A call from an old friend (who just happens to play in the NBA) helped persuade Jonathan Barnes to conclude his college basketball career at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
In the spring, Barnes was struggling between UCCS and Kentucky Wesleyan. It was a tough decision. Barnes grew up in Parker, an hour drive from the UCCS campus, but for a time it looked as if Kentucky Wesleyan would win this recruiting struggle.
Then Derrick White called. White earned All-American honors and revived the UCCS program during his three seasons with the Mountain Lions. He finished his college days at CU-Boulder before becoming the Spurs' first-round pick in the 2017 NBA draft.
White and Barnes had played hundreds of hours together at a rec center in Parker. Barnes is proud to say White, who dunks on nearly everyone he meets, never soared to a dunk over him.
“It meant a lot,” Barnes said of the phone call from White.
A few days later, Barnes committed to UCCS.
“I’m just blessed to have another chance to play ball,” Barnes said.
Barnes is one of the more powerful players in college basketball, a chiseled 6-foot-10, 245-pound center who frightens opponents during games and teammates during practice.
But he’s also, even though he’s a senior, still reaching for his potential. He remains a work in progress.
He also remains a danger to rims all over the Rocky Mountain region. In October, a few weeks before the Mountain Lions season began, Barnes was dunking with a few of his teammates. He was flying high, and so were they.
But one of his flights featured a dramatic ending.
Let’s allow UCCS forward Justin Smith to pick up the narrative.
“He broke the backboard, tore the rim right off,” Smith said. “Everyone was just astonished. You see videos of Shaq doing that, but we’d never seen it in person.”
No doubt, he’s mighty. In practice, the Mountain Lions know to stay clear of Barnes and his massive elbows. He is, away from the court, a gentle soul who enjoys savoring books. On the court, he’s fierce. Get in his way, and you might be heading to the doctor’s office for stitches.
Barnes arrived at UCCS for what coach Jeff Culver calls, “a one-year deal.” He played three seasons at Wyoming before transferring.
“Physically there’s not many people like him at the Division II level,” Culver said. “He brings great positive energy for us. He has a chance to dominate.”
The dominating has not yet arrived. Barnes has scored a total of six points in the past three games for the 3-3 Mountain Lions.
Culver is not looking for Barnes to score many points. In his final two seasons at Wyoming, Barnes averaged 1.9 and 1.3 points. Culver is looking for much more on defense. He believes Barnes could grow into a fearsome presence as a rebounder and defender.
Barnes took a distinctive route to UCCS. As a home schooled ninth-grader in Parker, Barnes was 5-8. He grew 11 inches in a year, attracting the attention of Ponderosa High coaches. He eventually starred for Ponderosa but remained a home-schooler.
During UCCS games, Barnes is almost always standing. On the bench, he shouts encouragement to teammates and during timeouts he rushes out to slap hands. He’s never too cool to care. His jubilation is on full display.
The devotion to teamwork, he said with a laugh, comes naturally. He’s one of nine children, and he learned early the importance of striving for unity.
Culver is still working to find the best in Barnes, and often this working has included long stretches of bench time. Barnes declines to sulk. Instead, he’s the team’s tallest and loudest cheerleader.
“He never gets down,” Culver said. “He plays with great attitude.”
And, remember, he plays with a distinctive fury. Rims and opponents beware.
Culver has notified UCCS officials to have a fresh backboard ready at all times. You never know when Barnes might be carrying around a ripped-off rim.