It’s okay, Raptor fans. Step back from the ledge. Just breathe deeply and remember this: Raptor fans booed when they took Damon Stoudamire over Ed O’Bannon.
Then there was the reaction of Celtic fans when they selected Jaylen Brown over Chris Dunn:
Now, unless you’re this team, there’s usually a reason you don’t let fans help make personnel decisions. And while no front office is perfect when it comes to drafting, Masai Ujiri and his people are about as close to it as any team in the league. While they did swing and miss with Bruno Caboclo, and were only marginally successful with Jakob Poeltl (missing out on Domantas Sabonis) and Delon Wright, they hit home runs with Pascal Siakam at the 27th spot, OG Anunoby at 23, Norm Powell, trading for him after being being picked 46th by Milwaukee, and seem to have found a player in Malachi Flynn at 29 from the last draft. And that’s not to mention grabbing the undrafted Fred VanVleet and signing a diamond-in-the-rough, Chris Boucher. Add turning undrafted Matt Thomas and Terrence Davis into second round picks, I’d say the Raptors front office has earned some leeway when it comes to judging talent.
This isn’t just about selecting Barnes, though. It’s about not selecting a player many, including those who make their living evaluating players, felt was the better player of the two.
For many Raptor fans, it was easy to become enamoured with Jalen Suggs at the fourth pick. Thanks to his season-long success with Gonzaga, including his stunning game winner in overtime against UCLA in the NCAA semi-finals, he was a well known name. Add that to his tenacious play, including on the defensive end, his slick passing and his unabashed passion for the game, and many Raptor fans saw Suggs as the heir apparent to Kyle Lowry, who most expect to leave in the offseason. If the Raptors couldn’t get the clearly higher rated unicorn, in Evan Mobley, Suggs was certainly a good consolation prize and reward for the most difficult season under Masai’s tenure.
One great thing about Suggs is it was easy to see where he fit in with the team. He and VanVleet seemed like a perfect pairing, with both being able to play both on and off the ball and having the potential for one of the best defensive backcourts in the league. And despite the fact he’s not a great shooter at this point in his career (although he’s certainly not a poor one), he’s one of the most NBA ready prospects in the draft with a somewhat polished all around game.
Barnes, on the other hand, has a fuzzy fit on the team without a real position, yet. He’ll certainly contribute immediately on the defensive end, but his raw offensive game and the presence of Siakam and Anunoby means he’ll probably have more difficulty staying on the floor more than Suggs would.
Of course, players don’t tend to get drafted because of how they’ll perform immediately. If Masai wanted someone who could contribute at a high level from day one, he would have traded the pick for a veteran. The team, however, isn’t in a win-now position. They’re now looking a little more long term. And that’s where Scottie Barnes comes in.
When evaluating prospects, there are a five specific things that teams like the Raptors look for a player to have by the time they’re ready for the NBA.
Work Ethic – Defense – Motor – Basketball IQ – Physical Traits
Suggs does well in four of the five categories, but while he’s certainly athletic and has decent size for the point guard position, he’s not an imposing physical specimen. He’s definitely the type of player the Raptors normally would draft.
Barnes does well in all five categories, especially the physical traits. Among players who attended the NBA combine, he had the sixth best wingspan, beaten by only a few centres and power forwards, third-biggest hands, third-best vertical and second-best shuttle time (timing lateral mobility). He’s actually got a longer wingspan than both Siakam and Anunoby.
Barnes is not nearly as raw as Siakam was when he was drafted, and he’s got a better feel for the game than Anunoby did. Keep in mind that Barnes, at 6’8, played point guard for his Florida State team.
What makes him all the more intriguing as a prospect is the fact that he’s always been a complimentary player, so has never had the chance to develop many of the skills that most of the other top drafted players have. As a freshman and sophomore, Barnes played with Vernon Carey Jr, who was two years ahead of Barnes and one of top ranked players in the country. In his senior year, Barnes transferred to the powerhouse Montverde Academy, where he played with three future NBA draft picks in Cade Cunningham, Moses Moody and Day’Ron Sharpe on what many consider the best high school basketball team in history. Then after high school, Barnes joined a veteran laden Florida State team where, despite coming off the bench, won the ACC Freshman of the Year award and third team All ACC honours.
In workout clips, Barnes can be seen showing off perimeter skills he never had a chance to use in high school or college.
While any comparisons to Kawhi Leonard might seem extreme, both he and Kawhi have very similar physical attributes, stellar defensive reputations and entered the league with a reputation of not being able to shoot, but possessed unmatched work ethic. It’s doubtful Barnes becomes the scorer Kawhi is, but Barnes also is a far better passer, has a better handle with a better feel for the game than Kawhi did at the same time.
Suggs should become a very good player, but he isn’t likely to become a top 10 or 15 player in the league. He’s more likely to become a Mike Conley-type player, a beloved leader and complimentary player, than a Steph Curry, who can lead his team to a Championship.
Barnes, with his size and versatility, has the chance to become something special for the Raptors. And there isn’t a better team to help him development into that player than the Raptors.
Siakam, OG and VanVleet have all developed into special players despite not having the talents or attributes Barnes has, when they entered the league. Suggs will likely have a better rookie season than Barnes simply because Orlando is a much worse team, but this draft shouldn’t be judged for another 3 or 4 years. That’s where the team was looking when it made this pick.
It’s also important to remember that once the draft happens, where a player is drafted only matters when he’s signing his rookie contract. While Suggs was the consensus fourth best player, you can look up and down the drafts and realize that the consensus never holds true when it comes to how players perform in the league.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the 11th pick in the 2018 draft, but is probably the third-best player, behind Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Of course a team drafting him third would have seen their fan base revolt because no draft boards had him there.
Donovan Mitchell is probably the second-best player from the 2017 draft, but taking him in the top five would have probably gotten a GM fired.
So let’s take a wait and see approach with this draft. Masai and company seem to know what they are doing.