Scottie Barnes is one of the world’s best passers

Looking closely at one of the NBA's most talented passers.

Scottie Barnes is the Cheshire cat as a passer. His gaze disorients and misdirects those who oppose him, and guides those he likes. It’s hard to even take its measure. I tried to measure his passing, despite the difficulty.

“The passing you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to grind to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.”

Ed Tom Bell, No Country for Old Men

Not all assists are the same. They’re counted the same, of course, but we know what it looks like when someone has gift-wrapped a bucket. The paper boy who drops your paper on the front step is providing a better service than the one who throws the paper haphazardly onto the roof, right? First and last outdated reference, I promise. Barnes is the former, by the way. But, how do you communicate that to someone without telling them to watch every game and every pass and all that? Well, you have me do it. I watched it all and catalogued it, so we can have the numbers and the organized film on just how often Barnes is creating big advantages for teammates. Assists per game is dead. Let’s figure out just how special Barnes is.

“I think in the NBA it’s easier to get assists, to be honest.” Scottie Barnes told me. “If they take a dribble or two, you don’t really get an assist in college. People at this level, they make tough shots. So, I feel like it’s easier to get assists in the NBA. Being able to attack with so much space on the floor, if someone helps, you just make easy kick-out reads. If the big man helps, it’s easy to get it to a roller. Or DHO’s, like I used to do, Gary comes off it and hits that middy, that’s an easy assist. So, I would say it’s easier.”

The ground rules are a mix of show and tell:

Here’s a few examples of no-advantage assists. Basically, you could insert any number of players into Barnes’ position and they generate the same outcome. He’s not bending the defense with motion or creating a better look with a creative pass. These are banal and run of the mill assists. A lot of assists in the NBA are of this variety.

An advantage assist is when a pass puts a teammate in a position of advantage (duh), and they score. Collapsing the defense and finding a good shooter? Advantage created. Threading the needle on a back cut? Advantage created. Getting the big man wide in the pick n’ roll and finding the roller? Advantage created. For the most part, you know it when you see it. If you can get guys buckets where they don’t have to dribble and they’re not facing heavy contests, you’re getting a lot of advantage assists.

Of Barnes’ 312 assists this season, 266 came in the halfcourt (46 in transition). Of the 266 in the halfcourt, 135 came as advantage assists – 40 advantage layups, 26 advantage dunks, 55 advantage triples, 13 advantage floaters, and 1 advantage middy.

For reference, over Draymond Green’s last 5 games he has 29 halfcourt assists and 15 of those were advantage assists. Jayson Tatum over his last 5 games has 27 halfcourt assists, and 12 were advantaged. The overwhelming majority of Tatum’s were 3-pointers, because he’s a driving force downhill who collapses the defense. The majority of Green’s were layups, because of all the cutting actions they run off of him while defenses are stretched out due to the spacing. Different roles and contexts = different outcomes. Over 65 games, 51-percent of Barnes’ halfcourt assists were advantaged. Over 5 games, 52-percent of Green’s and 44-percent of Tatum’s were advantaged. It’s imperfect, and a smaller sample size, but I can’t watch everything of everyone, so a small sample of one of the greatest passing bigs ever in Green, and one of the league’s best offensive engines in Tatum seemed like a good little comp.

The advantage assists are a lot more interesting because we can break that one down even further. As far as categories under advantage, I’ve organized these into:

Passing talent hitting tight windows

Movement creation

Passing vision

Laydowns and downhill reads

Reading defense on long passes

Baseline playmaking

Live-dribble lefties

Hit aheads and post-entries


There will be a short explanation accompanying the film for every single one on why it’s important, but if you want this can just be a cool place to watch a bunch of different passes. Before we kick it off, please consider subscribing to the website. This is what keeps the site alive, the writers paid, and helps us avoid a catastrophe like what happened with Vox and SB Nation. It’s what ensures that Raptors Republic continues to be the #1 place to go for analysis of the Raptors. If you don’t want to subscribe, please consider sharing this piece if you liked it. Okay, spiel over. Enjoy.

