In the hours leading up to the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday evening, it seemed clear how the top of the draft would go. Cade Cunningham would land in Detroit. Houston would select Jalen Green. Cleveland would take Evan Mobley, leaving Toronto with Jalen Suggs as the No. 4 pick. Or so we thought. As the ESPN broadcast was in the middle of talking about Suggs’ fit with the Raptors, commissioner Adam Silver walked to the podium and announced Scottie Barnes as the first surprise pick of the night.
There was a general sense of skepticism with the pick. While Barnes profiles as someone with a lower floor than Suggs, the Raptors clearly saw a higher potential ceiling in the 19-year-old who finished as the ACC Rookie of the Year at Florida State last season. Barnes projects as a versatile wing capable of guarding multiple positions, with room to improve on the offensive end. If that sounds like OG Anunoby, you’re probably right in terms of a potential comp. Head coach Nick Nurse acknowledged some “mechanical things” which the Raptors can work on with their new draft pick to enhance his shooting. Barnes, who seems enthusiastic to be joining the organization, talked openly about doing whatever it takes to be the best player he can be. He has an open mind about improving and seems like a fun addition to the locker room:
Barnes: "I'm always excited to see other people succeed. I like seeing other people be happy. I'm a natural leader. I encourage guys to be better. I like seeing people be great at what they love doing. I'm a caring guy, loving guy. I just want to spread love and positivity"
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) July 30, 2021
The Raptors, of course, will ultimately be evaluated based on what Barnes can deliver on the floor and not the camaraderie he can bring to the team. That’s the gambit of choosing a player at the top of the draft. The spotlight is much brighter on whether the draft pick lives up to expectations. Over the past decade, the Raptors have developed a reputation as a team that has extracted the most value from their draft positions. But there’s a huge difference between landing OG Anunoby with the 23rd pick, Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick, Norman Powell in the second round and making a surprise selection at No. 4.
Suggs, who went to Orlando with the fifth pick, could very well turn out to be the better player. By not going with the consensus choice, the Raptors are opening themselves up to criticism and for fans to second-guess the selection. They believe in Barnes’ long-term potential and are betting on that. But they’re also betting on themselves. Players around the league have spoken glowingly about the Raptors' player development system for years. The team believes they can work with Barnes to turn him into the best version of himself and the best player in the draft.
Even though the city of Toronto is one of the largest markets in North America, the Raptors have never been a free agency destination for stars. It’s made developing and growing a roster through the draft a necessity. DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl were drafted and developed into core pieces who were traded for Kawhi Leonard. To acquire Marc Gasol, Toronto gave up two more of their draft picks in Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright. Siakam, Powell and the undrafted Fred VanVleet became an important part of the 2019 championship team.
The Raptors have a track record in this regard, but there’s never been more pressure during the Masai Ujiri era to get a draft pick right. If Barnes develops into a star, it can change the entire trajectory of this franchise for the next decade. If he ends up being a role player, it will be a huge setback for the team. When Toronto drafted Vince Carter, he took the team to new heights. When they drafted Andrea Bargnani, he did not.
Those are the stakes.
Lottery picks, especially a top-four selection, can serve as inflection points for a franchise.
We’ll find out over the next few years whether the Raptors made the right call.
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