It’s impossible to take your eyes off Scottie Barnes right now. In any given Toronto Raptors game, he is irrepressible, a gale-force wind sweeping across every basketball action on both ends. This is, of course, a welcome palate cleanser after hitting a second season plateau last year, which threw some doubt on the initial promise he displayed as the 2021-22 Rookie of the Year. Through seven games, Barnes is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, 3s made, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. He’s starting to make the 20-10-5-1-1 statlines feel familiar. The first two weeks of the season are too small a sample size to anoint a new star in the league, but it’s certainly enough time to sage a room. Just in the last week, I watched Barnes hit step-back 3s over Giannis Antetokounmpo and in the clutch against the San Antonio Spurs. Yeah, I think Scottie Barnes is back.
It seems one of the greatest vibe shifts in this year’s locker room is the presence of first-year head coach Darko Rajakovic, who has espoused the tenets of ball movement and player movement as opposed to the team’s mismatch-hunting, isolation-heavy system under Nick Nurse last season. (Nurse’s Philadelphia 76ers have been awesome, but there were signs he was starting to lose the room by the time he was out in Toronto.) This new system hasn’t been a perfect solution to what ails the Raptors, who are still just 3-4 with a bottom-five offense in the NBA; Pascal Siakam, for example, has been relegated to a less focal and probably less optimal floor-spacing role. Off-ball motion sounds like a nice and egalitarian principle to have in your offense, but that motion hasn’t consistently generated halfcourt advantages nor does it solve for roster construction issues such as a near-total lack of point guards and 3-point shooters.
But and by far, the most significant decision that Rajakovic has made is to empower Barnes with the ball in his hands. That’s why some of this stuff, at least in terms of pure volume, looks sustainable. He has the highest usage on the team so far, which would also be the highest of his career. If Barnes can continue to play this well — if this is just who he is now — that glosses over every other concern in the short-term. Going into the season, there was probably some reasonable doubt to be had about whether he could shoulder the burdens of primary creation over, say, a middle-of-the-floor connector role. Was his handle tight enough? Could he consistently create separation? Will he make enough shots to keep the defense honest?
So far, Barnes is hitting jumpers from every area of the floor — 13 of 19 (68.4 percent) on pull-up 2s, 4 of 10 (40.0 percent) on pull-up 3s and 16 of 36 (42.1 percent) of 3s overall — and attacking the paint with enough force to bully the league’s preeminent bully-baller. He’s been assertive without becoming overaggressive in the flow of Rajakovic’s drive-kick-swing offense, which calls for ‘0.5 second’ decisions with the ball. This system, as well as a hot start to the season from Dennis Schröder, eases some of those questions about whether or not Barnes can function as a ‘true’ point guard, while still allowing him to tap into his ebullient creative energies as a passer. It’s probably wise to expect some regression to those numbers, and he’s still going to get those turnovers under control, but if he continues to make off-the-bounce 3s with any sort of consistency at all — and he’s taking them confidently — then that redefines the possibilities for Barnes as a lead playmaker.
The rest is there. Maybe it just feels good to see the shot going in, but it just feels like Barnes is playing with so much energy right now — and for a player like him, that makes all the difference, because the idea is that he can be a player that does a little bit of everything. Certainly, that’s what we’re seeing. Even when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, he’s giving full go in other aspects of the game, crashing the glass and flying across the open court. At his best, it feels like he’s making it up as he goes. We’re seeing newfound promise from Barnes as a weak-side shot-blocker, and his length has always lent itself to defensive playmaking. I worry about his capacity to guard against smaller and faster players, who can take advantage of his slow lateral movement and stiff hips, but he can switch one through five and looks better outside of Nurse’s hyperaggressive perimeter scheme. As things stand, Rajakovic is already giving the sell on Barnes as a future Defensive Player of the Year.
Really, this goes back to the main thing with Rajakovic: The mood just feels lighter. The on-court product hasn’t been perfect, certainly, but it feels like the players are working hard and trying to play for each other. That sounds like fluff, but it’s significant that Siakam hasn’t groused about having fewer shot attempts or any notions of hierarchy, even though he’s an All-NBA season away from super-max eligibility. Hell, with that much money on the line, I would find it hard to hold it against him even if he were hijacking the offense to force his own shots up. The best version of the Raptors offense probably involves Siakam taking a few more shots than this anyway, but it goes a long way towards making this Barnes ascent possible that Siakam is down for the cause.
In the grand scheme, a Barnes ascent changes everything. It validates the front office’s stance that he’s ‘untouchable’ in trades for multi-time All-NBAers, and it gives you a viable team-building path forward. The Raptors have been perhaps mismanaged since their 2019 championship, watching most of their team leave for nothing. Kawhi Leonard left as a free agent that summer, Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade two years later, and Fred VanVleet as a free agent this past summer, while the Raptors have instead sent assets out for players such as Jakob Poeltl and Thaddeus Young. There’s intensifying scrutiny on what happens with Siakam, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr., each of whom can become free agents after this season. Hitting on Barnes, the No. 4 pick in 2021, isn’t going to replenish the asset stock on its own, but it would wash away some of the aftertaste. It’s a worthwhile exercise to make everything about him this year, to see if he can be this guy for real and The Guy of their future. To this point, the early returns have been blessed.