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Scottie Barnes 2021-22 Season in Review

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The following is part of Raptors Republic’s pieces reviewing the seasons for the Raptors. You can find all the pieces in the series here

How do you understand the future? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Is it something to fear or to be expected breathlessly?

No matter how you understand the future in terms of life or basketball, Scottie Barnes is either the balm to your worries or the lodestone of your excitement. The reigning Rookie of the Year started his career with a swooping, off-hand skyhook that dripped gently through the net and finished his season with a simple cutting layup. Within those two bookends of extraordinary self creation and simple but heady work off his teammates, Barnes squeezed one of the most enticing seasons of Raptors basketball ever played.

Barnes is listed at six foot seven, but he’s likely six foot 10. When he unfurls his arms, he’s seven foot three. He towers over practically every player on the court, and given his athleticism, he has the functional ability to finish over any player in the league. Size is no impediment; Joel Embiid found that out the hard way, as Barnes isolations were one of the few offensive looks that worked in Game 6 of the playoffs for Toronto despite the rookie facing one of the greatest defenders alive.

There’s so much more than size crammed into Barnes. Of course, he is cocksure, bordering on arrogant. He made a meme of looking back at defenders helplessly trying to race back to defend him on the fastbreak, which may have gotten him punched 20 years ago in the NBA. He demanded of Nick Nurse that he guard opposing stars from time to time, and he did a pretty darn good job when able. Sometimes he started out guarding opposing point guards, like James Harden, and sometimes he started out guarding opposing centers, like Robert Williams III. Barnes did everything, and he did it all with not just the expectation but the certainty that he was the best player alive. He even made his phone lock screen his list of goals, including to “destroy everyone at practice.”

And he’s skilled. So, so skilled. Barnes doesn’t just toss in weak hand skyhooks. He is a visionary passer, more away of angles and lanes than an F1 driver. He reads the story told by every ball like Homer, knowing where each rebound will bounce seemingly before anyone else on the court. Though his jump-shot is far from a finished product, he spent a few weeks hitting everything he threw at the rim from distance in late January, and his form on stepbacks was scary good. Barnes could become anything, from a Giannis Antetokounmpo clone to a new-age Magic Johnson to Lamar Odom to Scottie Pippen to anything in between. But that’s all the future, unknowable unless you think Barnes has more behind his pure smile of joy than we can tell. In truth, he’s the only Scottie Barnes. Now and forever.

Oh, let’s not forget Barnes’s ability to rise to the occasion. His best games came against LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Joel Embiid. Barnes had the ability to do more, to take on bigger burdens, to lift the team at the moments when it seemed to be floundering. The Raptors have had precious few players who can do that. None as rookies. But Barnes breaks the mold in practically every way imaginable.

I wrote this about Barnes in preseason, and it rings even truer now:

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.

I wrote that about basketball, but it’s more true about the team itself. Barnes is the destination. He’s the reason you tank in Tampa, but even more broadly, he’s the reason you’re a fan. Why do you watch basketball? It’s self evident in a season like 2019, when a championship was on the line, but you’re still a fan now in 2022. Barnes is both the journey and the destination for the team. He’s not yet the best player on the team, that distinction belongs to the sublime Pascal Siakam, but Barnes has no ceiling. He could be the best player in the league if everything goes perfectly. And as with the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown co-evolving all the way to the NBA Finals as similar archtypal players, Siakam and Barnes have so much growing to do together, though they already are hugely complementary. Watching Barnes become whatever he may become will be just as exciting as whatever his final form will be. He is journey and destination, in the macroscopic way that his game, too, epitomizes both.

That’s a reason to watch the Raptors. Probably the reason. Barnes is both the reason to be excited about the future, or, if you’re a different type of fan, the reason not to despair. It wasn’t a perfect year for the Raptors — they didn’t win the championship, of course. That would have been perfection. But for Barnes, it was better than perfect. He is size and skill and arrogance and potential and so much more all crammed into one rookie who can’t stop smiling. Who hugs teammates and coaches alike and makes sure everyone around him is as happy as he is. A rookie year couldn’t be better. And he’s only going to top it going forward.

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