1. The corner three is being prioritized
One of the changes we were most certain of Rajakovic making this year was a renewed emphasis on the corner three. If offences are designed to produce shots at the rim and corner threes, it stands to reason that good defences will want to limit those. For years, the Raptors bet that forcing turnovers and making stars uncomfortable were priorities, and if it meant role players got more corner looks, so be it. For a few years, it worked excellently. By the end of last year, it was time for a tweak.
And tweak they have. Raptors opponents are taking 7.7 per cent of their shots from the corner, the lowest mark they’ve allowed since 2017-18 under Dwane Casey. It’s the 10th-lowest rate in the league, after finishing top-three in each of the last four seasons.
That’s a dramatic turnaround. What’s even more encouraging is that all of those shots have been funnelled into lower-efficiency areas – the Raptors aren’t giving up many above-the-break threes, either, and they’ve gotten slightly better at keeping opponents away from the rim. It’s a step in the right direction.
2. They’re forcing far fewer turnovers, but it hasn’t cost them in transition offence
There are a lot of reasons to prioritize forcing turnovers on defence. For one, live-ball turnovers are the surest bet for points in the other direction, so they have both a scoreboard and a psychological swing effect. One of the unsaid reasons the Raptors emphasized the steal is that their halfcourt offence was not particularly strong. To wit, the Raptors pulled off a rare feat last year of being 25th in halfcourt offence but 12th in offence overall; that was thanks to a terrorizing transition attack.
The (minor) fear with dialing back the aggression this year was that fewer live turnovers would mean less transition offence. Since we don’t expect the halfcourt offence to be particularly strong, taking away those easy, high-efficiency transition opportunities could really hurt the overall offence.
So far, that hasn’t been the case. Toronto has had four games with transition production in the 92nd percentile or better, and the Spurs game was the only one they’ve been below-average in that regard.
While the Raptors have been able to run less (16.8 per cent of possessions, down from 17.6), they’ve been even more effective when they do. The result is the fourth-best transition attack in the league, down ranking wise but up on a per-possession basis from last year. That includes the league’s best offence attacking after grabbing a live defensive rebound, no surprise given the way Toronto’s wings and Dennis Schroder look to push.
A year ago at this time, the common chatter around the NBA was ‘What’s up with Scottie Barnes?’
Twelve months later the question remains the same, but the context is entirely different. After a lacklustre follow-up to his ebullient rookie year, Barnes has been one of the most exciting stories in the NBA in the opening weeks of the season.
What’s up with Scottie Barnes?
Pretty much everything. The 22-year-old out of Florida State is coming off his latest masterpiece in what is shaping up to be a season worthy of a gallery show. On Sunday in San Antonio — in an afternoon start designed to showcase French star Victor Wembanyama for a prime-time European viewing audience — Barnes stole the show.
The final stat line was impressive: 30 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, three blocks, three steals and five made threes.
Those kinds of outings simply don’t fall from trees. He’ll get his chance to follow it on Wednesday in Dallas as the Raptors take on the Mavericks on their third date of a four-game road swing. But before that, it’s worth reflecting on what Barnes did Sunday and what it could mean going forward.
Barnes’s overall game was one for the ages. In fact, until Barnes did it on Sunday, no one had put up a line with those totals (or more) in NBA history.
Even if you back out the five-made threes — which trims out multiple generations of league greats who played when even taking five threes in a game was a feat (Barnes took 10 Sunday) — the ability to score, rebound, pass, and make plays defensively at the volume the Raptors forward (guard? centre?) did on Sunday is incredibly rare.
Only 23 players have ever matched a 30-11-6-3-3 stat line. It’s only happened 40 times in league history and only once in the past five seasons.
But more significant is that through seven games — and further if you want to count his dominant pre-season play — Barnes’s latest game is simply representative of the level he’s been at all season.
The 2021 NBA rookie-of-the-year is set to blow past his career-best marks in nearly every category if he can maintain anything close to the pace he’s on now.
At last season’s Media Day, Pascal Siakam made a memorable statement, “For me, after the year that I had, I just feel like there’s so much things I can get better on, and for me, the next step, like I’ve been All-NBA, I’ve been an All-Star. I want to be a top-five player in the league.”
You can’t really blame him for what he said. Despite a slow start to his season, Siakam still finished the 2021-22 campaign as 1 of only 5 players to average at least 22 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists (ranking 3rd among those 5 in Win Shares). While he would play well enough to crack the All-Star team (as an injury replacement), Siakam could never reach the elite tier of NBA superstars the Toronto Raptors will face this week in Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum.
