Rise & Shine
AMES, Iowa --- It's 5:45 a.m. on Wednesday as Harrison Barnes pulls up to Ames High School. It's still dark outside and the temperature on this chilly October morning is only 35 degrees. For the nation's top high school basketball prospect, this is just a regular morning and he's ready to get started on his daily routine of training, school and skill work.
Driven to be the best player in the country, not just today but well down the road, the 6-foot-7 senior has a strict regimen for his pre-sunrise workouts. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he works on conditioning. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are for weight lifting. And each day of the week features individual skill work or pickup games.
Despite not having a key to the school and all the doors appearing to be locked, Barnes has learned a few tricks to gaining entrance over the years and finds his way into the gym. Usually alone for his morning workouts, he shoots some free throws and waits for the morning's companion, an Ames freshman named Tony Davis who volunteered for the role.
"I don't know where young Tony is," laughs Barnes. "He must still be sleeping."
Not the least bit disturbed that the freshman is running late, Barnes begins to prepare for his morning on the track. While doing so, he talks about how his role on the floor is evolving headed into his final season of high school basketball.
"Right now, I think my position is undefined," says Barnes. "My ball handling duties will be increasing. I'm going to play some point along with the two, three and four. I'm going to be all over the place this year."
While it might seem lonely and cold in the Ames gym or out on the track, the 17-year-old enjoys the peace of working out by himself.
"It's pretty much every morning that I'm in here alone," he says. "I don't mind it at all. I like to do things on my own. That way I'm able to do things my own way and I don't have to worry about people trying to change how I'm going to do it.
"I guess I've just always wanted to be different like that."
There's no shortage of players who claim to be in the gym putting in the work as everybody else sleeps, but the reality is that few of them are actually cashing those checks that their mouths so willingly write.
For Barnes, the workouts were born out of the frustration of being knocked out of the state playoffs a little too early during his second year of high school.
"With nobody out here you really learn about yourself."
"I started my morning workouts after my sophomore year. The loss to Marshalltown got me going. I guess after my freshman year I didn't think that I'd be playing so much and have access to the gym like I was able to get."
That work paid off last year when Ames won a state title. Now, he wants another one to end his senior year. Not only that, he wants to be the National Player of the Year, a McDonald's All-American and as prepared for college as possible. It's not just wanting to win that drives him though, Barnes is also fueled by his critics.
"It helps when people criticize me," he says, while noting that one particularly critical review from last summer's LeBron James Skills Academy is pinned to his wall as a reminder that he still has work to do. "I'd rather have somebody give me one or two sentences of critique than a whole bunch of lines about something good. It's something that helps to motivate and drive me."
Just as Barnes is about to give up on his expected workout partner, Davis enters the gym. Frazzled, the young freshman apologizes for being late but there's no time to waste. Davis is immediately shown some drills and told to work on them on his own because it's time for the senior to hit the track.
By now, it's 6:20 in the morning. The sun is just starting to come up and the quiet morning is only disturbed by the sounds of a Midwestern city that is beginning to wake up and the birds that seem bothered by their tall visitor.
Today's plan is to run a series of 200-meter sprints. Ten of them. There's no set time to run the sprints in or mandated rest period. It's just line up and run, walk back to the starting point and run again.
"When you're out here by yourself, as long as you're tired when you hit the finish line - that's all that really matters," Barnes says of his conditioning work. "I want to be pushing myself, otherwise I shouldn't be out here.
Even though the sprints figure to work wonders for conditioning, they are just as much about mental preparation.
"I think it helps for mental toughness," he says, as he catches his breath between sprints. "Like the other day, I did six 400s. I mean, the 200 is fatiguing enough for me. During some of those 400s I could barely breathe. I thought I was going to die.
"Those mental blocks and pushing yourself through are huge. You hit the wall at 250 or 300 meters and you just have to find a way to push your way through it. It's all mental and trying to see where you're at. With nobody out here, you really learn about yourself."
The fact of the matter is that nobody would ever know if Barnes took a shortcut during his workouts. Who wouldn't be tempted to not run the tenth 200 or the sixth 400? After all, what harm would there be in that?
"That would be a matter of just cheating yourself," says Barnes, seemingly incredulous at the mere suggestion of cutting corners. "Nobody would know it but you. But there will come a time when taking shortcuts would catch up to you. It will always come back to get you when you are playing somebody that is just as good as you or works just as hard as you do."
Finished up with his sprints, Barnes heads back to the gym to check on Davis. Once again, he finds himself locked out as the trashcan that he carefully used to wedge open a door has been removed. This time, though, he runs into his high school coach, Vance Downs, who doesn't seem to like hearing another crack from his star player about wanting his own key to the school. Still, Downs opens a door for him, allowing a more traditional entrance than the one he'd used just an hour or so ago.
In the gym, Davis is dutifully working on his ball handling and has worked up a bit of a sweat. The reality is that Davis is just like any regular freshman basketball player. He's eager and willing to work, but he still has a long way to go.
But after putting him through some drills involving chairs, dribbling and shooting, Barnes can see that the work Davis is putting in is starting to pay off. Seeing this, he is pleased.
"It's good to be able to pass on experiences that I've learned over the years," says Barnes of mentoring Davis. "It doesn't make me feel old at all. It's just kind of funny. I always had mentors in my life and now it's nice to be able to be in that position.
"He approached me about it actually. It's been fun to watch him. One of the biggest things about basketball is confidence and it's good to see him getting some."
By now it's just past 7:30 in the morning and it's time to get ready for school.
(Check back tomorrow for Part II)