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Toronto Rolled The Dice On Scottie Barnes. It’s Paid Off.

Going into the 2021 NBA draft, the Toronto Raptors appeared perfectly positioned to select their point guard of the future, replacing soon-to-depart team legend Kyle Lowry. When Toronto’s pick came up, still on the board were Jalen Suggs, who led a Gonzaga team that was ranked No. 1 in the country throughout the regular season, and Davion Mitchell, who led Baylor to a national championship over Suggs and Gonzaga. The Raptors were in the market for a primary ball handler, and it seemed like they would end up with an obvious fit.

But when the time came, Toronto selected 6-foot-7 Scottie Barnes, who spent the majority of his lone college season at Florida State coming off the bench. Scouts saw him as a potential standout playmaker and defender at the professional level, but he wasn’t a flashy selection, albeit a surprising one

Now, just three months into the 2021-22 NBA season, Barnes has exceeded all of his projections. Through Toronto’s first 37 games, Barnes has proven to be a pivotal part of the team and has firmly inserted his name into the Rookie of the Year conversation, leading all rookies in wins above replacement in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric.

Barnes has started all 32 games that he has played, and he ranks third on the team in minutes per game. His 35.5 minutes per game leads all rookies and is 14th-highest among all rookies since the 2003-04 season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.1 

Versatile on both ends of the court — he has above-average RAPTOR ratings on both offense and defense — Barnes has carved out a large role early in his career. With his combination of size and positional flexibility, the Raptors have often matched him up on defense against the opposing team’s best offensive player(s), no matter the position.

Barnes has guarded some of the league’s premier talents, including Luka Dončić, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. So far this season, Barnes’s most frequent defensive assignment has been Jayson Tatum (68 halfcourt matchups). In games against Washington, Chicago and Boston, Barnes defended all five positions. In each of those games, Barnes spent at least one minute guarding all five starting players.

Barnes has taken on some of the league’s best

Notable NBA players with at least 20 matchups defended by rookie Scottie Barnes, with their effective field-goal percentage in those matchups

Opponent Team Matchups Minutes EFG Pct.
Jayson Tatum Celtics 68 84 53.3%
Khris Middleton Bucks 63 57 57.1
Kevin Durant Nets 58 65 44.1
Evan Mobley Cavaliers 40 33 42.9
Malcolm Brogdon Pacers 34 48 55.6
Bradley Beal Wizards 32 54 38.9
Luka Dončić Mavericks 22 26 50.0
James Harden Nets 21 29 33.3

Through games of Jan. 10, 2021.

Source: Second Spectrum

Considering the caliber of players Barnes has guarded and his lack of NBA experience, his +1.1 defensive RAPTOR rating — good for fourth-best among rookies this season — indicates strong defensive potential.

Barnes has been equally impressive on the offensive end. He is averaging 14.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, both of which rank in the top five among rookies this season. His 48.2 field-goal percentage ranks fourth among all rookies averaging five or more shot attempts per game, and his 3.5 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.9 blocks per game all rank among the top five in rookie averages,2 as well. Barnes’s seven outings of at least 20 points are already the fifth-most for a rookie in Raptors franchise history.

After the Raptors selected Barnes, there were questions about how he would fit on offense alongside two forwards, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, who are nearly identical to the rookie in size and who entered the season penciled into the starting lineup. But Barnes has had no problems producing next to Siakam and Anunoby; in fact, the team has played better when both are on the floor with him. Barnes’s plus/minus is -0.2 without Siakam and Anunoby on the floor, but that rises +2.8 when all three share the court.

Although he is listed as a forward, Barnes was a guard in college, and Toronto has seized on his playmaking ability, using him as a secondary ball handler. Barnes has initiated the offense on 439 possessions this season, according to Second Spectrum, which ranks second on the team behind Fred VanVleet and is ahead of the team’s backup point guards. His rebounding prowess and open-court ball-handling have also created quick and easy shots for himself and his teammates in transition. 

He showed just how quickly he can turn an opponent’s missed shot into points the other way in a game against the Magic in October. 

Only a few months into his career, Barnes has blown by draft-day expectations, and he looks to be a player the Raptors will be able to count on in the future. If he continues to play well at both ends of the court and develop at his current pace, Rookie of the Year won’t be the only award he has a chance of winning.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Through games of Jan. 10.

  2. Minimum 10 games played.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

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