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Scottie Barnes has arrived.
Despite being labelled one of the more “raw” prospects in the 2021 NBA Draft lottery, with pundits questioning the Toronto Raptors' decision to draft him over Gonzaga point guard Jalen Suggs, the fourth-overall pick has impressed in the early going.
Barnes is averaging 16.6 points and 8.7 rebounds on 52.4 percent shooting through his first nine NBA games, leading all rookies in each category, on top of dishing out 2.4 assists per game. He’s thriving in a Nick Nurse system that prioritizes defence, transition scoring, and an egalitarian half-court offence meant to move the ball into open spaces and attack mismatches — basically all of the things that Barnes is good at.
In fact, if there is one player that the Raptors' new system best embodies, it’s Barnes: While the Raptors haven’t necessarily built around the 20-year-old (yet), they deserve credit for putting him in good positions to succeed. And he is succeeding on both sides of the floor, due in large part to his advanced feel for the game — his ability to process what is going on around him and make good decisions based on the context.
That’s rare for a rookie, let alone for Barnes, who came off the bench in his lone season at Florida State University. But Barnes doesn’t play like a rookie when it comes to his confidence and poise, his ability to play at his own pace, and his relatively seamless transition to the advanced size and speed of the NBA game.
“It’s one thing to know the path and it's very different to walk the path,” coach and TrueHoop columnist David Thorpe said about the NBA, citing a line from The Matrix. “It takes years typically [to figure it out]. Every once in a while, you’ll see a guy like Scottie that figures it out faster.”
So, Barnes is ahead of schedule. Here’s how he’s doing it:
Defence was always going to be Barnes’s most advanced skill to open his NBA career. At six-foot-nine, 227-pounds and a seven-foot-three wingspan and huge hands, Barnes is a multi-positional defender with the size and speed to guard all types of players and actions. He has already defended everyone from Lonzo Ball (point guard) to Jayson Tatum (small forward) to Dwight Powell (centre), staying disciplined enough to contest shots while being aggressive enough to average 1.9 stocks (steals plus blocks) per game, and largely avoiding foul trouble.
We use the term “versatility” a lot to describe defensive players and it can mean a lot of different things, including who a player guards, but for Barnes, it’s also how he guards.
In addition to guarding multiple positions, Barnes has the potential to be one of the best ball-pressure guys in the NBA (picking up the ball at half-court, guarding point guards, and getting his hands in passing lanes to disrupt actions), while also covering a ton of ground and protecting the rim as an off-ball help-defender.
That versatility is what makes his ceiling so high on that end.
Plus, Barnes is an excellent rebounder for his position, averaging 8.7 rebounds per game, dramatically improving the Raptors' board woes from last season and making it more realistic to play small-ball lineups without a traditional centre now that Pascal Siakam has returned to the fold.
Of course, as with any NBA rookie tasked with guarding the best players in the league, there is lots of room to improve. Barnes needs to better balance pressing up on his matchup aggressively without getting blown by, and his footwork getting around screens when the Raptors choose not to switch (which is rare, and goes back to the team playing to Barnes’ strengths), needs to improve if he is going to be tasked with fighting over screens and guarding great shooters.
He also takes too many risks, jumping into the strong-side action and leaving his matchup alone. But what allows Barnes to already be an impactful defender is that even when he looks out of place or makes a mistake, he can make up for it with his incredible motor and length, allowing him to contest shots when it looks like he has no chance of catching up. Plus, once he learns the NBA actions and understands the spacing more, Barnes will be more of a steal threat, a better help-side rim protector, and a ground-coverage monster.
Barnes’s transition playmaking is immediately his best offensive skill. He is so big and his strides so long that from the time Barnes picks up his dribble to when he needs to get rid of the ball he has four or five different options present themselves, and because he is such a natural playmaker with both hands, he tends to make the right read.
Plus, Barnes has already replaced Kyle Lowry as the Raptors' most lethal grab-and-go guy, throwing touchdown passes into the hands of running big men, and his chemistry with Siakam in transition could be special. Barnes is helping the Raptors score 23 points per game in transition, the fourth most in the league.
In the half court, Barnes has struggled a bit at finding his teammates to start the season, averaging just 2.4 assists and 2 turnovers per game. But he has shown a lot of good process, even if the results aren’t always there, reading defences and understanding where his teammates want the ball — sometimes even directing them to cut and open up holes in the defence.
It’s hard to blame him for some of the shots not falling.
The problem, according to Nurse, is that defences are playing him for the pass due to the way Barnes is wired, where he rarely looks at the rim for his own shot as a pass-first player. And because Barnes has never been much of a scorer, it’s going to take some time to adjust to his new role as a do-it-all guy in the Raptors offence.
“When he's got the space and a one-on-one matchup, he's got to put them in the rim until they stop him, right? Put them in the rim until they stop and do it over and over and over again,” Nurse says. “But that’s where we’re gonna start seeing him pass, his passing will show. Once he starts drawing other defenders, and that's again, that's just him being aware. He needs to be more aggressive... Then he’ll be in the paint, and we'll be firing them out to our open shooters.”
The most pleasantly surprising element of Barnes’s game to start his NBA career has been his scoring. After all, this is a guy whom The Athletic’s draft guru Sam Vecenie called a “no-level scorer as opposed to a three-level scorer,” who made just seven of his 23 attempts from the floater range in college, and whose jump shot was so inconsistent that scouts called it “broken.”
But through nine NBA games, Barnes is averaging 18.6 points on 52.4 percent shooting despite not playing alongside a lot of playmakers, with 69.2 percent of his buckets coming unassisted, by far the most of any rookie.
Barnes has succeeded by picking his spots and playing to his strengths, which right now is in the mid-range and at the rim, where 93 percent of his shots are being taken from where he looks confident, shooting 45 and 71 percent, respectively. Plus, with 24.2 percent of his offence coming in transition, where Barnes is scoring 1.16 points per possession, he understands that backtracking defences can’t contain him.
In the half court, Barnes is a generalist, doing everything outside of running pick-and-roll as a ball-handler. Despite not having a ton of craft as a ball-handler or a crazy first step, Barnes does a good job finding open spots on the floor and taking advantage of his size from there.
Plus, with much of the defensive attention focused on OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet (and now, Siakam), Barnes is benefiting from a system designed to take advantage of his strengths.
Barnes has been able to play a lot of one-on-one, often against smaller or slower players, and either shoot over them or post them up. With 3.1 offensive rebounds per game and 13.1 percent of his offence coming on put-backs — many of which are from his own missed shots — he is also scoring by attacking the glass.
Off-ball, Barnes has been put in screening actions and tasked with making decisions in the short roll, and he has been great as a cutter, finding open spaces on the floor to bail out his ball-handlers and to score from.
“At this level, they can't really help so much because you have so many shooters everywhere. The floor spacing is so much bigger, of course you're gonna be able to get to spots easier,” Barnes said about the increased spacing in the NBA.
The next test will be how Barnes fits in alongside Siakam, who recently returned from a shoulder injury and will likely return to being the No. 1 option with a lot of ball-handling duties.
Considering Siakam likes the ball in the post, that he doesn’t solve the spacing issues, and that he enables smaller lineups without a traditional centre to be played, Barnes will have to carve out a place in the offence beside him.
Regardless of what happens with wins or losses this season, seeing how the two fit is going to be a huge indicator of future success for the Raptors.
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