If you were one of the people who, in the moment, were thrilled with the Toronto Raptors selecting Scottie Barnes with the fourth overall pick — I tip my hat to you. History is going to treat you well. The rest of us might be fudging facts when we look back at the 2021 draft and our gut reactions.
In that summer moment, it felt like there was a different collective reaction — mostly centred around the word ‘huh’. The 2021 NBA Draft was set up as one with four players standing above the rest — Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs. Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster going “off the board” felt on brand for a Raptors organization that’s never afraid to reach, but the pick was initially (and very much only initially) strange.
Scottie Barnes, though, doesn’t need much time to win you over. Basically from the second we turned our heads down from the television screen to a YouTube window to watch Florida State highlights, the decision-making was obvious. Barnes was a player who fit the Raptors perfectly — a tall wing skilled enough to play offense in the open floor, able to defend all five positions, and with a jump shot that, with a few years of internal improvement, showed promise. He appeared unpolished, maybe a guy who would take time to adjust to the speed and basketball IQ of an NBA floor, but one who had tremendous upside once everything came together. The early years of Pascal Siakam were an obvious comparison tool. Barnes was a floor-runner and a versatile defender. The rest of his game would come.
We know, however, what happened next. Scottie Barnes pushed beyond all expectations and timelines put on him. In just his second game in the NBA, he floored Raptors fans with a 25-point, 13-rebound performance against the Boston Celtics, shooting 11-for-17, including a three-pointer that had me jumping out of my chair.
While that jump shot was what surprised observers initially — draft scouts pegged Barnes as being years away from any sort of quality in that regard — the story of Scottie’s season was in his ability to fit the Raptors vision by bringing other intangible skills to the table.
More than just a confident athlete, Barnes’ ability to fit the team was sensational, and pushed the ceiling of the team to where it ended up, as one that was competitive with the conference powerhouses. Let’s look at a couple other areas where Barnes excelled.
Early in the Raptors’ season, the reliance on Fred VanVleet to generate offense was obvious. VanVleet was getting the ball in all the tough moments, generating his own looks and getting downhill to unlock opportunities for others. Never was this more apparent than a stretch of games from December 14 to January 9, where Fred had five 30-point games in six outings, recording no less than five assists during the stretch.
As the season progressed, though, the Raptors leaned more into an embrace of what became affectionately known as “The 6-9 Project”. VanVleet missed some time, but it wasn’t a lot — the philosophical shift included him too — as Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes began to run more of the offense at the top of the key. Nick Nurse started spending more time trusting Barnes to run point in transition too, which pushed Toronto’s deadly secondary attack game to the next level.
This was on full display in Scottie’s season’s best 31-point, 17-rebound, six assist game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Playing against an undersized Lakers team, Barnes’ ability to play point guard meant bigs like Dwight Howard and Montrezl Harrell had to pursue him on the perimeter — a five-wide look that created both scoring and passing lanes for Barnes.
Sure, the Lakers had hellish turnovers. They were a bad team. The Raptors were out and running most of the game. Barnes was trustworthy as a go-to performer, though, and added just another spark to his plays to get baskets where otherwise wouldn’t exist.
The Team Defender
This wasn’t so much of a surprise, as Scottie was known for his defensive versatility coming into the 2021 draft class. Fitting the specifics of Toronto’s schemes, though, in heavy minutes and against A and B-tier NBA players in just his first year was sensational. Barnes just got it, basically from the opening tip.
As an on-ball defender, Scottie’s season highlights included guarding Kevin Durant and James Harden in the same game. Off the ball, these three clutch steals against the Suns sealed one of Toronto’s most impressive regular season wins. Nurse often used Barnes a free safety, with other players blitzing the initial action and Scottie waiting near the paint, ready to snatch any errant skip passes. The 6-9 Project demanded limited windows on the defensive end. Barnes was a big part of making that happen.
It wasn’t all roses on the path to NBA Rookie of the Year. In the playoffs, late in the series against Philly, the Sixers smartly used ball pressure on other players to turn Barnes into a score-first forward. There were shots that would normally be within his comfort zone that went awry, along with some bad turnovers. Maybe a product of a young player in a big moment.
This will come with time. Nobody expected Scottie Barnes to win a playoff series by himself when the other team shut off Siakam and VanVleet. Knowing this guy’s insane growth rate, though, maybe we just save that for next year.