'Something to prove': Michigan commit Isaiah Barnes takes his game to higher level
Michigan commit Isaiah Barnes knew it was only a matter of time.
Despite being one of the top prospects in Illinois for the 2021 class, his high-major opportunities weren’t coming in at the same rate as the state’s other top recruits.
While some, like AAU teammates Max Christie (a Michigan State commit) and Bryce Hopkins (a Louisville commit), were receiving high-major offers two years ago, Barnes had entered his junior year at Oak Park and River Forest High with one Division I offer, from Illinois.
"Seeing a lot of guys getting the attention that I know that I know deserve really made me play and grind with a chip on my shoulder, like I have something to prove,” Barnes, who described himself as a late bloomer, told The Detroit News.
“Really seeing everybody getting their (offers) before me, it was motivation for me. I didn't really get down on myself because I know my work ethic and I knew that if I stayed the course that everything would work in my favor.”
Between his sophomore and junior year, he focused on getting bigger and stronger. He grew a couple inches — up to 6-foot-7 — and put on 15 to 20 pounds of muscle, pushing his weight up in the 180s. That helped him elevate his game in every facet.
But after a breakout year where he averaged 18 points and seven rebounds at Oak Park and River Forest, Barnes was still on a mission. He continued to progress and used the downtime during the COVID-19 pandemic to show schools he made a tangible change in his appearance and skill set.
“That became an important piece of his recruitment that changed people's perception that he can show up in a year,” Mike Mullins, Barnes’ AAU coach and program director for the Illinois Wolves, told The News.
“His part was to show that he was better, show that he got stronger, show that he was shooting the ball consistently. We always say we'll do our part and the players have got to do theirs, and I think Isaiah did that. He put in an awful lot of work. He committed to changing his body, he committed to continue working on his game when it would've been easy to drift away or be disappointed. Instead, he stepped up to the challenge and met it.”
In turn, Barnes’ stock soared this past spring he became one of the most recruited players in the nation. He picked up offers from Kansas, TCU, Maryland and Iowa in late March. Another wave of offers followed from Wisconsin, Georgia, Iowa State, Michigan, DePaul and Texas A&M.
In the matter of months, Barnes went from having one Division I offer to more than 10.
"It was all a blessing, don't get me wrong, but I knew my time would come,” said Barnes, a four-star wing who is ranked the No. 113 recruit in the 2021 class by the 247Sports composite.
“Did I know when it was going to happen? No. I'm not going to say that I was surprised, but it was still very exciting and I was very humbled by that experience.”
According to Barnes, he was first contacted by Michigan assistant coach Phil Martelli before coach Juwan Howard, a Chicago native, reached out and wanted to set up a Zoom call. During that video teleconference on April 26, Howard offered Barnes a scholarship.
After that, Barnes said he spoke with Martelli and Howard nearly every day. The more he spoke with Howard, the more his decision became clearer. He committed to the Wolverines on June 24, becoming the first piece of Michigan’s 2021 recruiting class.
"A lot of coaches don't talk to their recruits. I always hear from the assistant coaches,” Barnes said. “It's good to hear from coaches on the coaching staff, but the head coach is the coach you want to hear from and that'll show you how interested they are in you.
“With (Howard), it wasn’t even recruit talk. We had a lot of conversations on how he would help me become a better person, a better man. We rarely even talked about basketball. We didn't start talking about basketball until after I made the decision to come to Michigan.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Barnes couldn’t take an official visit to Ann Arbor. To this date, he still hasn’t been to Michigan’s campus.
While he could’ve held off on committing before seeing the facilities and meeting the coaching staff in person, Barnes didn’t feel the need to, citing his relationship with Howard, the school’s academics and the family atmosphere.
"There was nothing more I could've asked for,” Barnes said. “I really felt it with Michigan and I felt taking a visit really wasn't necessary because they had all I was looking for.”
Barnes will play his senior season at Chicago Simeon, one of the top programs in Illinois. He said he witnessed “a lot of racist stuff” at Oak Park and River Forest and there was “a lot of unnecessary things to worry about,” which prompted the move.
With his college decision made, Barnes will take his hunger to get better — "continue to polish up my handle, show that I can put it on the floor, create my own shot, create my own spacing," he said — to Simeon before his time at Michigan begins.
“We stress to each player that each person will have their own path,” Mullins said. “Everybody develops at their own rate physically and mentally. I'm sure there were times, including during the winter, when he’d have questions and look around. That's normal.
“As I told his family, it paid off. He became one of the hottest recruits in the country at a time where nobody even knew what recruiting was going to be like. That was his time. You get an opportunity and you've got to be ready, and Isaiah made himself ready to seize on that opportunity."