Why Raptors' Scottie Barnes will be more than fine despite struggles

When the Toronto Raptors played the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 11, Scottie Barnes performed a magic trick, appearing and disappearing throughout the game.

Barnes shot 2-of-8 in the first half, settling for mid-range jumpers and looking largely disinterested on both sides of the floor, finishing with six points and two assists at recess. It was simply not enough with Pascal Siakam and Precious Achiuwa sidelined due to injuries, and the Raptors trailed 70-56 as a result.

In the third quarter, however, Barnes was a different player, repeatedly attacking his defender, Josh Giddey, who Barnes has a couple of inches and at least 20 pounds on. Barnes aggressively took it to Giddy’s chest, driving him under the basket again and again, and popping up for easy floaters and layups, scoring three straight baskets and getting to the line four times for nine points in the frame.

It was a microcosm of what we have seen from Barnes throughout his sophomore season: one quarter everywhere, the next quarter invisible. One quarter enthusiastic and energetic, the next quarter frustrated and despondent. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said “the biggest challenge going into the year was to have the enthusiasm that [Barnes] had last year, [when] every game he was a kid in the candy store,” and that has come to be true.

Barnes has been up and down, averaging 14.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game on 44/36/74 percent shooting through 16 games to start the season. He is averaging fewer minutes, fewer points, fewer rebounds, fewer free-throw attempts, a worse field-goal percentage, and more turnovers than he did in his Rookie of the Year campaign. And as a result, people have been quick to criticize the 21-year-old, with TrueHoop's David Thorpe suggesting he didn’t work hard enough this offseason and some fans taking to Twitter to go so far as to call Barnes a bust.

But two things can be true at the same time. One is that Barnes’ level of energy and aggression has been inconsistent, which needs to improve if he is going to reach his ceiling. That is ultimately on the 21-year-old to find techniques to stay engaged and locked into the game plan, like how Chris Boucher discovered meditation in his fifth season. And it is clearly a work in progress for Barnes, who is learning about the grind of an NBA season the hard way.

But what is also true is that regardless of the inconsistencies, Barnes is still a better, more well-rounded player this year. Even if the numbers are disappointing, the process has been encouraging. And for a 21-year-old being asked to do everything on both sides of the ball — and even more with Siakam out due to injury for more than two weeks — the process is actually what matters. It’s only a matter of time before the results catch up.

“You still see him driving to the basket. You still see him taking shots with confidence. You still see him getting into his one-on-one mode where he has a mismatch and he is taking guys,” Thad Young said about Barnes. “So, the confidence hasn’t wavered… Things will change. They always do...

“Scottie puts a lot of pressure and a lot of weight on his shoulders, and sometimes that can be your biggest killer. But I love that about him: that he puts a lot of stress and a lot of pressure on himself to be great and to be better every day. And it's only going to make him a better individual and a better player.”

First of all, what’s being glossed over in all of these discussions about Barnes’ production are the areas where he actually has improved this year, so let’s start there. Barnes is shooting 35.5 percent on his 3.9 three-point attempts per game, up from 30.1 percent on 2.6 attempts last season. Plus, most of the improvement on his three-ball is coming from above the break, where Barnes is shooting 39 percent up from 29 percent last season, helping space the floor for his teammates. If you isolate for catch-and-shoot threes, Barnes is shooting 40.5 percent on 2.3 attempts per game, behind only Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. among Raptors who have taken at least 2.0 attempts per game. For a player who was considered a complete non-shooter coming out of college, that’s a real improvement and it speaks to the work he has put in.

In terms of the playmaking, Barnes has seen his assists jump from 3.5 to 5.2 per game this season despite his minutes going down and his usage keeping relatively steady. His assist percentage is up from 14.9 to 22.1 this season, which puts him in the 94th percentile among forwards, which is even more impressive given that he shares most of his minutes with other talented playmakers. Meanwhile, his turnovers and turnover percentage have hardly budged, showing that he has been able to do more with less this season, setting up his teammates in the half court and in transition, and simply reading the game at a faster, more composed rate. The improved shooting and playmaking have helped the Raptors be 8.5 points per 100 possessions better offensively with him on the floor, the best mark on the entire team.

Defensively, Barnes has been unable to contain smaller, shiftier guards at the point of attack, but that role is asking too much of a guy who has always been better defending up the positional spectrum than he has been guarding down. Plus, Barnes has been better off the ball and in his recovery rotations after initially getting beat, better understanding the system and where the next rotation tends to be. The underlying numbers are encouraging, with the team being 2.0 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor, third only to Siakam and Christian Koloko.

Of course, it hasn’t all been good for Barnes this season. And some of those numbers are buoyed by the fact he was playing most of his minutes beside Siakam before the injury, when nobody was complaining about Barnes’ production. But that’s the other part of this — that’s where role and expectations come into play.

The idea that Barnes was going to step up into the primary scorer role when Siakam went down was always unrealistic. After all, we saw nothing in Barnes’ first year (or the start of this season) that would indicate he was ready for such a big offensive role right now. And even more ludicrous was the idea he was going to transition into a bigger role without any hiccups, which is exactly what we saw from him in the aftermath of Siakam’s injury. In the month of November (Siakam was injured Nov. 4), Barnes is averaging the same amount of field goals (6.0) as he did before Siakam’s injury despite seeing his minutes jump up from 29.4 to 36.0 and his field-goal attempts increase from 11.5 to 15, shooting just 40/27/71 from the field.

The problem for Barnes in a primary role is twofold: one is that he doesn’t have a reliable go-to scoring move at this point in his career. You think of Siakam’s spin move and all of the counters that come from that depending on how the defence plays it (mid-range jumper, floater, dump-off pass, etc.), but Barnes doesn’t have a go-to move to start from. The closest thing is probably when he drives at a smaller defender, shooting 50.9 percent on 6.1 drives per game, but the way Barnes drives is so physically taxing it is unrealistic to ask him to do it every time down the floor, even if it would be beneficial for him. Part of the maturation process is going to be learning what he does well and doing it over and over until the defence adjusts.

The good news is Barnes already has the playmaking down, which is usually the most difficult part for young players to master. So, once he develops a more complete scoring package and begins to see double teams, there should be little adjustment making the right reads to make defences pay.

The other issue with demanding that Barnes take more shots and score more is that’s simply not who he is. After all, we are talking about a guy who gets more joy from no-look passes than he does from dunks; a guy who has “PG” in his Instagram bio.

Barnes was in the perfect role when Siakam was healthy, acting as a secondary playmaker, transition menace, and backup point guard in small doses. All of it played to his strengths of setting other teammates up and only scoring when the opportunity presented itself. Now, however, he is higher on the opposing team’s scouting report and being challenged to score first and play-make second, and that is simply not in his nature.

You could argue Barnes will eventually need to make that mental switch from being a playmaker to being more of a scorer in order for the Raptors to reach their ceiling. LeBron James did it, but several other stars have tried and failed, including Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry. For now, though, asking Barnes to change the way he has always played in the middle of a season and demanding results is simply unrealistic, no matter how talented he is.

The good news is Barnes wants to be The Guy, and that’s one mindset switch he will never have to make. Where other players might back down from the challenge, Barnes wants all the smoke, even if there will be some mistakes along the way.

“I don't back down from it. I really embrace it.”

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