The Marvelous Barnes
On March 29, 2021, the Raptors lost their 4th game of the season to the league-worst Detroit Pistons, their 3rd of the past month. They fell to 18–29, and the very last dregs of hope for the season evaporated in front of the rows of empty seats in Lil Caesar’s Arena. Grasping desperately for any iota of positivity, I opened Youtube and started looking for 2021 NBA Draft prospects. If there was anything that an embarrassing loss like this couldn’t take away from us, it was the high draft pick we were careening towards. I combed through videos from various content producers about the myriad of prospects that could go in the Raptors pick range. Keon Johnson, Moses Moody, Jalen Johnson, Davion Mitchell, a lot of interesting names with pretty standard, easy-to-translate skillsets– hard to go wrong. I figured with the pick the Raptors were getting, they’d look to grab a project player with good defensive traits and develop him within their system for a few years, the classic and super-effective 905-bench piece-starter pipeline. All of the players clearly had a lot of talents but would need to reach an entirely new level to really perform in the NBA. I shrugged and watched one more. A tall, lengthy point-forward out of Florida State University with a huge motor and intense personality, Scottie Barnes. The tape showed him running out to a fastbreak dunk and screaming at the top of his lungs. Ok, I’ll keep an eye on him.
It’s always interesting to recount, as a fan and self-admitted casual, how my draft predictions turn out once the rookies are able to play. For instance, I was super confident from very early in his season at Kentucky that Shai Gilgeous Alexander would be a star. A very correct prediction I only bring up as a diversion, not unlike a pronounced cough which belies a quiet fart, which would be my draft misevaluations. Prospects like Kevin Knox, Sekou Doumbouya, Jarrett Culver and Mo Bamba who could never quite find their niche to fill. When the Raptors drafted Scottie, I was hesitant, to say the least. It’s usually easy to be bullish on whoever the Raptors draft as their track record for player evaluation is as good as any other successful team, but passing up on an exciting guard in Jalen Suggs to seemingly reach for a project player was scary. Apart from this year, the Raptors hadn’t drafted as high as 4th overall since the Bryan Colangelo regime– it’s a rare opportunity to select such high-level prospects for a stable and effective organization. The boom-or-bust potential of Scottie was a daunting return. With his unreal athleticism and measurables combined with a versatile skillset, Scottie clearly had gobs of potential, and the Raptors were a perfect destination for him to capitalize on it. They’d already brought in lengthy, versatile forwards in Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, both of whom hadn’t shown nearly as much promise as Scottie did as a prospect. However, neither of them had been evaluated so harshly pre-draft as to call them “zero-level scorers” either. Scouts were so unimpressed by Barnes’ offense that he was considered likely unable to score reliably in the NBA at all, and it didn’t look like that was about to change.
Despite apprehensions, Scottie was a likable character from the very moment the Raptors drafted him. He stood up to pump his fists and dance in celebration while wearing the absolute coldest draft fit of the evening, a symbolically white turtleneck and jacket combo accented by the red Raptors hat. That night, Nick Nurse took an interview to explain the pick, fully confident and quite convivial, as though he had made the call himself. As much as Nurse was complimentary of Scottie’s overall game, the big thing he seemed to emphasize was how likable and interesting of a person he found Scottie. It’s hard to always take solace in that as a fan, as much as you might like a guy for giving great interviews or doing admirable stuff off the court– if he can’t play, you won’t want him on your team. Scottie had to put in the work to round out his game. It was clear, though, that not only were the front office and coaching staff of the same mind in this pursuit, so was Scottie himself.
Now, about a third of the way into the season, ScottieMania has taken full effect. The Raptors asked him to do a lot from very early on, logging over 36 minutes a game, good for ninth in the entire league. In that time, you’ll see Scottie playing a variety of roles for the team; sometimes he’s bringing the ball up and initiating offense, or posted up, or he’s cutting, or he’s in the corner, and even creating shots in isolation. But somehow, against all expectations, Scottie is scoring well in all of these spots. At 15.6 points per game (at the time of my writing), he’s first in the league amongst rookies, and he’s doing it very efficiently from all areas. Already he’s fully counteracted the label of zero-level scorer to become potentially the Raptors’ most versatile offensive option. The biggest individual skill improvement he’s made has undoubtedly been the jumper, originally considered a big-time problem area for him. Even from his first Summer League game, this was clearly something he had both worked on since college and was continuing to work on in the NBA, and it has already paid out tremendously. It began as a surprisingly comfortable and effective midrange game, where Barnes could use his soft touch and high release point in combination with a few dribble moves to basically guarantee a good look. It would be promising and a good sign for him to even be attempting those shots so early on, but his efficiency on midrange jumpers has been genuinely insane. The league average percentage from midrange is typically in the high 30s, this year hitting at about 37.5 percent– Scottie Barnes is far surpassing this, shooting above 40% in all midrange areas and above 50% in the long-distance 2 point range. This, in addition to his strong post game, inside touch, and increasingly viable 3pt shot makes Scottie a deadly offensive threat, able to score with relative ease at all three levels of the court. Scoring so readily bodes well for Scottie as a potential playmaker as well. He’s already a deeply unselfish player, at times to the chagrin of the coaching staff who’re eager to see him attacking defenses head-on as much as possible. In truth, playmaking is the most promising tool in Scottie’s arsenal, as he’s already shown both a willingness and talent for diming that few rookies can emulate. While his assist numbers might not incredibly high, Scottie is frequently able to not only find open teammates, but pass his teammates open. With his ball-skills, creativity, and penchant for looking off defenders, Scottie’s prowess for playmaking indicates that there maybe yet another level he can reach as an offensive focal point, the type of downhill scoring playmaker who NBA teams have been able to be very successfully built around.