Top-5 status may not be in Siakam’s future but it does seem possible for Scottie Barnes!
When I quoted Uncle Ben from Spiderman in my Barnes preseason preview, even I didn’t anticipate the responsibility Scottie would take on for this team. He has been everything the Raptors could’ve asked for and more!
Early season sample size, obviously, but Ya Boy Scottie is averaging 22.6 points, 9.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.1 steals, and 2.1 blocks. Only two players in NBA history have averaged 20/10/5/1/2 over an entire season: Kevin Garnett (in his lone MVP season) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who did it twice, with the first instance leading to an MVP).
He’s 9th in Win Shares, 7th in Box Plus/Minus, and 4th in Value Over Replacement Player. Among Forwards, Barnes ranks 2nd in Block Percentage, 5th in Offensive Rebounding Percentage (on field goal attempts), and 5th in Long-Mid range FG% — or as I like to call it, the DeRoZone (trademark pending).
The beginning of this season has been a roller-coaster of ride. With Barnes and O.G. Anunoby carrying this team, you’d have to think Masai Ujiri is chuckling just a little bit to himself. One of them has never been in trade discussions while the other has garnered a king’s ransom…..and they’re both proving why Ujiri values them so highly.
Anunoby’s numbers don’t jump out like Barnes’, but O.G.’s been the defensive quarterback that’s leading Darko Rajakovic’s elite defense. With O.G. shutting down the opposition’s best offensive player, Scottie has excelled so far as an excellent help defender. They’ll both be put to the ultimate tests with visits to Dallas and Boston this week.
He can shoot, he can drive, he can finish inside and out. He wants to be regarded as an overall threat — not just a guy who can guard anyone the team needs him to.
“I don’t just play one way,” Anunoby said after the Raptors worked out here Tuesday afternoon. “I never thought of myself just as a defensive guy, I see myself as a two-way player. I work hard on offence, too.”
That so far early in this season Anunoby has guarded the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard in the same game, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns in another game and DeMar DeRozan and Victor Wembanyama just for a bit of variety speaks to his formidable defensive skills and comes as no surprise to anyone who’s watched the Raptors for even a little while.
But that he’s handled those assignments so well while also shooting 42.5 per cent from three-point range on nearly seven attempts per game on average and shooting at a 56 per cent clip from the field overall backs up his “two-way” player claim in rather impressive fashion.
There may be regression as the season wears on but Anunoby averaging 16.2 points per game as, at best, the third offensive option — and maybe the fourth if you put Dennis Schröder or Gary Trent Jr. alongside Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam in the scoring pecking order — is certainly going to help a Raptors offence that can be unwatchable at times.
And it fits into Anunoby’s vision for himself.
“Guys are looking for me, (I’m) just being ready to shoot them and no matter if I miss a couple keep shooting because I work on it,” he said. “And just being aggressive from all over the floor, not just shooting. If I have a driving lane, drive; if the pass is there, pass it. Just being a player, making the right play.
“Just being a two-way player.”
There is no doubt, though, that Anunoby’s defensive abilities are what fans and NBA insiders notice when they watch the Raptors.
He is always guarding the best player on the opposing team — a challenge he willingly accepts — and almost always does a great job of it.
It’s impossible to stop the top scorers from scoring on every defensive effort but Anunoby’s combination of strength, size, quickness and intelligence always gives him a chance to get a stop.
Through seven contests, Barnes has scored 20 or more points six times, something he needed 30 games to do last season. His improved jumper passes more than just the eye test – he’s shooting 42 per cent from three-point range, up from 28 per cent last season, on nearly twice as many attempts per game (5.4). That he’s quickly establishing himself as the Raptors’ closer is not a big surprise – he led them in fourth-quarter scoring a year ago, while shooting 24-for-44 in “clutch” situations (Pascal Siakam hit three fewer shots on 14 more attempts). The difference is that Barnes is no longer waiting until those end-of-game scenarios to make his mark. With a focus on strength and conditioning this past summer, he’s getting off to quicker starts and sustaining his energy over the course of a full game.
The sample size is getting bigger and bigger with each passing game, and the leap that people expected Barnes to take as a sophomore is happening before our eyes in Year 3. We’re witnessing a 22-year-old graduate from ‘future face of the franchise’ to ‘face of the franchise,’ which alters the Raptors’ trajectory in more ways than one. Of course, if Barnes can continue to develop at or near this rate and grow into an all-star calibre player, or better, it raises their ceiling in the short and long term.
