I remember the exact day I knew Matt Barnes would play in the NBA. It was January 12, 2002, and Barnes's UCLA team was hosting top-ranked Kansas at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins weren't that great - they were, after all, coached by Steve Lavin - and Barnes wasn't all that heralded as a player. He'd been part of a 1998 recruiting class that was rated best in the nation, but he was mostly an afterthought. The other four members of that class - Dan Gadzuric, JaRon Rush, Ray Young and Jerome Moiso - were all regarded as top NBA prospects. Many thought Barnes's future was in football.
It wasn't until Kansas came to town that Barnes established himself as an elite baller. He dealt ownage to a Jayhawk frontline that featured future pros Nick Collison and Drew Gooden, scoring 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting to lead UCLA to an 87-77 upset. He did work inside the paint and from beyond the arc. He showed handle, touch and an ability to use his ripped 6'7" frame to create shots. Anyone, it struck me, who could physically dominate some of the most sought-after prospects in the college game had a future in the Association.
Almost nine years later, Barnes has returned to the city that cheered his collegiate glory. The Lakers, with whom he signed in the offseason after turning down bigger paper from the Cavaliers, are his eighth NBA team. (Without looking them up, how many of the previous seven can you name?) Barnes isn't a star, but he's the type of player the Laker bench has lacked in recent years: dependable, experienced and competent. We'll be able to watch him check into a game without immediately wondering how fast the Lakers' lead will disappear. Just by not being repulsively bad, he's a huge upgrade on Josh Powell and Adam Morrison.
Barnes's best year as a pro was 2006-07, when he was a key contributor on that electric Golden State team. His production took a step back in 2007-08, after which he played out one-year deals first with the Phoenix Suns, and then with the Orlando Magic. His season with Orlando was probably the second-best of his career. He appeared in 81 regular-season games (playing 26 minutes a night) and all 14 of Orlando's playoff games (playing 23 minutes a night). His PER of 13.6 in the regular season is solid for a bench player and dipped only a point in the postseason. Advanced defensive metrics (such as his Defensive Rating of 103 and a dMULT of 0.940) indicate excellent performance at that end of the floor.
Just as important for projecting his performance as a Laker, the numbers Barnes posted in Orlando show his ability to flourish in a mid-tempo system. When the Magic signed him, there was some worry that his play wasn't as well suited to the halfcourt game as it was to the up-and-down styles preferred by the Warriors and Suns. In the event, he was about as efficient as he'd ever been. His Effective Field-Goal and True Shooting marks of 55% of 58%, respectively, were career highs. Playing, as he will with the Lakers, alongside other talented offensive weapons, Barnes cut down on his three-point and midrange attempts and replaced them with shots at the rim and free throws. Nice to see those trendlines heading in the right direction.
Role on the Team: Poor Man's Ron Artest. When the Ronster's on the bench, Barnes will be brought in to check the opponent's small forward. Last season, per 100 possessions, the Laker defense was 4.5 points worse when Artest was off the court. As a skilled and tenacious defender in his own right, and as a much better defensive rebounder than Artest, Barnes will shrink the size of that dropoff.
Offensively, Barnes and Artest have different skillsets. Ron is a more accurate outside shooter and isn't as turnover-prone, but Barnes is quicker, a superior offensive rebounder and far more adept at finishing at the rim. Matt's points will come from second chances on the offensive glass and by slashing through the paint in Triangle sets. If he can pick up the Triangle quickly - and it's not like he doesn't have experience learning new playbooks - Barnes will find himself on the receiving end of many sweet Pau Gasol dimes.
It'll be important for Barnes not to get too three-happy. From distance, he's not unlike Lamar Odom. They both make just enough threes to convince themselves they should shoot more, but not enough to make it a really efficient option. Both you'd prefer to see go to work in the key.
Best-Case Scenario for His Season: Barnes gets up to speed fast on the Lakers' systems and becomes an effective 18-minutes-a-night contributor right out of the gate. His play elevates the second unit and allows Phil Jackson to preserve Artest's legs. His shot selection continues to improve. As a third elite wing defender, he makes the Laker team D even stingier than it was last year.
Worst-Case Scenario for His Season: When your name has recently been in the news alongside the words "domestic violence arrest," it's not hard to imagine a worst-case scenario. The incident for which Barnes got pinched last month doesn't appear likely to cause him to miss time, but we won't know more until, at the earliest, October 18th, when he's scheduled to return to court (the judicial, not the basketball, kind).
For Matt, things could get uncomf if Sacramento prosecutors decide to press charges, which could lead to drawn-out legal proceedings and/or a suspension from the league office. Without question, he has to keep his nose clean from here on out. Whether or not he did anything wrong up in Sacto, a second arrest would infuriate both the Lakers' organization and David Stern. So let's do our best to avoid that, hmm?
What We Expect: Barnes is a fairly predictable player. His numbers don't swing wildly from season to season. And he's 30 years old now, so he's neither about to leap into stardom nor fade away because of age. There's no reason to think he won't be a durable, valuable bench asset for the Lakers. He should put up a PER in the 13 to 14 range across 75 to 80 regular-season games at a bit less than 20 minutes a night.
I'm a big fan of the Barnes signing, and not just because he's way better than recent Laker reserves. Barnes will help keep the Lakers hungry for another ring. He's never won a championship, he's never made more than $3 million in a season, and he's not getting any younger. He'll be motivated to come up with a big year, and his intensity in practice and the locker room should help keep everyone from getting fat and happy. He's the new blood a championship team needs to stay energized over a long, 82-game haul.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.