If all goes to plan, the Toronto Raptors will one day belong to Scottie Barnes. He’s not running the show yet, of course, and nor should he be. By team rank, Barnes finished fifth in scoring, third in assists, second in rebounds, third in effective field goal percentage, and third in touches. Pascal Siakam, on the other hand, finished first, second, first, second, and second — above Barnes in every category. Barnes finished 10th in on/off differential per 100 possessions for the Raptors and Siakam first. He is a superstar. Yet one day, Barnes may well be the better player.
It’s not normal that Rookies of the Year have teammates of such quality. In fact, between All-Star Fred VanVleet and All-NBA Siakam, the Raptors were unique. They tied for the most combined All-NBA and All-Star teammates of the Rookie of the Year — not including the rookie himself — since the start of the millennium.
Siakam is already one of the best players in the league. He lifted an offensively challenged team — bad shooting team and a bad team at the rim — into a mediocre half-court offensive team. That’s no small feat. He took a top-five rate of isolation shots in the regular season and attempted even more in the playoffs, while becoming even more efficient there. He lived on near-impossible push shots and floaters from just inside of the paint, connecting with ease on shots that would be bail-outs for most players. He’s a floor raiser and a ceiling raiser. But the ceiling to which he raises the team is not (yet) a championship level.
There are roads to improvement. He could become a deadeye or even passable pull-up 3-point shooter; he’s already a quite solid catch-and-shoot shooter. Or the Raptors could actually put some spacing around Siakam that would give him more room for his drives and spinnies. But we already know what Siakam looks like as a team’s secondary scoring option. It’s championship stuff, and Siakam has improved by leaps and bounds that could clear a tall building since 2018-19. Defensively, he perhaps more than any other Raptor defines the team’s structural approach. That carries over no matter what.
Perhaps the Raptors become a championship team with Siakam as the leader. He improves, as does the supporting cast. But we know for certain that they can become a championship team alongside a better offensive player than him. And that’s where Barnes comes in. He has the ability to do it. Barnes and Siakam are already fantastic together. They don’t need to be killer shooters to support one another. They are frequently the two biggest, strongest, and most athletic players on the court, and they are phenomenal at eating space off the ball for one another. They’re two of the best finishers in the league against contests from within 10 feet. Contrary to popular opinion — they may both be power forwards with similar physiques and offer little in the way of floor-spacing — their skills sets are enormously complementary.
Both players took higher quality shots from the field with the other on the court than off. Their ability to coalesce on the offensive end is not a question. The real question is whether or not Barnes can become an All-NBA caliber player in his own right. And what he’ll play like when that happens.
In many ways, Barnes is incomparable. Of course, every player is — player comparisons are meaningless because the further you dive into an individual, the more you realize his uniqueness. As if to prove the point, FiveThirtyEight lists among Barnes’s 10 most comparable players explosive point guard Russell Westbrook, explosive driver Jaylen Brown, and forwards like Thaddeus Young and Rudy Gay. Perhaps the only commonality between the players on the list is that they were, in their primes, all freakishly athletic.
That is maybe the most definitive quality of Barnes. He will always be among the biggest, strongest, and most athletic players on any court, and when he unfurls his wingspan for a hook or push shot, there’s nobody in the league he can’t shoot over — even making Joel Embiid look small in the playoffs. In many ways, his most accurate athletic comparison might be Giannis Antetokounmpo — although Antetokounmpo’s athletic development was preposterous in that he was the longest and lankiest player in the league yet somehow became the strongest, too. Barnes is strong, but he’s a long way from strength like that. Barnes does have a few athletic advantages over Antetokounmpo, namely his hips; Barnes is always square to the rim, no matter where it looks like his center of mass or momentum is carrying him. That made for some preposterous finishes that somehow look easy for Barnes. This clip looks like a normal faceup hook out of the post, but look where he picks up his dribble; he’s facing the opposite direction! His ability to square himself to the rim stands alone.
The jumper needs work. The defensive attention to detail, particularly when getting out of his stance guarding the dribble, needs to come a long way. That’s normal stuff for a rookie. His jumper looks improved already this offseason. Practically everyone gets better at defense over the course of their careers, particularly the ones who are already fine at it.
A fully weaponized Barnes will likely spend a huge amount of time in the post, where his touch and size can allow him easy shots every time against single coverage. He’s already a terrific scorer out of broken plays — offensive rebounding, transition, keeper plays, and cuts. He’s a visionary passer. He’s one of the most automatic rim finishers in the league, and he’s getting better and better at finding his way there. Last season, he averaged 4.7 drives per game. At his peak, that could be more like 14.7. (Siakam drove 14.3 times per game this season.) Barnes will dabble in the pick and roll — where he was Toronto’s most efficient ball handler already this past season. His shot chart tilts wildly towards the midrange, which isn’t a bad thing for a player a team’s trying to build a team around. Maybe he’ll constantly bully opponents into the midrange for simple fades and push shots a la Kawhi Leonard. Maybe he’ll jump over them.
The constant of every vision of future Barnes is the rim. He already dominates there, shooting better within 10 feet than Ja Morant or Siakam. At his best, touching the ball on every possession, Barnes should decimate opposing defensive structures by hitting the paint on every possession. Siakam could return to hitting some corner triples, cutting, and attacking against single coverage. He hasn’t seen fewer than three bodies on a drive for approximately 2.5 years. Right now Siakam is asked to bend defenses and take advantage of those alterations; as a result, he took some of the hardest shots in the league last year. If Barnes can bend the structure, then Siakam’s load will immeasurably lighten. His shots will be easy. And the championship speaks to Siakam’s success when he takes easy shots.
This doesn’t even mention some of the best talent on the Raptors. All-Star VanVleet will fit around anyone because he’s one of the best shooters the league has ever seen. (Really.) Gary Trent jr. is enormously valuable. OG Anunoby can still become a star. Precious Achiuwa has the most unique developmental path on the team. VanVleet and Siakam alone alongside Barnes is unique. But the full collection of talent will make the most sense if Barnes becomes the best player on the team. The skills he already employs are a brilliant foundation; he doesn’t need to add anything he hasn’t already shown a proclivity for.
More than anything, the Raptors are uniquely positioned to support Barnes’s growth into a star. The only team since 2000 with as many All Stars and All-NBA players alongside a rookie of the Year were the 2002-03 Phoenix Suns with All-Star Shawn Marion and All-Star and All-NBA Stephon Marbury. They went on to redefine basketball in the modern era (after losing Marbury, of course, and adding Steve Nash). The Raptors have this era’s defining moments firmly in the future. With Siakam and VanVleet already among the best in the league, and Barnes hopefully about to be, who knows what the league will look like when the Raptors are done with it?