The rookies who attracted much of the attention heading into the 2021-22 campaign doubled as the top-three selections in that year’s Draft: Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, and Jalen Green. Each player had long been viewed at or near the top of the class and maintained that status ahead of last summer’s Draft all the way through the end of their rookie campaigns.
And yet by season’s end, Scottie Barnes was the one holding the Rookie of the Year crown. Evidenced by their All-Rookie First Team nods, the quartet enjoyed impressive and encouraging NBA debuts, but the 2021-22 Rookie of the Year trophy eternally resides in Barnes’ estate.
Across 74 games, the Toronto Raptors’ 6’7 forward and the No. 4 pick last year averaged 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.1 steals on 55.2 percent true shooting (.492/.301/.735 split). He led all rookies in minutes (2,617), while ranking second in boards (557) and steals (80), third in points (1,134) and fourth in assists (256). He emerged as an integral member of the upstart 48-win Raptors and looked en route to a sensational playoff opener (15-10-8-1 in 32 Game 1 minutes) before an unfortunate ankle injury compromised him the rest of the first round.
As he stares down year two, both Barnes and the Raptors will hope to parlay the promise of 2021-22 into a developmental springboard toward the next step. His progress likely overlaps prominently with Toronto’s chances of ascending beyond the Eastern Conference’s middle class, and accomplishing that task necessitates expanding upon his strengths, refining his areas for improvement, and a continued solidifying of his standing among a talented starting unit.
Leaving Florida State, Barnes’ primary allure rested in his playmaking and defensive aptitude, while concerns revolved around his scoring capacity. He alleviated many of the latter worries — Barnes emerged as quite the prolific self-creator, particularly from midrange, where he punished in-over-their-heads defenders. According to Cleaning The Glass, 52 percent of his buckets were unassisted, which ranked in the 91st percentile among forwards. His ability to play through contact and convert from unorthodox angles, especially at his size, is atypical. He exhibited a knack for orienting his body toward the rim regardless of how defenders treated him and his touch inside the paint is special.
When outmatched opponents wrangle with him, his 7’3 wingspan enables him to extend around or over them and leverage that delicate touch. So often last season, the ball would just trickle in after a few bounces on the rim, and his touch means that he doesn’t require a consistent release angle to thrive. His scoring approach is remarkably distinct in that contact and discomfort are his ally. Wonky possessions behoove his game. Whether it’s a bump with his shoulder, chest, or torso, he slyly applies his strength to chisel subtle openings and gobbles up space behind bounding strides.
Not only could Barnes catalyze possessions individually, his understanding of how to capitalize on open space ensured he was similarly adept functioning off the ball. When somebody else flung the defense into a tizzy, he routinely ventured into vacancies in the lane and spotlighted his immaculate touch. There are layers to the manner in which he found midrange scoring opportunities. Given his creation is still being fine-tuned, the multifaceted nature of his style proved crucial in a winning environment.
The relevance of Barnes’ off-ball savvy ballooned throughout the year as he and Pascal Siakam’s synergy blossomed. Between a heightened understanding of how to succeed together and a more pressing emphasis to involve them schematically, the two’s connection looked radically different come spring time.
Before the All-Star Break, Barnes shot 66 percent at the rim on 180 attempts. After the All-Star Break, he shot 77 percent on 119 attempts. Before the All-Star Break, he received 17 passes per game from Siakam, attempted two shots from his deliveries and shot 37 percent on those field goals; after the All-Star Break, the numbers vaulted respectively to 29, four and 50.5 (data shared by Raptors Republic’s Samson Folk, go follow him). These upticks, in part, illuminate how Barnes averaged 14.4 points on 53.6 percent true shooting pre-All-Star Break and 17.1 points on 58.1 percent true shooting post-All-Star Break.
The rangy forward tandem teamed up for more high-low actions and feeds out of drives or dives to the rim. I’d expect them to further sharpen their chemistry next season, which should boost Barnes’ scoring efficiency once again. Eventually, Barnes will succeed Siakam as Toronto’s foremost initiator. For now, though, it remains the All-NBA 28-year-old’s gig, much to the immediate benefit of Barnes and the Raptors’ offense.
