Scottie Barnes is a pick n’ roll wizard

Scottie Barnes is succeeding at the play for stars.

I remember being a 17 year old trying to play my way into a CIS scholarship. I didn’t have a man’s body yet, and I was playing against these huge, chiseled guys who came up from American JUCO schools, and somehow us younger guys had a better shot at scholarships because some of the skill level was higher. They figured it was easier to put us on a workout/meal plan over 4 years than it was to develop ball handling/shooting skills. Skills at the top level, are very hard to develop.

The NBA is all about the 98th to 100th percentile. The best among the best, and those who dominate even that elite group. The worst NBA ball handler and shooter can still go crazy in an open gym run. They can slump into the best basketball you’ve ever seen. After the reports around Scottie Barnes’ work ethic and the like last season, myself and Louis Zatzman wrote about how opaque and impossible to tell those things are, and especially how murky it is as a critique. That Barnes could, of course, be busting his ass to develop. That he could be stuck between the 90th and 97th percentile of a particular skill – heaps of work being done, but just short of manifesting on an NBA court.

Well, my god, if this season isn’t the manifestation of any skill, every skill for Barnes, then what is it? If it seems like Barnes is skipping steps in development? Maybe he is. Going from a 28% 3-point shooter to north of 37% on high volume is an absurdity. Even more so when there’s a healthy amount of pull-ups in there, and almost all of his shots are coming above the break. It could also be that Barnes just wasn’t getting enough credit for his development in year 2. No growth in points per game, a worse percentage from three, sure, but small steps were clearly being made as a playmaker and defender. Barnes has absorbed the defensive change in approach, and come well equipped to unleash his developed skills upon the NBA defenses who oppose him, with a strong understanding of what they’re going to do.

Passivity on film is passivity of sorts, at least. But, when Jayson Tatum says that gameplans have changed for Scottie Barnes, they have. When Louis outlines how much has changed on the Raptors side for him, they have. Some of that passivity has to be assumed as being processing. Sometimes, not attacking the lane with a stampede cut is lack of preparation and lack of conviction. Sometimes, it’s seeing the defense floating defenders into your driving lanes to play goalie, and zoning up the other spots. If you’re a player who isn’t used to seeing a super engaged second level and all the different machinations of defenses that are more purposeful in stopping you… passivity may come.

Myself, Black Box Report, 2022

Sometimes development comes rapidly, and unexpectedly. I did about as much analysis as possible on Barnes’ pick n’ rolls from 22-23 (watching, tracking all of them), and in one offseason he’s turned a weakness into a strength. I wanna talk about Barnes’ terrific pick n’ rolling of late. Barnes has suddenly become a positive in the play that most often fuels superstars. Among all Raptors, through 11 games, the Barnes + whoever pick n’ roll reigns supreme. Let’s watch some film together.

Just tryna attack downhill, and when I see the big commit, dropping it off or taking it to the rim. If they overhelp, find the corner. It’s just about playing basketball, and making the right reads.

Scottie Barnes on his pick n’ roll decision making

So, something that Barnes didn’t get a lot of last year? Regular, over, pick n’ roll coverage. He hasn’t hit a ton of pull up 3’s and his first step isn’t lightning quick to turn the corner against a defender shooting the gap. Who gave him that coverage, though? The Bucks. The Bucks love lock and trail at the point of attack, and their coverage is a reflection of who they typically have in deep drop – Brook Lopez. However, the biggest difference between Barnes and the guards Lopez usually drops against? Everything.

If Fred VanVleet or Steph Curry see Lopez in deep drop they’re gonna ask their big to set the screen higher so they can try and pull up from downtown, and if the lock and trail defender is sticky, they’ll accelerate towards the paint for a middy or a floater. Why would they ever try Lopez at the rim? Barnes wants the smoke. Always. Lopez at the rim is just another guy at the rim to Barnes, and so deep drop is just a runway for him. He’s a huge hulking player, who is an ambidextrous finisher with great touch to hit any variety of shot within 10 feet. He did just that.

“I mean, first of all he (Scottie Barnes) can come off that screen and make a lot of tough shots. He kind of forces the defense to react to him. Forces the defense to make mistakes right there.” Jakob Poeltl told me after the Bucks game. “With his size, he can read the court very well. He has good angles to pass the ball, like from different kinds of positions.”

Maybe I’m asking too much here, but I’d like to go over the next 9 plays one by one. Feel free to watch on your own, but I wanna walk through these.

