Midway through the second quarter, the Toronto Raptors were grooving and funking their way to a seamless 123-107 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. The defense was long, and the offense in transition was sweltering. But at what might have been the turning point for the Raps, one of the key plays for Toronto came 100 feet from the ball. In between triples from unlikely sources — Justin Champagnie and Precious Achiuwa (!) — Toronto’s phenom rookie, all legs and charisma, was making his mark from the bench, as he yelled and encouraged his teammates so loudly that media could hear his rallying cries all the way up in the rafters of Scotiabank Arena. It came at the very moment that Toronto distanced itself from Philadelphia, never to look back.
“I would say I usually just [talk] all the time,” said Barnes. “Just trying to talk about the gameplan — ‘just keep putting ball pressure and defending, showing our length on defense.’ I’ll just say that’s just who I am. That’s what I always do. I’m a very talkative person.”
Barnes is going to be impossible to contain, with or without the ball, on offense or defense, or indeed even when he’s off the court entirely. He’ll make mistakes, sure, but like GOAT Samson Folk said, he either will or will not be a dragon. But we’ll know either way. The only one stopping Barnes is himself. At least for one night, he succeeded in trying to do anything he wanted.
Barnes wasn’t just setting decibel records from the bench. He finished with a respectable 13 points, nine rebounds, and six assists, but his numbers vastly understated his contributions. (Expect that quality to be a consistency for the season, and probably for his entire career.) He shot 6 of 10 from the floor, and that’s likely because the majority of his shots came around the rim where he could overwhelm defenders with his length, or in transition with no one to even contest him. At one point he faked a handoff, kept the ball, and swooped in for a dunk after one dribble. His wingspan is so immense that he can dribble several feet away from his body; if you’re beside him, you’re behind him, and if there’s not help, he’s already at the rim. As long as he gets his shots close to the rim, Barnes will make it work. There were other moments, where he crossed over, tried to spin, faked this way and that. It wasn’t clear what he was trying to cause, but if anything cracked open, he would jet into the opportunity.
He plays basketball like Jimmy Page played guitar, or Daniel Naroditsky plays chess, or Christoph Waltz acts. You don’t know how they’ll get from point A to point B, and they likely don’t know either, but they’ll figure it out, and the journey is going to be as entertaining as the destination. At one point, Barnes tried to throw a pass, which was deflected halfway across the court, but then he apparated to the ball, snatched it with his endless limbs, and promptly threw a no-look pass to Champagnie for the and-1. If everyone else on the court is on a track, Barnes is free, for better or worse.
On the defensive end, Barnes terrorized opponents with his length. For all his tendency towards havoc, his defense was principled. He closed out under control, swatted shots, dug in on the nail, and combined solidity with a nose for chaotic disruption. His two blocks and three steals were certainly as loud as his off-court exhortations, but he impacted even more plays just by being massive, aggressive, and in the right spot.
His play backed up his voice.
“He’s a kid, he’s a young man, and…all that energy and enthusiasm comes out in many different ways, but he’s not yelling anything that is wrong,” said Fred VanVleet. “He knows what he’s talking about, and you need voices like that, so we love that, there’s not just one leader of a team, there’s a bunch of leaders on a team, and everybody has different roles and if he’s going to step up and be that guy who’s keeping the bench together and communicating while he’s on the bench, that’s a big part of the game. We’ve all got to communicate with either other on the floor and off, so I definitely hear him out there a lot.
Even better than that, when you do a lot of talking, you’ve got to hold your own so that’s great that he’s speaking up because now the spotlight is going to be on him even more with his teammates, so I think that was great for him and he’s been vocal since he got here.”
Barnes is swiftly becoming one of the most popular Raptors. The team didn’t replace Lowry’s introduction exercise routine, but the star of the introductory show was certainly Barnes in his own way. The crowd gave him the largest cheer, and his teammates huddled closer than they did with anyone else, offered more high fives than they did for anyone else. Always smiling, always laughing, Barnes oozes charisma. If he weren’t an NBA player, he could be a cult leader or a motivational speaker or a medieval general: anything, really, with a job description that entails motivating others. Barnes inspires on and off the court.
For one night at least, there wasn’t a bump in the road. When the regular season starts, there will certainly be nights where Barnes’ jumper may not ring out as loudly as his shouts from the bench, when his handle may wither on the vine as opportunities don’t show themselves. We’ll see how he reacts then, whether he remains his steadfast optimistic self, or whether he adapts his personality to fit the situation. But that will come. For now, appreciate Barnes in all his glory. The Raptors certainly are.