Earl Barron only played a few times in his first few days with the Phoenix Suns and didn't make a real impression until he got into the game in Denver last Sunday. The seven-foot undrafted center, who left Memphis in 2003, had seven rebounds and four points in just 10 minutes of play and now has catapulted himself into the rotation discussion for a team searching for size and rebounding. Earl may or may not prove to be the answer the Suns are looking for, but his all-around game can't be ignored.
Barron's minutes in Denver came at key points in the game. With Channing Frye in foul trouble, he was able to be successful with both the starters and reserves, thanks to his activity and aggressive play on both ends of the floor.
"I'm just trying to be an active energy guy when I come off the bench. I'm trying to give this team a spark and definitely stay on the glass and try and get every rebound. I can score. I can make shots, but right now, I'm just trying to concentrate on the defensive end and helping my teammates out as best as possible and trying to get every rebound," Barron said about his role on the team.
Barron's game has a little bit of everything
Asked to describe his game, Barron rattled off his skill set with the easy air of someone who's gone through a lot of job interviews. He comes across as a guy who, at 29 years old, is mature and poised and understands what he can and can't do and knows exactly what the Suns are looking for from him.
"I'm all out the minute I step on the court -- taking charges, going for loose balls, going after every rebound. I'm not known as a shot-blocker, but I'm a great weak side defender and help defender. My shot's kind of off right now, but I'm going to keep working on it and it will start falling. Great pick-and-pop player.
"I'm not the most athletic guy in the world. I'm no Dwight Howard or anything. I think I'm a better help defender than one-on-one. I think I'm a pretty good one-on-one defender, but I'm one of those guys that's going to try and be in the right spots all the time in the pick-and-roll, in the rotations, everything."
Earl's reputation around the league is of a guy who's good at a lot of things, but not great at anything. He's improved his shooting and rebounding over the years, but struggles to finish around the rim when he does grab offensive boards. He can be inconsistent catching passes and defensively he has a hard time holding his ground against big, powerful players in the low post.
Earl agreed that he wasn't a good rebounder coming out of Memphis in 2003, but he's improved that part of his game and explained his approach to rebounding.
"It's all about effort and energy and that's just something I've always had and it's just something I've tried to concentrate and focus more on and just try and go after every ball."
Here's a few examples:
1) This was just a simple missed free throw box out, but Barron showed solid fundamentals pushing Chris Andersen away from the rim and then elevating with both of his long arms to grab the ball. It was not a flashy play, but the kind of solid big man rebounding the Suns need.
2) On this offensive rebound, Barron pushed Andersen under the rim and was in position to grab the ball if it bounced long. It didn't, but his little shove on the Birdman prevented him from cleanly grabbing the carom. When the ball hit the deck, only Barron had the presence of mind to quickly scoop it up while the Nuggets players just watched. Barron proceeded to dribble out of the lane and pass to Dragic for an open three. Barron got the rebound and assist on the play.
Earl demonstrated solid rebounding toughness in shoving Andersen under the rim and energy and tenacity in not giving up on the ball and then proceeded to show his skills by dribbling out of the paint before the defenders could trap him and then made the right pass. The combination of all three were notable on this play. Of course, he also passed up the opportunity to take the rebound strong to the rim, which is in character with his reputation.
3) Barron has made several nice hustle plays already with the Suns, keeping possessions alive by chasing down loose balls. On this one, Dragic got stripped of the ball and Barron smartly moved into open space so when Goran recovered the ball, he could easily find him. Barron caught the ball moving away from the hoop, but somehow knew that Childress had moved to the rim. Earl spun and fired a pass to Childress for an easy dunk.
Offensively, Barron is known for being a spot-up shooter with decent range, but in the Denver game he put the ball on the floor and attacked the rim from the free throw line and showed a bit more skill and handle than we might have expected. Here's a bit of that play:
1) Barron caught the ball at the top of the arc and dribbled across the court with his left hand to shield the ball from the defender.
2) Nene reached in to try and steal the ball, but Barron showed nice handle, spinning away from the pressure and keeping his dribble alive and immediately and aggressively drove down the open lane.
3) Seeing just one smaller defender in position, Barron picked up the ball at the free throw line and went hard to the rim with two long steps.
4) Barron probably thought Al Harrington would contest the shot and foul him, but Al backed off and Earl put up a running layup from about six feet that he was able to guide to the rim with his long arms. Harrington did foul Barron on the play but it wasn't called. Here's proof.
This play was impressive and not just from a skill standpoint -- although it was a pretty nice move for a seven-footer to spin away from pressure and drive the lane from the three-point line and finish with touch in traffic. Barron was on the floor with the Suns starters at the time and showed the confidence to be aggressive and take the opportunity presented by the defender's steal attempt. Most new guys on the court with Nash, Richardson, Hill and Turkoglu would have simply picked the ball up and passed it off to someone else.
Asked about this play, Barron said, "I can put it on the floor, too. Guys are going to crowd the big guys a lot of the time because in the offense, big guys are always swinging the ball and the guys making the critical passes.