So, these are the tight-window passes. Examples that make it clear how Barnes reads developing plays for his teammates and can make passes that have very little margin for error. Almost as if he quietly asks the basketball: “feeling skinny?” before feathering it into the hands of a teammate. There’s not much here except Barnes putting the ball exactly where it needs to be.

So, this is my favourite to watch, and this playmaking is where you can really see his star qualities. He’s coming down the lane at full speed and throwing no-look lobs? Sign me up, man. This creation is due to his movement on ball. His threat as a scorer, creates movement in the defense that he can exploit as a passer. Snaking the pick n’ roll before creating a wide-open corner triple. Drawing the low-man rotation before dishing to Achiuwa for a dunk. Filling in at Siakam’s spot in the Raptors favourite play. Scoop lobs at full speed, in-stride push passes, and straight-to-the-point passes to the roller that find his man way quicker because of his length. (In the same way that tall pitchers see their pitches reach the mound faster because their arms are literally closer, Barnes’ passes have a different rhythm because of his size.) You can see the defense responding to his driving game, respecting it, and he’s making the exact reads he needs to.

“I don’t really think I try to force anything. I’m just trying to make the right basketball play, so it works out.”

Scottie Barnes

These passes fall under passing vision. Some are live-dribble plays, some aren’t, but what ties a lot of these reads together is Barnes’ willingness to let the play develop. One of the most underrated skills a passer can have is the ability to let defenses play themselves out of position while you stay still. Defenses will often mimic the ball handler — so, if you stay still they might freeze with you and be more susceptible to cutting. If you’re moving a lot, they will too. — and the best passers know when they have to make a defense move, and when they want it to stay still. Raptors fans will have fond memories of Kyle Lowry excelling at this, and Barnes is no different. He really understands the pace of the game.

He doesn’t find Siakam as soon as Kyle Kuzma doubles; he waits until VanVleet sets the rub screen. He picks up his dribble in transition and the seas part for Anunoby vs. the Knicks. Waiting until the moment of ultimate opportunity when Quickley turns his back to VanVleet. Endless patience waiting for the opportunity, and no time wasted capitalizing on it.

Not often talked about in playmaking? Players’ understanding of vertical space and their teammates catch radius. This is where it’s important to highlight just how good Barnes is at hit-ahead passes and post entries. These passes make him uber-valuable on the break because of his ability to recognize the early work being done by his teammates, and the passing talent it takes to put the ball just out of reach of the defender and just in the reach of his teammate. It also means that the Raptors get a lot more value out of using him as a trigger man when they want to run their wings through sets into post mismatches. A lot of players in the NBA have trouble making post-entry passes from 8-10 feet away, and Barnes’ talent in this regard is a major standout.

Now we’ve gotten to the barebones of playmaking. If you’re someone who can get downhill, and be dangerous while doing so, you’re going to have playmaking opportunities ahead of you. Lay downs and downhill reads. Can you find the man in the dunker spot when the pass is easy? Can you draw the low man out of the dunker if he’s reluctant to leave it? Can you spy the 45-cuts into the paint? Do you keep a watchful eye on the weak-side and the activity there? Barnes sees it all, and can make every single pass, whether it requires a bit more manipulation or if the read is available right away.

Context is everything. The teammates you play with, the offensive scheme, and your own strengths. All of this has resulted in Barnes playing along the baseline quite often because of his time in the dunker spot, and his post-up opportunities. Baseline playmaking. An anxious spot for a lot of passers, because as you’ve heard every coach say: the baseline is another defender. As fans, we never really see the game from anywhere except the birds eye view – where playmaking looks a lot easier, because it’s not clouded by the length and height on the court. A lot of players have trouble making quick reads of the floor near the baseline, yet Barnes doesn’t drop off at all. He’ll make plays up court, bring defenders up with him to open the baseline for others, and find any cutter available. Place him anywhere on the court and he’ll figure it out.

One of the easiest ways to get a sense for how a player reads a defense is if they can anticipate rotations that are going to be made and stay one step ahead of the defense. With Barnes, this is really easy to tell because of his reads on long passes.

