By Rich Myhre
SEATTLE – Before Thursday night’s game, Brent Barry of the Seattle SuperSonics stood with a microphone at center court and recited a poem to help celebrate the new 2001-02 NBA season.
Barry’s clever little rhyme brought smiles to faces around KeyArena, including those of the visiting San Antonio Spurs.
Alas, none of the Spurs were laughing later. Not after Barry, the son of onetime basketball great Rick Barry, had played a significant role in helping lift the Sonics to an impressive 114-108 win.
The sharp-shooting guard, back in the starting lineup after playing from the bench much of last season, delivered 24 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and a blocked shot. He shot 6-for-7 from the field and 3-for-3 from the 3-point stripe. Moreover, he helped shut down his San Antonio counterparts, Steve Smith (11 points, 2-for-9 shooting) and Tony Parker (two points).
Barry’s effort followed another strong showing in Seattle’s season opener – 16 points, nine rebounds and six assists at Sacramento on Tuesday. Taken together, they are numbers that suggest Barry is off to the most productive season of his seven-year NBA career. He averaged just 8.8 points, 3.4 assists and 3.1 rebounds a game a year ago.
“Brent is basically a guy that will really make this team go this season,” Sonics coach Nate McMillan said Friday as the Sonics practiced for tonight’s game against the Utah Jazz.
According to Barry, part of his statistical improvement is due to increased playing time. He played 40 minutes in each of Seattle’s first two games after averaging around 26 minutes a game last season.
It is more than just minutes, though. In an effort to ease the burden on Gary Payton, Seattle’s point guard and best player, McMillan has adopted a new offensive scheme called a “two-guard front.” The idea is to give greater opportunities to more players, including Barry, Rashard Lewis, Desmond Mason and others.
For Barry, the new offense means more shots, more trips to the free throw line, and more assists.
“This is definitely a change from the last two years, where I was just waiting in the corner (for a pass and a possible 3-point shot),” Barry said, adding with his usual wry humor, “I knew every season ticket holder there by first name the last couple of years.”
The new offense, he went on, “gives a lot more opportunities for everybody to have the ball in their hands. This year I’m being asked to do some different things, as other people are. We’re doing things that are going to make us dangerous from a lot of different angles, and that’s the way a good team should play. And we don’t have to make Gary work so hard and we don’t have to rely on him so much.”
Barry came to Seattle from the Chicago Bulls in an Aug. 12, 1999, trade that sent Hersey Hawkins and James Cotton to the Bulls. The deal seemed a fair swap at the time, since Barry was still largely unproven and Hawkins was a solid, albeit aging player (Cotton was a throw-in). Since then, with Barry developing into a top player, and with Hawkins and Cotton both out of the NBA, the exchange seems a steal for the Sonics.
“I see Brent as a very intelligent player who hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he is capable of becoming,” McMillan said.
Barry isn’t given to making bold predictions, or to voicing his goals and expectations for this season. Though he is one of the league’s premier outside shooters, he says his primary focus is to become a better defensive rebounder. Always unselfish, he might well be this season’s assists leader among shooting guards.
The reason, Barry said, “is that I just like playing basketball. This is the best job in the world and I love playing in front of the fans here in Seattle. I’m excited to be able to go out and play a style of basketball that I’ve been waiting to play for about six years, maybe more, and I just want to take advantage of that opportunity.”