Yes, it’s only a few games into the NBA season, but I’d be remiss not to overreact to the glimpses of potential rookie Scottie Barnes has already shown at the NBA level. Lighthearted and giddy in the team’s backstage content, Barnes has been laser focused and determined when the lights are bright.
Easing into the season is the expected route for college players when translating their game into the league. The handle tends to be loose and shooting percentages look a little shaky as sweaty palms adjust to the NBA’s perimeter distance. Though, even with these understood growing pains, Barnes has looked calm, cool, collected and comfortable since the Raptors’ game one loss against the Washington Wizards.
Besides the aforementioned textbook skills one would expect out of a fourth-picked prospect, what has made Barnes an already must-watch talent so early on has, without a doubt, been his exhibited willingness to try and become exactly what the Toronto Raptors need at this stage of the team’s impromptu rebuild.
Development coaching staffs can try and fix a broken shot, tighten a player’s handle, and improve weak finishing skills, but it becomes increasingly difficult to change the more intangible characteristics Barnes has already so naturally expressed on the court. The spirit of star-level confidence, if that’s what we can call it, is there. You can see it in the no-look passes, transition buckets, and turnaround fadeaways — the latter of which has been a very recent development to his game.
A willingness to shoot is among the most important of intangibles — a demonstration of confidence that can’t be taught so early. Already averaging well over his basketball career-high in FGA per game thus far (not a difficult feat), Barnes’ ability to seamlessly integrate his eclectic skillset into the Raptors’ offense has been a welcomed addition to the team. The rookie often looks eager to carry the responsibility of the offense and frequently attracts the ball immediately after defensive rebounds to lead fastbreak opportunities or initiate offensive sets like Toronto’s dribble-handoffs.
Not one to dole out unearned praise, head coach Nick Nurse noted Barnes’ presence on the court and impact on the game after Saturday’s matchup against the Boston Celtics.
"I thought he was excellent. What I liked the most is he was at the front of the rim a lot tonight — put backs, cuts and drives," Nurse said. "That’s what we like to see. He is getting to be able to use some of that size and length. He had a really good game, that’s for sure."
Barnes’ unjaded confidence doesn’t end with the offensive gifts. Over the course of a few games, he has repeatedly weaponized his size, strength, and footspeed to disrupt oppositional sets. Though not immune to rookie mistakes and touch fouls as we saw in Barnes’ defense against seasoned vet Luka Dončić, he’s provided the Raptors with a viable defender capable of smothering multiple positions at the drop of a hat.
Matchups against Boston, Dallas and Chicago provided an excellent display of his versatility, as Bulls head coach Billy Donovan noted on Monday night:
“Defensively, [he] can play a lot of different players. [He's] got the versatility and length to guard a lot of different people. ... He's only going to get better with minutes and through playing. And certainly, he's gotten off to a great start in this early part of the season,” Donovan said.
Made especially evident by the switching defensive-scheme Nurse has been peppering into games, Barnes has shuffled between defending several players on the court within singular possessions. Considering that the Raptors run a book of defensive schemes throughout single games — already against the likes of Bradley Beal, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Luka Dončić, Kristaps Porziņģis and DeMar DeRozan, just to name a few — the rookie not looking like a fish out of water is an early sign of palpable defensive confidence. You cannot teach that.
Maintaining and building from his on-court comfort is the next step for Barnes. Known in scout circles as a passing big, frequently likened to the Warriors’ Draymond Green, he’ll need to prioritize his own usage as a multilevel scorer before getting teammates involved. Not out of stat-sheet selfishness, but out of necessity in the absence of a lead scorer in Pascal Siakam.
Barnes establishing himself as a threat with the ball will be the ultimate goal for the season, and doing so is not only bound to clear plentiful passing angles for the playmaking big man, it’ll also create space on the floor for both OG Anunoby and Fred Vanvleet. Both of whom have been scratching and clawing for every basket they get — the latter of which has been feeling the load lately, sharing after Monday’s game, “with my size and my body, the way I play the game, I’m stumbling out of the locker room on most nights to make it to the bed.”
Hopefully Scottie can develop into the cure for what ails Freddy, sooner rather than later.
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