All of the offensive capability is certainly appreciated, but it’s only icing on the cake to Scottie’s defensive impact. At somewhere between 6’7 and 6’10 depending on who you ask, with good size, broad shoulders, and impressive lateral quickness to match, Scottie is built in the profile of some of the NBA’s most stalwart defenders, stingy ballhawks like Dennis Rodman and Draymond Green. His role as the point guard for FSU had him stepping out to defend college basketball’s premier ball-handlers from 94 feet, and that same ability to hound the ball out of almost anyone’s hand has been a staple of his impact at the NBA level. Even veteran ball-handlers prefer not to go right at the wall of Scottie, lest they risk exposing the ball to any space where his exceptionally large hands might be able to pick at it and cause a turnover. At the same time, his impressive wingspan and core strength allow him to hold his own against quality NBA big men like Domantas Sabonis and Montrezl Harrell, and although it’s not yet the ideal spot for him to guard, it’s an encouraging sign of his ability to play up for his size, rather than only down. Nick Nurse has always preferred to play a switch-heavy style in which wings take on a variety of match-ups, and Scottie has slid right into it like a glove full of butter. While the Raptors defense as a whole has been hit-or-miss this season, Scottie has already shown himself to be a plus defender most nights, and a one-man wrecking crew when he’s fully engaged. On his best nights, he’s even shown an impressive ability to block shots from the weak-side, compensating for a dire lack of rim protection throughout the roster. Stuffing the stat sheet and playing good defense are not always mutually inclusive, but Scottie shows a rare level of capability for both aspects, especially for such a young player.
So displaying all of this upside, how good can Scottie Barnes really be in the NBA? Is he in the Zion-LaMelo-Morant tier of young players, where the flashes of a strong rookie season translate into almost immediate ascendance into stardom, is he a good role-player in the perfect spot, or is he somewhere in the sweet middle? My guess is as good as yours. We’ve precedent enough to put Scottie in any of these categories. In my optimism, I’ve chosen to believe Scottie is in or near the elite talent benchmark of his young contemporaries, but there’s certainly no guarantee that that’s the case. If he were to plateau as the player he already is, a versatile defensive wing with the ability to give you 16/8 on a nightly basis, he’d be an elite roleplayer that many teams would have been happy to grab 4th overall– and yet that would undeniably be a somewhat disappointing outcome, right? He’s shown the ability to do and be so much more, and while some of the attributes of his game may not prove to be as effective in the long-run, his go-to moves already look nigh unguardable. What will really determine Barnes’ future with the Raptors and in the NBA generally will be the type of mindset he plays with. Without veering too heavily into old-head macho sports takes, there is a sort of presence of mind that the NBA’s best players have learned to operate with which is built through repetition and confidence. The mentality that tells Kevin Durant to pull up from the midrange with a guy in his face, or tells Giannis to point up for the alley-oop even when the distance seems physically impossible, or lets Steph Curry know that as long as he can see the rim, the light is green. Superstars are superstars because they know their game, and they are confident in their ability to do it every single night. Scottie Barnes has already shown off this type of confidence in spades– there’s very little hesitation when he’s attacking, especially down the stretch of games. Even against great defenders, great players, Scottie is keenly willing to make his presence felt on the court. Conversely, even when he’s using his energy to get everyone on his team hyped up after finishing a great play, Scottie exudes a sort of quiet sense of composure and self-assurance.
The only problem is, he can be very selective about the times when he really turns up this aggression due to his inherently unselfish play-style.
This can be viewed in two ways I think. The first is that Scottie plays that way because he just is that way, and his selective aggression is a symptom of the fact that he’s not really suited to the responsibilities of being a focal point on a team. This is certainly possible and remains to be seen. The second way is more circumstantial; Scottie is playing his way into a fairly established hierarchy of offensive production in Toronto, and is thus biding his time until he’s relied on to do more, either by growing more comfortable within the team and system or by a trade opening up shots for him. I think that the impact of playing with three (or two and a half, rather) NBA champions in Fred, Pascal and OG sets Scottie up to play a role in winning today, but grow into his potential overtime.
Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster, and the countless scouts and analysts that make the Raptors’ nearly infallible scouting and drafting department have seen the most wonderful fruit of their labor imaginable in Scottie’s success this season (Terence Davis and Malachi Flynn ignored for the sake of this piece). What was once a controversial grab with the fourth pick is now looking like potentially the draft’s best selection, and paying out dividends every time Scottie touches the court. It’s a testament to their hardwork, as well as Scottie’s work and desire to supercede the limits others have placed upon him. Since the championship run and Kawhi’s decision to leave, the Raptors have been a respectable organization without the talent or depth necessary to truly compete at the highest level. While they probably still have not assembled the full core of their next championship-winning team, Scottie’s success marks the first big step of the slow climb for the Raptors back into the upper echelons of their conference, and eventually the entire league.