It’s been exactly five months since the Toronto Raptors turned heads and incited heckles from their fans who had made the trip a few hundred miles south to Barclays Arena for the 2021 NBA Draft.
At first, the team’s fourth-overall selection of Scottie Barnes — a lengthy 6-foot-9 forward out of Florida State — was unexpected, to say the least. With top-three recruit, star of March Madness, combo guard Jalen Suggs still on the board, Barnes was far from the obvious choice.
After 40 games in the NBA, it’s clear the Raptors knew what they were doing and everyone else was dead wrong. This phenomenon seems to be a constant with Nick Nurse and Masai Ujiri who have struck gold on numerous draft picks and undrafted free agents. Norman Powell (46th pick), Pascal Siakam (27th pick), OG Anunoby (23rd pick), Terence Davis (UFA) and Fred Van Vleet (UFA).
While Barnes’ performance at the college level didn’t blow anyone away — other than Toronto — it’s not uncommon that playstyle can sometimes better translate to the NBA game than college due to more spacing and faster pace of play.
That’s exactly the case for Barnes, who struggled mightily with his perimeter shooting, free throws, ball-handling, and decision-making. He shot 27.5-percent from three, 62-percent from the line, and his assist to turnover ratio was two-to-one.
The Raptors noticed that all these skills were there for Barnes, he just wasn’t playing to his strengths at Florida State. In the NBA, there is an abundance of space which allows Barnes’ to play downhill and use his length to his advantage. His defensive prowess allows him to turn steals into high-efficiency fast-break opportunities.
Barnes has become the prototypical player for the system that Nurse has constructed in Toronto — one that’s predicated on lengthy players with a high basketball IQ.
The Raptors play zone more than any team in the NBA and they use Barnes all over the court. What was most innovative was placing him at the top of the 2–3, where he can use that length to affect the initiation of opposing offenses.
He’s top-20 in the league in deflections, averaging 2.8 a game (there are three other Raptors in the top-20: Fred Van Vleet, Gary Trent Jr., and Anunoby). Barnes is one of two players over 6-foot-9 in the top-20.
Barnes uses his defense to create scoring opportunities for himself and others because he forces turnovers that turn into easy baskets. While his ball-handling and decision-making were questionable at the college level, Barnes looks like a completely different player.
In the open court, he’s become a freak of nature going coast-to-coast with ease.
Another wrinkle that Nurse has helped add to Barnes’ game is ball-facilitation. In fact, the Raptors have begun to use the rookie as their point guard. He initiates a lot of their offense from the perimeter, creating matchup nightmares in the pick-and-roll and finding his teammates on incisive cuts.
In a matter of five months, Barnes has elevated his game to a new level as the Raptors have discovered his strengths and played to them. The Raptors struck gold with the Florida State product who has a very bright future and is the leading candidate to win Rookie of the Year.