“He’s that kind of player, first of all. I think that he likes that. We’ve seen that from day one. He likes the look away, he likes to share the ball.”

Nick Nurse on Scottie Barnes’ passing

He knows Ayo Dosunmu wants to cover the pass to Boucher, so he looks him into it before finding VanVleet. He knows Banton’s cut through the lane is going to keep the low man occupied, so he times the pass to Boucher accordingly. He knows Fox is zoning up the weak-side, so he directs him above the break before finding Siakam in the corner. He knows what the defense is trying to do, and will encourage them in the direction he likes. Cheshire cat passer.

Live dribble lefties, because I’m a lefty and these are really slick passes.

When it comes to transition, I think most people are aware of Barnes’ prowess. The Magic Johnson comps didn’t come out of nowhere, and he’s masterful at managing the lanes in transition — be it as a scorer or as a passer. He’s already one of the best transition players in basketball, and these types of possessions will allow him to boost efficiency for himself and his team throughout his career. He just makes so few mistakes, makes the optimal read so often, and pressures the defense unrelentingly when he has these opportunities.

A ridiculous touchdown pass to Gary Trent Jr., two massive blocks against the Bulls before keeping the ball until the last moment when the defense steps up and he can shovel to Siakam for a wide-open dunk, and a half-court lob placed perfectly for Poeltl. It’s absurd, and this is a tiny, tiny sample of what he does.

Another fun place to look for cutting-edge passing development? Turnovers. Similar to assists, not all turnovers are created equal. Some are boring, and horrible, and point to a lack of focus. Some are jet packs of fun that are on a wonderful trajectory until a great defensive play or offensive miscommunication happens. We’re talking about high-reward turnovers and low-reward turnovers.

Here’s what low-reward turnovers look like:

Here’s what high reward turnovers look like:

Barnes has a great ratio on his passing turnovers this season. Of his 74 passing turnovers, 32 were of the high-risk variety. That means close to half of his passing turnovers were just inches away from being assists. And while it would be silly to just assume that those become assists — they are turnovers, after all — at least the process behind these decisions is the same process that drives scoring. If you’re going to turn the ball over, you might as well be trying to reach a high outcome on the possession. Be dangerous.

Even with Barnes being dangerous, he still takes great care of the ball. He’s easily clearing the benchmark of the 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio (4.8 to 2), and some of those could just as well be assists instead. This is a great indicator of his passing talent, vision, and process.

In early February, I asked Nick Nurse about Barnes achieving a 3-to-1 assist ration over a large stretch of games, and his playmaking: “He’s been good. What you mentioned about the past 30 games, he’s been pretty tough lately. And I would say that’s probably the reason that we’ve been better. He’s been a lot better.”

Passing isn’t the same as playmaking. You can make plays, and create great shots despite being a less talented passer if you’re a supremely gifted scorer. It takes less passing talent to dump the ball off when you’ve reached the paint than it does to fit the ball through a pinhole on a back cut. Siakam and VanVleet are both better playmakers than Barnes simply because the rest of their offensive games are more equipped to score and collapse defenses. Barnes is many years their junior, though.

By next season, Barnes could very well be the Raptors best playmaker. This season, and from the moment he was drafted, he’s been their best passer. Nothing is off the table for him, and as far as passing talent alone goes? He’s one of the very best in the NBA. He’s making a killing on the difficult stuff. Imagine what it’ll look like when he starts creating the easier way? He’s sitting just outside the top-50 in the NBA in assists per game, but he’s above the 90th percentile in both assist percentage and assist-to-usage among forwards this season. He’s packing a lot of playmaking into very little time relative to the league’s elite playmakers. There’s a lot of room for growth, for transitioning that passing into added playmaking.

Hopefully this taught you a whole bunch about Barnes’ playmaking. And if it didn’t? You were already set, because there isn’t a more exhaustive look at it than what you found here. Once again, if you’re interested, consider subscribing to the website to support more work like this. It’s our calling card.

Have a blessed day.