It could, and probably should, also change the way they approach the decision-making process. It’s not that they haven’t been valuing Barnes as a cornerstone piece – they’ve declined to include him in offers for Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard in consecutive summers, after all. Still, Barnes’ development needs to be considered with every personnel decision they make moving forward, and they’ve got some big ones coming up.
This is not a call to blow it up and build around Barnes, as a loud segment of the fan base has clamoured for in the past. His recent emergence reaffirms their reluctance to rebuild in full. Barnes only has a year left on his rookie deal after this season and will be eligible for a contract extension next fall. You can understand why the Raptors would prefer to nurture the former Rookie of the Year in a competitive environment, instead of subjecting him to an indefinite period of losing. The question will be: who do they surround him with to get the most out of the player and team?
In addition to Barnes’ breakout, his chemistry with Anunoby has been an early-season bright spot.
Anunoby’s ability to space the floor – he’s shooting 43 per cent on a team-high 6.8 three-point attempts per contest – without demanding the ball makes him an ideal complement to Barnes’ game on offence. However, their versatility on the defensive end is what really sets them apart as a duo. There isn’t a tandem in the league that can cover as much ground as they can, each of them capable of guarding all five positions.
The Raptors are holding opponents to 96.1 points per 100 possessions with Anunoby on the floor. For context, that’s 13.8 points fewer than Cleveland’s NBA-best defensive rating from last season. That number drops to 93.9 points per 100 possessions when Anunoby and Barnes share the court. Of the 226 NBA duos who have logged at least 120 minutes together so far, none have a better defensive rating than those two, and only three pairings have a better net rating (+21.6).
15. Scottie Barnes | SF | Toronto Raptors
Age: 22 years, 98 days
2023-24 stats: 22.6 PPG | 9.9 RPG | 5.9 APG
After a step back from his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2021-22, Barnes is off to a strong start to his third season that could vault him up future lists. Handling the ball more after Fred VanVleet’s offseason departure, Barnes scored 20-plus points in six of his first seven games, including his second career triple-double. Barnes has increased both his volume and accuracy as a 3-point shooter, addressing his single biggest weakness. — Pelton
As Scottie Barnes has flourished this year, Siakam’s offense has tumbled with a usage rate now sitting at 20.8%, essentially a glorified offensive role player.
For context, Siakam isn’t even Toronto’s second-most-used offensive player this season. Dennis Schröder owns that title with a 21% usage rate while Barnes is sitting at 25%, a surprisingly low number for the team’s most-used offensive weapon. Around the league, players like Jonas Valanciunas, Andrew Wiggins, and Naz Reid all have a higher usage rate than Siakam.
Part of that transition away from Siakam is certainly offensive innovation from the Raptors who have moved toward a more egalitarian offense focused on ball-movement rather than mismatch hunting. There was always an expectation that Siakam’s shot attempts would come down a tad, as they have by nearly five per game, but the hope was better efficiency would allow Siakam to keep his box score stats relatively similar.
That just hasn’t been the case for the 29-year-old soon-to-be unrestricted free agent.
Siakam is shooting a career-worst 41.2% from the floor through seven games and his points per game have cratered to 15.4, the lowest number since his sophomore season.
It is, of course, early in the season and there’s plenty of time for Siakam to bounce back. Last season, for example, he went through a seven-game stretch in early March in which he averaged 15.9 points on 41.1% shooting but nobody remembers that in an otherwise impressive campaign because it was mid-season rather than the entire sample size of Siakam’s year.
But as Barnes continues to flourish in Toronto’s new system, questions about Siakam’s fit alongside his burgeoning teammate will only get louder.
The Raptors made it clear this season that they weren’t willing to commit to Siakam long-term because they wanted to see how he’d fit within this new system. Early returns have left something to be desired. That doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way, but if it does, Siakam’s time with the Raptors may be nearing an end.
1. How will the Raptors do this season?
Just over 41% of respondents think the Raptors will be a Top 6 playoff team, while 40% see a play-in berth. The other 18% and change think this team is heading for the lottery.
2. How would you grade Toronto’s off-season?
Just over 49% of respondents handed Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and the front office a grade of B to C+. But 38% weren’t as positive, going with C to D-. Only 7.6% went with A+ to B- and 5.26% went with an F.
