PHOENIX — About three weeks ago, Earl Barron sat at home contemplating whether at age 29 he should stick to his dream of returning to the NBA or just head back overseas where lucrative offers likely would have awaited him.
Barron sometimes wondered if venturing to the gym every day was “pointless” as he prayed for the opportunity that finally arose when Robin Lopez sprained his knee and the Phoenix Suns found themselves with a gaping hole in the middle.
“Deep down I said my time would come, an opportunity would come up and sure enough it happened, and I think it’s a great situation,” Barron said. “Hopefully we can continue to win and do some great things this year.”
Barron now finds himself as the starting center for the Suns — for the time being at least as Lopez heals — yet the strangest part for him is it’s not even a huge shock to go from out of the league to starting in a matter of weeks since he did the exact same thing for the New York Knicks last season.
Barron started six of his seven games with the Knicks, but for whatever reason never found a home this offseason despite averaging 11.7 points and 11.0 boards per game while playing 33.1 minutes per contest, time that has eased his adjustment due to the similar nature of Mike D’Antoni’s system.
“For the most part he’s got a pretty good handle on things,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “He spent time in New York and we basically do a lot of the same things that New York does and so it wasn’t such a foreign thing for him when he came in here, so he’s done a good job of picking things up.”
Added Barron: “I can’t say I’m extremely comfortable right now, but as I play more games and we get more practices I’m slowly becoming comfortable and they’re getting comfortable with me.”
Barron has not put up particularly gaudy stats in his last three games of double-figure minutes that includes his last two starts. He’s averaged 4.0 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 26.3 percent, but the Suns have won Barron’s 54 minutes of court time the last three games by 16 points, including his team-high-tying plus 10 in Oakland.
Although his 67 overall minutes of playing time make for an incredibly small sample size, only Steve Nash boasts a better unadjusted +/-, as the Suns are 14.70 points per 100 possessions better with Barron in the lineup than when he’s not, according to Basketball Value. Not counting guys who play less like Garret Siler and Earl Clark, Barron’s net unadjusted defensive rebound rate is best among regular Suns.
The Suns corral 68.2 percent of the defensive rebounds with Barron on the floor, which still is at the bottom of the league, but it’s a net of 7.7 percent better than their 60.5 percent defensive rebound rate when he’s off the floor. By contrast, the Suns only grabbed 59.5 percent of the available defensive boards with Lopez on the floor.
“I just think it makes us a little bit bigger team,” Gentry said of playing Barron. “We’ve struggled in that area right there, so I don’t know if it helps us per se, but the perception is that it makes us a little more active and gives us a little bit more size.
“His stats weren’t great or anything, I just thought that he got his hands on some balls and did pretty good defensively and things like that, just probably a little more of a presence. We’ll continue with that and see how it works.”
Barron’s addition may have opened things up a bit for Channing Frye during his 29-point explosion against the Pacers and his presence likely contributed to Frye’s rare double-digit rebounding game against the Warriors.
Barron has looked like a bull in a china shop at times, flailing around and missing shots you figure he can hit but also bringing that aggressiveness from a seven-footer the Suns have lacked since Lopez went down (and really before since Lopez has yet to provide much of a presence all season).
He’s a guy who can get a stud big like Roy Hibbert into foul trouble and help prevent opponents from killing the Suns on the offensive glass (the Warriors and Pacers combined for 16, only a few less than the Suns usually yield in one game).
“Earl’s come into that starting lineup and really done a great job of bringing energy and rolling to the basket,” Frye said.
It would be ridiculous to expect a guy on the streets a couple weeks ago to come in and save the Suns’ season. As Gentry likes to say about the impending return of Lopez, he’s not the cavalry, and neither is Barron. The Suns still face a host of defensive and rebounding problems.
But with his size and athleticism alone, Barron can make a dent by taking the Roy Hibberts of the world out of their games, providing a whirlwind of activity on the defensive boards and eventually knocking down that mid-range jumper.
“I’m just taking charges,” Barron said, “being active in the post, talking, communicating, letting guys know where screens are coming from, just playing hard, and that’s what I do.”
For this Suns team, that’s more than enough.
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