  1. Middleton is ice-ing this pick n’ roll, and he wants to play Barnes into Beasley who is next-ing (a type of defensive rotation from one pass away). Barnes takes the ice, sees the next and snakes to get away from it. In doing so, he drags Lopez a bit wider and pulls Beasley past Poeltl’s rolling lane. By getting wide, he opens up the space Poeltl needs and finds him for the layup the moment he hits the passing window. This is masterful stuff.
  2. Late game, need a bucket. Barnes calls Chris Boucher into the action because he got Poole on the cross match. Siakam got Poole on the game winner, Barnes gets him here. Poole tries to step up and turn Barnes’ driving lane wider, but Barnes clears him and hits the contact layup over Kuzma. Nice work here.
  3. We get a blitz. Barnes quickly bails out of it and finds Achiuwa to reset into a pick n’ roll. Portis is playing up to touch and does a good job splitting the difference. Payne actually plays great defense while staying attached to Barnes’ hip, Middleton has a great dig, and somehow Barnes throws a fastball in the rim. This is just insane touch. Maybe not the best process, but stars hit shots they shouldn’t.
  4. This one is pretty simple. The Raptors run spain (Schroder back screening Embiid), and Barnes’ pacing is fantastic before a huge gather and long steps transport him to the bucket for an easy layup.
  5. I love this one. Jrue and Horford play under to switch because Achiuwa starts plowing downhill. Barnes takes the drive back into Achiuwa’s wake to confuse the coverage (do we switch it back? will Achiuwa slip if we do?), and I love that decision. Barnes gets to his spot, stop and pop. Easy.
  6. Drag screen with Otto Porter Jr., and the Celtics just switch even though Porzingis is in a deep drop. Barnes takes the space, gets into a very practiced combo, and cans the middy. And yes, Barnes is still shooting over 60-percent on his middy pull-up, which is insane.
  7. Raptors run Chicago at the top, Jones Jr. uses the stab step to go under and meet Barnes on the other side. Barnes immediately crosses back over to initiate a re-screen (which is a good thought), but Poeltl is diving so Barnes initiates the iso. Big man, big trouble. Bullies Jones Jr. to get to his spot, and hits the lil fader. Great stuff. Star stuff.
  8. Caruso is pressing hard. He’s one of the only players his size in the NBA that can get away with this vs. Barnes. He’s ice-ing as well. Barnes takes this challenge, rejects the McDaniels screen that’s coming and just works Caruso into the paint, where Barnes makes a really nice leaner. This is really good, feisty defense from Caruso, but Barnes is better here.
  9. Takes the blitz against the Spurs, only this time he keeps his dribble alive, attacks downhill to collapse the defense and moves the ball on to OG who has an easy 2-on-1 situation against McDermott who is zoning up the weak-side. OG makes the right call, after Barnes did the same. Bucket.

There’s more pick n’ roll film from Barnes this year, but I love the diversity of decision making and execution from Barnes in these 9.

“We talked about and worked with Scottie the last 48 hours – since the last game, that (pick n’ roll) was a big emphasis. Trying to get him in pick n’ rolls, trying to get him to attack downhill, and to understand what kind of force he is when he’s attacking the rim. He has very good decision making there, he was finding rollers, he was finding open shooters. I thought that his pick n’ roll game tonight was really good.” Darko Rajakovic told me after the Bucks game. I asked what they worked on the past couple days, and Rajakovic answered:

“Angles of screens. How to attack. How to have a roller in the same line with a player who’s attacking the pick n’ roll. And Scottie is a force. Once we set good screens from Jakob or Precious, I think it’s opening up a lot of lanes for us to go downhill.”

It certainly has opened up a lot, and maybe more miraculously, it’s worked even when things aren’t open. Barnes has taken a multitude of coverages in stride and succeeded against all of them. He’s flown into a paint that featured 5 sets of defender feet and finished despite the clunk. He is, at times, both metaphorically and literally rising above it all. It’s been a treat to watch him work.

The ramifications of Barnes’ handle and decision making allowing him to start consuming a bunch of reps in the pick n’ roll? Massive. Barnes is already a big ol’ basketball super computer on the court, and every time he adds a skill it creates an avenue for him to beat new coverages and we know he’ll leverage that. He’s been sublime in many ways this season. This one might be the most important going forward.

Have a blessed day.