3. Were you hoping they would trade for Damian Lillard and sacrifice future assets?
An easy win for the anti-Lillard crowd, with about 80% saying no and 20% saying yes.
4. How do you feel about the draft selection of Gradey Dick?
More than two-thirds (68%) thought Dick was a solid player, so a solid pick. But 13% think Dick will be a star, so loved the pick. Another 11% or so wanted Kobe Bufkin or someone else and 7% think Dick will be a total bust
5. Was firing Nick Nurse the right call?
The Raptors have already lost to Nurse’s new team, the Philadelphia 76ers, twice this season. But this survey was released before those games and 88% think firing Nurse was the right move, 12% disagree.
It is a crucial message to deliver for a team that is going to have more than the average number of rough shooting nights. The Raptors are shooting 35.8 percent from deep, 16th in the NBA, but they don’t have as much pure shooting as other teams.
Dick, the Raptors’ first-round pick in June, is supposed to be a part of changing that. He has started his career making just five of his first 22 3s. Dick doesn’t lack confidence, but head coach Darko Rajaković’s focus on open and direct communication means sometimes making a point once more than you think necessary.
Dick said it was easier to take the notes after a Raptors win, but he prides himself on being coachable at any moment.
“You can’t just take everything in the good spurts. A lot of learning comes from losing and failing,” Dick told The Athletic. “So I feel like learning that now is definitely a big advantage to where I’m not trying to keep hopes up when something good is happening and then (if) something bad unfortunately happens, we lose a game, and then I don’t know how to react.
“With two different guys kind of giving me that wisdom and advice … it’s cool because it’s two different perspectives. You have a player that’s played the game and then you have the coach behind the bench that knows everything and (is in) the coach’s office. So it’s good to get two different sides of the story.”
Rajaković pairs each player with an assistant, and the Dick-Simović pairing dates to the summer. The head coach said he thought it would be a good match because both were just a year removed from college — Simović was at UCLA last year. Indeed, Dick said the relationship began with some “friendly” trash talk.
Now it has blossomed to a place where the first-time NBA assistant can deliver a message in the locker room right after a game.
“We do talk a lot (among the coaching staff) about the vision for each player and how they should be playing,” Rajaković told The Athletic. “And we are unified in a vision (that) we want for the player. But assistant coaches, they play such an integral role in developing those guys. … You don’t want to wait for a player to fail in order to address things. And we as coaches, we gotta have a feel and knowledge — like, ‘What is ahead? What might come next?’ to protect and prepare players for those situations.”
n addition to utilizing his speed and dynamic movement, he’s been favouring plays with a big or spot-up shooting rather notably. His PNR with Poeltl makes sense, after all, he used it rather effectively with Daniel Theis during the World Cup, but unfortunately there’s been some growing pains with Jak. It’s not for lack of trying, as they’ve already tried 40 PNRs in the first 6 games of the season. The issue is finishing, since 22.5% of the time running that play has resulted in a turnover. Not ideal, but definitely way too early to be extremely concerned.
The connection seems to still be developing, but likely will just require some time and practice, getting used to finding each other on the play. When it does work it works really well and is super fun to watch. Schröder seems to find Jak on a bounce pass or over the top as he’s driving, leading to a rim-rocking finish. Hopefully as the season progresses it will improve from a statistical standpoint.
On a different note, his spot-up shooting has been UNREAL. In fact, he’s currently 3rd in the league for points generated through that shot this season. He’s shooting 65.2% and generating 6 pts per game that way, which is over a third of his 15 ppg. As a third option (behind Pascal and Scottie), scoring 15+ a game is pretty solid, but a more important part of his offence would undeniably be his distribution of the ball.
Averaging 9.3 assists per game makes Schröder fifth in the league, just behind Dončić. If we had learned to expect that from him, perhaps it would be less notable, except this is the highest average of Schröder’s entire career, and is more than double what he averaged last season. The most significant part of this is that he’s maintaining a high assist to turnover ratio (5.09), so he’s not just throwing the ball away, he’s finding his marks and generating points for the team. A lot of the passes he’s made have been almost unbelievable:
Part of why this is so encouraging is that it’s proving a lot of growth for Schröder, as one of his biggest issues in the past has been forcing shots for himself when a pass would’ve been the better play. The way the Raptors are running their offence this year doesn’t require isolation or forced shots though, but encourages ball movement which Schroder is proving to be instrumental at. Don’t get me wrong, the system still needs work, but it really seems to fit Schröder’s style of play. He’s making the right call a lot more frequently to create plays.