Directing Traffic: Scottie Barnes drains the sink

Scottie Barnes beat the extreme defenses in front of him. Here's how.

Much has been made of the recent surge in the very aggressively, unaggressive defense that Scottie Barnes has faced. Opposing centers line up across from him, and like gunslingers of old, take 10 paces back before engaging in a duel. It was jarring for Barnes, and viewers. With the likes of Myles Turner and Brook Lopez sitting on the opposite end of all the space afforded, it were as if Moses parted the Red Sea and saw the army on the other side, instead of behind him.

Ben Simmons comparisons were made, jokes were made, and that's fine, but that can only last so long. Barnes, unlike Simmons, will crash headfirst into his limitations in an attempt to soar over them. He's also a tremendous problem solver on the court. Space = possibility, and Barnes is as creative as they come. He found ways to conquer this defensive scheme, so let's look at them.

Here's the baseline appeal from the Raptors point of view: Barnes doesn't flash any of his outlier skills as a passer here, and he doesn't do much of anything besides commit to helping his teammates, which is a huge deal. On a play where it seems like all he did was finish, he set a screen to force a switch, made sure to make contact and provide clearance on the ensuing screen, found the pocket as a roller even if he didn't get the pass, then found the pocket in the dunker spot as Fred VanVleet weaponized his own motion and created a great look. The second play? More screens, more motion, and physicality under the bucket that Aaron Nesmith wasn't equipped to deal with. All topped off with some nice touch.

When I asked Scottie about this new role, he seemed positive about it: "Seeing it constantly over these last five, six games, just trying to adapt to the role. I have to say I like it, being able to facilitate the offense, moving it side to side, being able to go downhill, attacking the rim. I like it. Just trying to move the ball and get a start for the offense.”

Not every young star would buy in this way, and while we'll highlight more of Barnes' star-like plays in a bit, it's his willingness to wheel-grease for everyone else that makes this viable.

"It’s a good spot for him. Obviously, with the group that we’ve got he can do a lot of different things but if they’re gonna sag off him, just being able to play next action and let him playmake from there versus having him bring the ball up and try to organize the offense." VanVleet said of Barnes being utilized in this position. "He’s already catching it in a playmaking position, that short roll, 17-feet. He’s a great passer, knows the reads and he’s been setting good screens and just making plays."

I asked Barnes if he's enjoyed being more involved as a screener in addition to the bump in decision making: “Yeah, just being able to set them. I feel like a lot of times we lift out of the way without really setting them. That’s the good thing about being a good teammate, trying to set screens for other people, being able for them to get their shots off of screens. I try to take pride in screening so other people can get open.”

In the 36 games prior to the Pacers game, the Raptors had 10 performances where their halfcourt offense was above league average -- via Cleaning The Glass, which takes points per play in the halfcourt, and references it against every teams offense in the NBA -- and from the Indiana game onwards, the Raptors have been above average in four out of five. The only game where they weren't was against the Bucks, and while the team didn't necessarily figure things out, Barnes definitely did.

Over these past 5 games -- 2 wins, 3 losses -- the Raptors are +21 with Barnes on the floor, and while his raw numbers have only been marginally better than his season averages, his regular 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is at 5-to-1 in this stretch. Barnes has always had a tremendous sense of how offense should be run. However, in his young NBA career he doesn't have the ball skills or scoring skills to shoulder being a primary initiator at the NBA level, which will probably come at some point. In this role, the Raptors get to put the ball in his hands a lot, and his enormous size becomes a blockade for defenders chasing his teammates. His touches have gone up during this stretch, the touch time has gone down, and yes, he's still scoring more. Less reliance on his handle, his burst, and more reliance on his size, vision, and rapid decision making.

As you can see, there's some awkwardness to begin, and it's saved by Pascal Siakam running an NFL caliber route to break some ankles and hit a shot, and another quick trigger three. But, Barnes pretty quickly figures out that he can open up space with quick decisions and lots of screening.

"I think just a little more decisive, you know what I mean? Going from one side to the other, not staying on the same side with his actions, just having a better idea that he's going to get off it a little, you know, quicker decisions and that's really like something we've been talking about." Nick Nurse said after the Charlotte win, of Barnes' improvements in this role, and how he continues to provide value for them. "It's time to make a play. It's take the shot. It's drive it to the rim or it's get it to the next action. It's not dribble it in the same spot or hold it in the same spot and think and look and just take the next action to keep it going."

And here's where the Raptors get to be a little more creative. A pet set to get Barnes a disguised screen (so they don't go under at the POA) and they know they're playing deep drop against him, so no help coming, and that opens up a massive lob for Achiuwa on the weak side. Great play, great pass. Next up, Barnes is as composed as a 15 year vet as he crab dribbles in the lane, keeps help defense at bay, and slowly lulls Turner under the bucket before leaping into action for a finish. Awesome.

The rest of this article is paywalled, as is all of my writing at RR. For further analysis on Scottie Barnes, and the team as a whole: please consider subscribing. Before that though, we'll kill the Ben Simmons comparisons.

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