Scottie Barnes, player of the future

Scottie Barnes could be anything, as long as it's a star.

One of the toughest things to do at the NBA level is to chart a course for your own development. While it might seem intuitive to look at a players game and say what they’re missing, the reality of improving a skill at the NBA level is met by incredible defenders who want to stop you from doing anything. So, what does it look like when a player can be anything?

Who knows what position he plays? He’s one of those guys that just plays basketball. He’s one of those players of the future.

– Masai Ujiri

I asked Masai the question that prompted that answer, hoping to glean some insights on Scottie’s development from a former scout. He threw his hands in the air like the rest of us. If you want the micro, what the Raptors young phenom will be isn’t necessarily something anyone can answer. When a player is teetering on the development of so many skills the only thing you can expect is a range of outcomes. The Raptors, and many people who observe Barnes’ game, consider most of those outcomes in the star tier.

Half the fun of fandom is the wish casting that comes along with potential stardom. For many people, the expected outcomes for DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross were inverted. However, we can at least lean on what we know about Barnes’ game after his rookie season (and College) to try and predict what might be coming in the future. So, what are the cliff notes of Barnes’ season? Let me try and do a paragraph on it.

By seasons end, Barnes was a dominant transition force, capable of taking it all the way to the hoop or passing teammates into easy opportunities. In the halfcourt, he was a rock ’em sock ’em robot with smalls, attacking the rim and short mid-range with reckless abandon and a special level of touch. He was basically unparalleled as an offensive rebounder at his size and position. And on top of all of that he was a positive defender by the time the season wrapped up, largely because of his improvements off-ball. It’s hard for rookies to provide a positive impact, and Barnes did it during the regular season and postseason.

The things he succeeded at really do add credence to Ujiri’s “he’s just one of those guys who plays basketball” comments, because a great deal of Barnes’ success is by proxy of his size, motor, and awareness of how to weaponize those things against the competition. None of what Barnes did on high volume is typical superstar stuff, outside of the isolation buckets. And even those isolation buckets were, largely, Barnes smashing people towards the bucket and hitting push shots, hooks, flips, floaters, and all kinds of the unbelievable in-between stuff. Not the ultra-skilled, finesse that fuels a lot of the best iso players, just brute dominance.

This is why his development is so fascinating.

We typically consider the finesse stuff to be scalable. The finesse stuff means you can run an offense like a star. Deadly pull-up 3-point shooting paired with a good roll man means you get the chase over top, you get the tag on the roller, or you get a 2-on-1, the point is that you’re getting an advantage or forcing rotation. But, the Raptors have built a team that wants to abuse switches, run out in transition, and smash the offensive glass with no regard for human life. This means that Barnes has an opportunity to lean even harder into some of his skills that most people don’t think you can control for – and that’s without improving.

I hear he’s a point guard.

Nick Nurse on Scottie Barnes

And he will improve! The ghosted screen actions that the Raptors love to run with their shooters, we’ve seen Siakam and Barnes dominate on-ball there – more of that! The Raptors listed him as a guard, Barnes said he went to FSU because they said he could be a point guard, and Nick Nurse begrudgingly accepts that moniker for his young star – he will initiate possessions, and no doubt get better at it. Hell, the main attraction of Barnes’ offense coming out of college was his playmaking. While we didn’t see it consistently in the halfcourt, it was brilliant in transition and in broken plays. Once he starts breaking down defenses with regularity, that’s when he starts picking them apart. Maybe that’s putting the cart ahead of the horse, but I do think he’s going to reach that point in his career.

What makes Barnes so unique is that as a young player he came into the league and became a bully. It seems like every star we hear about is this uber-talented, uber-athletic player who needs to adjust to physicality to get their game off. Barnes inverts this principle by asking everyone who defends him to ante up, and many don’t. His first playoff basket ever was a backdown of Tyrese Maxey from the 3-point line, and a drop-step into a dunk with Joel Embiid at the rim. Resort to skill when it’s necessary. Sure, sometimes he’ll hit a step-back from the mid-range in a pinch, and his month of 41-percent shooting on 4 attempts a game from deep was a welcome surprise.

The floor of his game is the length, the tenacity, and the mentality. Every ounce of skill that gets added, makes him all the more dangerous, because you know it will go to use. This isn’t some end of bench combo guard who has a beautiful jumper, tight handle, and a severe aversion to contact – Barnes will use everything he can. If the Raptors are to be believed, that the big, active wing (and 5 of them at once) is the future of basketball? Then Barnes is, as Masai said, a player of the future.

And even if none of that’s true? Barnes will still be a star in some form. It’s just another outcome, in his range of outcomes.

Have a blessed day.

For more on Scottie, check these out:

A very deep dive on Scottie.

Breaking down his iso game:

His partnership with Pascal during the regular season, and the playoffs.

Why he won Rookie of the Year:

And a conversation about his development with scout, Ben Pfeifer:

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