The Raptors belong to Scottie Barnes. Now what?

How has Scottie Barnes been since the Raptor traded everyone?

For a long time, Scottie Barnes shared the spotlight in Toronto. In his rookie year, he won Rookie of the Year, but Fred VanVleet was the All Star. The next season, Pascal Siakam took home that particular hardware. 

But then VanVleet and Siakam and OG Anunoby and even Dennis Schroder were shown the door. The team is Barnes’ alone. To go along with it, Barnes is now the team’s All Star. Barnes is either first or second on the team in all five major box-score categories. (All six if you include minutes.) No matter what camp you belonged in — Barnes’ former star teammates were holding him back, or guard rails, or helping his development, or anything else — it’s all gone now. The scaffolding is off the building. 

It has been an up-and-down start to Scottie Barnes’ solo career as the Toronto Raptors’ front man. The highs have been high and the lows low. That has always been true — and is always true of young players — but it affects the team differently now.

Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Barnes mostly stopped doing what makes him Scottie Barnes to end the fourth and overtimes. He moved the ball along as soon as he touched it. He passed up an opportunity in overtime to win the game. 

His performance wasn’t quite that passive against the San Antonio Spurs, but if that was the basement, he was somewhere below the main floor. He scored zero points in the first half as he did little on offense to create advantages. He settled for five shots, none of them particularly good ones. He threw one pass to Jakob Poeltl that bounced off Poeltl’s hands for the turnover, and Barnes threw up his hands in disgust, shaking his head, not bothering to get back to play any defense. To that point, Poeltl had a team-high 10 points, and yes, it was his mistake, but that happens. How you respond to mistakes, both yours and others’  — especially on a rebuilding squad — matters. Barnes ended up walking off the court with time still on the clock. It was immaturity, but he’s 22 years old, and isn’t that just definitive to the age?

But the highs — my god, the highs. Against the Cleveland Cavaliers, he hit a relocation triple after sprinting the baseline. He drove into Evan Mobley’s chest and finished through his length. He ended up winning his minutes in a 24-point loss. With a triple double. He was focused and professional and systematic in his time on the court, no matter how poorly his teammates played when he sat.

Still, at one point against San Antonio, the future face of the league, according to Darko Rajakovic, ran into the future face of the league in Victor Wembanyama in isolation. Barnes decided to test him. He drove, pivoted, half spun, spun back, and went for the wide hook shot to clear space — and was blocked. He grabbed his rebound and went straight back up — and was blocked. Barnes is incredible, and he is going to be even more incredible in the future. But there’s always a bigger fish. He finished with seven points against the Spurs.

“I thought that [Barnes] blended in with the performance of the whole team, and that was not the standard that we expect,” said Rajakovic after the Spurs game.

Overall, Barnes’ scoring has trended slightly down since the Raptors traded away some of their best players. Which makes total sense — now he is drawing the best defender, every night, with more help paying attention to him, and the gameplan designed entirely to stop him. He is scoring a few fewer points a night, on worse efficiency.

There is a balance upon which we must teeter. It’s important not to ignore the lows for Barnes, but it’s also silly to focus exclusively on them. This is a new experience for him, being the solo star. He’s learning constantly. He is 22 years old, and the entire context of the team just shifted around him, all in one go. He is seeing more of the ball, and in different ways, and surrounded by different players, who all have different preferences. And on top of that, there are now no other stars upon whom Toronto can rely when Barnes has a quiet half, quarter, possession. He must be constant, and winning depends on him. That is hard for anyone, let alone someone of his age. It is a work in progress.  

“There is a lot of learning to do here,” said Rajakovic. “He never complained one time, saying, ‘Oh, I cannot remember plays,’ or ‘this is too much.’ He’s just doing an outstanding job of just embracing it and growing every single day.”

And as for the disengagement? For each negative moment, there have been high highs for the leadership skills, too.

“I noticed him this last game [against the Cavaliers] being very, very vocal,” said Rajakovic before the Spurs game. “I think everybody in the arena could hear him calling coverages and helping teammates and doing all of that. He’s doing really good job in huddles and especially with new guys trying to talk to them and explain what they need to do, how they need to be positioned, all that kind of stuff.”

“And I think he has those leadership skills, and I think they’re right where they need to be for a 22-year-old.”

It was not Barnes’ fault the Raptors quit against the 10-win (at the time) Spurs. But he is the leader now, the unquestioned star of the team. And as he goes, so goes the team. His first half had ripples, and even as he scored a few points as the game wound on, and threw some terrific passes (as he will always do), the fight had left the Raptors. Barnes’ effort appreciably improved in the second half, but Toronto’s didn’t. 

The Raptors are asking a lot of Barnes, but they’re not asking him to do it all all in one go. He can take a possession off to learn, to let his teammates stretch their legs. He just can’t take a whole half, not anymore. Barnes is one of the most promising youngsters in the league. He can shine brighter than anyone for a single possession, a single game. Now he just has to do it for 82. Then for 16. 

It will take a long time for Barnes to get to that level. We’re talking years, not the weeks it has been since the Raptors traded away the former face of the franchise in Siakam. Both Barnes, and the Raptors, are in this process for the long haul. Games such as Toronto’s blowout loss to the Spurs will, unfortunately, happen as Toronto gets to that point. More than just the once. The gamble is that Barnes and the Raptors learn from that sting rather than let it fester into bad habits.