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Turmoil in Tampa took a toll on the 2020-21 Toronto Raptors and it resulted in the team's first losing campaign since 2013.
But as the saying goes, everything happens for a reason, and that abysmal season came with one heck of a silver lining.
It turns out Toronto would draft a 6-foot-7 franchise cornerstone capable of playing multiple positions in Scottie Barnes with the fourth-overall pick last July. It was the highest the Raptors had selected in the lottery since 2006, when they earned the top pick and drafted the greatest pasta endorser Primo had ever signed. It was also the first time since 2011 that Toronto had a top-five pick.
Fast forward to the spring and Barnes turned in one of the greatest rookie seasons in Raptors history. There aren’t many memorable rookie performances north of the border, with only Damon Stoudamire and Vince Carter earning Rookie of the Year honours. Although Barnes has made a compelling case for that same distinction, Cleveland Cavaliers freshman Evan Mobley is currently the betting favourite.
But Barnes has his eyes on a much bigger prize. The Raptors winning the NBA championship this season might be a stretch but Barnes is one of the legitimate reasons for why Toronto could achieve a first-round upset of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Let’s take a look at how the 76ers' dynamic duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden matched up head-to-head with Barnes in the regular season:
4:13, 6 points, 3/7 FG, 0/1 3PT, 3 turnovers (two games)
18:22, 10 points, 5/10 FG, 0/3 3PT, 6 turnovers (three games)
Barnes has the capability to seriously disrupt Philly’s stars. While Harden still got his points, he turned the ball over approximately every three minutes when covered by the Raptors rookie. As for Embiid, Toronto will likely need the help defence to come over much quicker if the goal is to strip him of the ball.
Here’s another interesting fact that might mean nothing, but could also mean a lot. While it’s true that Toronto took the season series 3-1, there’s a recurring theme in those three wins: Barnes. The only game the Raptors lost to Philadelphia was on Dec. 28, with Barnes — plus Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby — out of the lineup.
Another area where the 76ers will struggle is in the paint. Throughout the season, they’ve been surprisingly pedestrian on the inside, putting up 45 points a night – 23rd in the league. It's odd when you consider Embiid took 515 of his 1,334 total field goal attempts within the painted area. Toronto only allowed 45.1 points (seventh-best) in the paint per game and when playing Philadelphia, that number decreased to just 39.
Stopping Embiid is a tall task. However, the Raptor who spends the most time patrolling shots within six feet of the basket is Barnes. Among all Raptors, Barnes defends 6.7 field goals within that distance per game. He spends about 41.8 percent of his defensive possessions covering his matchups this close.
That’s not to say Barnes is the ultimate deterrent for the 76ers. However, he certainly plays a crucial part in helping Toronto disrupt Philadelphia's game plan.
A lot of people thought the Raptors fumbled on draft night when selecting Barnes fourth overall. He and the Raptors mirror each other in many ways: Persistence, positivity, and proving the doubters wrong. On draft day, Masai Ujiri told Barnes one thing: “What did we talk about? Winning, right?”
The Raptors have a legitimate shot of doing just that against the 76ers in the playoffs, and Barnes is a huge reason why.
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