. He is quick to credit his teammates and the opposition in interviews. But when the ball is tipped, you can see in his body language that Barnes believes he's the best player on the floor.
"If I had five words to describe Harrison and I would say smooth, confident, competitive, focused and dependable," Shirley Barnes said of her son.
Last week against Des Moines Lincoln, all of Barnes' skills were on display. There is no wasted motion, and the offseason work in track is paying off as Barnes has a quick first step and his stride down the court is unusually fast for someone his size.
In one sequence, Barnes stole the ball under the opposing basket, raced past four Lincoln defenders, then made a perfect bounce pass to Ames forward Doug McDermott for the dunk. The biggest athlete on the floor also was the fastest.
"He's really unselfish," said McDermott, who signed with Northern Iowa. "If you think of some other guys of his caliber, they might be more selfish. But he is all about the team, which is really good."
Added Barnes: "I love playing this game, so I want everyone to be able to experience that joy. Just keeping everyone happy and having a good time out there keeps everyone relaxed."
Offensively, Barnes is the complete package. He has the body control to finish drives through contact and can hit jumpers from various spots on the floor. On Feb. 2, Barnes barely broke a sweat. He scored 22 points in a little more than three quarters of work as Ames routed Lincoln, 80-45.
"He doesn't let the defense speed him up, and he has a mature game," said Paul Biancardi, national director of basketball recruiting for ESPN. "He plays the game with an advanced maturity, and that's rare to be so good and to play with an advance maturity at such a young age."
Although he hasn't finished his prep career, Barnes already is considered one of the top basketball prospects ever to come out of Iowa, joining Raef LaFrentz, Kirk Hinrich, Ricky Davis, Nick Collison and fellow Ames native Fred Hoiberg. All of these players went on to have lengthy NBA careers, and the same is expected of Barnes.
Considering his size, natural athleticism and superior work ethic, Barnes is as close to a can't-miss prospect as there is currently at the high school level.
How high is Barnes' ceiling?
"Oh goodness, you could tell me anything and I wouldn't say you're wrong," Downs said. "You could tell me he's going to be as good as the best, and I wouldn't argue with you."
James Walker is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at JWalkerESPN@gmail.com.
With a complete game, an honor-roll worthy report card and an eye on the future, Harrison Barnes is as close to a can't-miss prospect as there is, writes James Walker.