Barnes’ most frequent means to create was backing defenders down, shielding the ball from them, and wrenching his way toward favorable spots. Pressure at the point-of-attack tended to disrupt him and attacking defenses with his chest facing them, as most perimeter scorers do, could be arduous. I’m curious as to how Barnes addresses his stiff, somewhat cumbersome handle as he aims to assume a grander scoring load.
Maybe I’m incorrect, but constant mismatch-hunting with the back to the defense seems like a challenging method to really tout high-level usage and aptly spearhead an offense. There’s a degree of homeostasis with it that doesn’t pressure or tilt the defense into motion upon which to act promptly. Even a post-centric big like Joel Embiid reached his current offensive peak by adding face-ups and drives to his repertoire in conjunction with the back-to-the-basket dominance.
I don’t want to be skeptical of Barnes’ outlook, it’s more that this is a facet of his arsenal that I’m keeping tabs on moving forward. His midrange touch and balance are elite. The next steps are establishing other on-ball avenues to consistently deploy those standout traits.
His adaptability as a scorer was admirable last season, which bodes well for his evolution. When defenses mitigated his mismatch-hunting, he dialed up the end-to-end transition forays, launched more triples, and crashed the glass for offensive rebounds. Those aren’t necessarily each on the ball, but they underscore that Barnes recognized how to maintain a footprint on games when his first option wasn’t readily available.
Where I do anticipate him to be much more impactful offensively in the coming seasons is as a facilitator. At lower levels, he enjoyed lengthy periods piloting offenses from the point guard spot because of his intrepid, creative passing gene. Teams and coaches afforded him the autonomy to cook and endured all that such freedom invited. This past season, the long-standing leeway didn’t always work in he and the Raptors’ favor.
While his vision and talent was on display in the open floor — no-look reads, dimes on the move, well-timed assists to in-stride teammates — his half-court passing was erratic. It seemed as though he never quite adjusted to the increased discipline and awareness of NBA-caliber defenders.
Flashes of ingenuity and feel percolated, only to be accompanied by poor placement and decision-making another time. (Major caveat: That’s usually the norm with rookies.) Barnes entered the league already a good player and one folks bet on to translate his passing prowess potentially from the jump. I’d bank on him reaffirming that pre-draft sentiment in 2022-23, both as a catalyst and connective playmaker.
Ideally, we’ll see more ball-screens involving some combination of Barnes, Siakam, and Fred VanVleet; I’d also entertain more dribble handoffs between Barnes and VanVleet. Barnes displayed craft as a DHO conductor last season, though was limited by the Raptors’ lack of perimeter shooting. VanVleet is probably the best option for this usage with Barnes.
According to Synergy, Toronto ranked in the bottom five in pick-and-roll ball-handler and roll man frequency a season ago. Head coach Nick Nurse has typically shied away from a heavy pick-and-roll-based offense, but an uptick there may invigorate an offense that relied considerably on transition, offensive rebounding, and live-ball turnovers, three components that are prone to drying up in the playoffs. Embracing that gambit may further diversify Barnes’ scoring portfolio, harmonize the Raptors’ bedrocks, and elevate their collective ceiling.
Barnes is such a fascinating player to assess. His offensive ethos is dissimilar from his peers and the creation leap he authored between Florida State and the NBA is staggering. Once a vaunted passer whose scoring gave folks pause, the inverse dynamic surfaced during his rookie campaign, which may actually be good for him. The fact he’s previously and recently been a high-value facilitator should provide optimism he arrives there again soon.
Various 2021 draftees are candidates to become inaugural All-Stars in 2022-23. Barnes is among that group, and offensive strides would surely factor into said rise. Where those strides manifest stands as a captivating storyline for him and the Raptors, both in the interim and long-term. Fortunately, his developmental history is the sort of thing that leads to optimism.