"Denver did a good job of denying and pressuring us, so a couple of times, I had to put it on the floor a couple of dribbles and try to create for myself and for my teammates. I just try and do a little bit of everything. Basically trying to win, do whatever it takes to help this team win."
Right now, Barron is on a non-guaranteed deal that automatically becomes fully guaranteed for the rest of the season if he's on the roster past January 10, 2011. Earl said he's hopeful that if he takes care of his business, the Suns will keep him for the rest of the season. That means learning the offense and defensive principles, hitting the weight room, and working hard in and after practice.
After not getting picked up by an NBA at the start of the season, Barron said he almost took a contract to play overseas, but he had a good feeling he would get an NBA job. Several teams ended up being interested, but he's very happy to be in Phoenix.
"Of all the teams, I thought, by far, this was the best system. Everybody can shoot. Everybody gets out and runs. They have cutters, they have guys that can finish and a real unselfish team."
Earl considers himself one of many players on the "bubble" of NBA rosters, who feel like they just need the right opportunity. The Suns have had success with guys like that in the past. Louis Amundson, for example, bounced around for awhile before getting the chance to earn his way into the regular rotation. Barron is hopeful that he can carve out a niche for himself, as well, as a role player and regular rotation guy.
What they are saying about Earl
Head Coach Alvin Gentry
"He's done a good job for us and I think he's getting a little more comfortable in what we're trying to do. We'll try and use him more and take a look at him. We're open for anything.
"I think he's long, and he's competitive. He'll get in and stick his nose in and he's pretty good offensively. We'll see if that can translate into helping us win a few games."
Assistant Coach Bill Cartwright
"I think Earl's come in and made a really good transition learning the offense, learning our defensive schemes. He's a big strong kid and I think it's really going to give him an opportunity to play and show what he can do. I'm happy for him.
"He's played for some really good teams and some good coaches, so his concept and ideas defensively are really good. We'll see how it plays out. It's a great opportunity for him and let's hope he does well. As you know, our woes right now are our ability to rebound the ball and protect the paint, so he's going to have to take on the burden of that responsibility."
Injured Suns starting center Robin Lopez
"The really nice thing about him, he's really active out there. He can bring a lot of energy and a lot of physicality to the game that we need right now. He's been hitting the glass offensively when he's in and he's been doing a good job boxing out his man. Those are two things we definitely need. If he can make an impact himself and that can spread to the rest of the team, that would be a good thing."
Suns center Channing Frye
"You know, I didn't know anything about him, to be honest. Really, it's just about him bringing a lot of energy. He does a bunch of different things and I think he's hungry right now and that's what we need. We need somebody to come out and be hungry and just come out and play reckless. He's a jack of all trades -- he does a little bit of this, a little bit of that."
What do I think of Earl?
Earl Barron has a lot going for him. He's mature, experienced and professional and he certainly understands his role, which matters a lot to the Suns. He's got a great NBA body with size and length without being so big that he's not mobile. He's got range on his shot and more handle and vision than expected. He is active on the floor and looking to rebound the ball and he seems to make smart, quick decisions.
That's a lot to like from a guy picked up off the waiver wire, which immediately raises concerns. What is it about this guy that's kept him from sticking anywhere if he's got all these things going for him? In a league where Joel Anthony and Solomon Jones are getting minutes on NBA rosters, why not Earl Barron?
He clearly doesn't have superb vertical leaping ability or exceptional quickness and you could see where he might struggle defending some of the league's top big men (but who doesn't). The knock on him is that he's good at a lot of things, but not great at any one thing, but I don't see why that should keep him from being a contributing bench guy.
For the Suns, desperately in need of size with Robin Lopez down for several more weeks, they should play him more. A lot depends on match-ups, of course. He could be a better option against Portland's Marcus Camby and Joel Przybilla than against the Golden State Warriors front line.
If he does well and continues to impress, he has the ability to the play both the center and power forward positions, thanks to his range and handle. You could see a point where, in some situations, Gentry could play him on the floor with Lopez or Frye to provide a lot more front line size than the Suns normally have.
I'm looking forward to watching Earl play more to see how he handles himself defensively on the perimeter against guys like LaMarcus Aldridge and in the post against a Brendan Haywood. He seems to move well in a straight line, but I'm not sure how well he moves laterally when switched onto guards or wings and, most importantly, in the paint when protecting the rim from dribble penetration. Most important for him will be his ability to bring consistent energyoff the bench like Lou Amundson did for the Suns the past two seasons.
Any floor time Barron gets comes at the expense of other more established -- and higher paid -- players. To take minutes away from Warrick or Turkuglu or Frye and not create other chemistry problems, Barron is going to have to prove to his coaches and teammates that he can contribute.
He does not walk in with a track record of NBA success and therefore will not get the benefit of the doubt. He needs to earn his minutes, but with Lopez still recovering and the Suns desperate for help on the glass, Barron should have the opportunity to do just that.