Scottie Barnes: 2023-24 Season in Review

On the future, and the reason why 2023-24 was a win for Toronto.

The following is part of Raptors Republic’s series of pieces reviewing the season for the Toronto Raptors. You can find all the pieces in the series here.

It’s November, 2023. It’s warm and sunny in Toronto, but warm and sunny for the winter. Maybe, a spring coat instead of a winter coat. But Scottie Barnes is sweltering. He’s burning. Doused in sweat. Not because he’s in San Antonio, where it’s over 20 degrees. No. Because he’s hitting one of his shots of the year. There’s a minute left in the fourth, and Toronto is down three points to the lowly Spurs. The Raptors are 2-4 to start the year, a season of definition into which many threads of fate have wound. Toronto’s race car is about to run into the wall, and every loss brings that crash closer.

Barnes doesn’t feel that. He calmly steps back behind the arc, a (comparatively) tiny Keldon Johnson guarding him, and hits a game-tying triple. Toronto wins in overtime, and Barnes finishes with 30 points (on five triples), 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks. He is the only player in NBA history to reach those specific statistical thresholds in a single game.

Two weeks later, the Raptors have not climbed out of the mud. But Barnes remains magnetic, majestic. Now Toronto is down a single point to the Indiana Pacers (future Eastern Conference Finalists!) with 30 seconds remaining. Pascal Siakam inbounds the ball to Barnes and runs towards him, looking to receive the handoff. Barnes fakes the ball towards Siakam, keeps it, and jets back towards the sideline. One dribble, a second. Step step. He’s at the rim, dunking, uncontested. The Raptors win by the single point. It’s the last basket of the game, just free throws left to close it out. Barnes hits those, too.

Still, over the next months, Toronto’s season falls apart. Siakam, Barnes’ inbounder and co-star, is gone. But Barnes remains worth the price of admission, the lightning bolt of ingenuity, the future, the promise. Even when the Raptors try to throw the season away, such as in a mid-December game against the Charlotte Hornets, Barnes doesn’t let them. Night after night, he drags the team to relevance, to excitement, to what wins it earns. And when he breaks his hand (followed by other injuries, too), the Raptors have one of the worst months in NBA history.

Close your eyes. Picture all your dreams coming true. Yes. Don’t be shy. Be greedy. All of them. Okay, don’t be crazy. Realistic. But still, what do you want? Okay, open your eyes. Barnes did that same exercise, but without the reading text with his eyes closed thing. And he made all his dreams, and ours too, actually happen.

Barnes became a star. A fully fledged leader on both ends of the court who drives winning basketball in a variety of ways, against a variety of coverages. Prior to this year, he was promising. More than promising. He was a future star, let’s be honest. But how many future stars don’t ever blossom? Far, far more than those that do — and he did it in a single season. Barnes’ 2022-23 was, in many ways, defined by his critics. By media, for his work ethic. By teammates, for his seriousness. Even by Masai Ujiri. From that to an All Star, a unique talent, a driving force of winning — an exceptional jump by any measure.

So how specifically did Barnes improve?

His tempo as a passer is unique, giving him paths to create advantages that other players can’t access. But he was already a brilliant passer. His touch as a finisher is genius, giving him the ability to extend and loft hooks, floaters, knuckleballs, and anything else at the rim with his hips always somehow facing the right way. But that, too, was already elite. If you conceive of offense as three components — creating advantages, maintaining advantages, and converting advantages — he was already great at the latter two. What he added was the first one: initiation.

Barnes had never been a terrific primary option in his career. He was an efficient pick-and-roll operator in his rookie year on a low frequency, but it took a dip in 2022-23. He was solid in the post but never as brilliant (statistically) as his skill-set might have allowed. Then everything blossomed at the same time this year.

Barnes became a terrific pick-and-roll creator. He did it in very complex ways. It wasn’t generally through the simple wins that speedy, pull-up-shooting guard create. Instead, Barnes won in ways uniquely him. He frequently saw double picks instead of single, adding extra depth and complexity to the situation — he could always make reads instantaneously, but defenders frequently made momentary missteps. (He was top 20 in the league for points per chance on his double pick possessions.) He beat defenders more often with his dribble, his quickness. His passing, with players in motion around him, was flawless. And once his hips were past a defender, he is so strong and long that he got to the rim with ease.

He was a terrific driver, both high frequency and efficiency. His handle was tighter, athletic burst more consistent. While he maintained his tendency to turn his back midway through and transition his drives into post-ups, he did lessen it and became much better at straight-line moves and quick bursts to the rim. He was terrific at pushing the envelope on his drives, either getting to the rim, finding an interior pass to a cutter or lurking big in the dunker spot, or spraying a pass to the corners. He so often found the best available outcome.

His jumper improved massively, zooming up to 38.4 percent on catch-and-shoots. (While his pull-ups were solid to start the year, they fell off as the year continued.) But the shooting helped so much of his game. Teams closed out far more against him — short closeouts became a tiny portion of the closeouts he saw, by far the lowest of his career. And he punished short closeouts when he got them, happily drilling his shots. That opened up driving lanes, made everything easier for him and his teammates.

Behind so many improvements on the offensive end, Barnes didn’t just improve his initiation in the pick and roll. He set a career high for efficiency when receiving handoffs, when initiating in the post, when using an off-ball screen. It wasn’t that he improved in one area. It was that he improved in virtually all of them. That’s a sign of his micro skills taking leaps across the board.

Especially when you consider he played with different (and, let’s be honest, offensively less threatening) teammates as the year went on, and in a different system. When Barnes played alongside Siakam and OG Anunoby, Toronto had a net rating of plus-3.7. When he played alongside RJ Barrett and Jakob Poeltl, it was plus-5.7. It isn’t necessarily easy to play with Barnes, because he’s so unique, but he’s generally going to figure out how to make it work.

Defensively, Barnes arguably didn’t have a plus year in his first two seasons. He put together stretches, for sure. But the consistency (and consistency of role) wasn’t there. In 2023-24 he became the back-line helper rather than the ball stopper above the break, and it was hugely beneficial for Barnes. He covers the floor so well, and is so fantastic above the rim, that he was able to impact plays that very, very few humans could. His 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks were game have only been matched or passed by 52 other players in NBA history over a single season, and none since Anthony Davis in 2020-2021.

Toronto allowed 1.00 points per chance when defending all picks. It was 1.04 when Barnes defended the ballhandler. But when Barnes was deeper in the paint, it was better. 0.97 when Barnes defended the screener. And when Barnes tagged the pick, it was only 0.96. The further Barnes was in the paint, the better. And his 7.4 contested shots per game from within 6 feet led the league among non-centers. He is now a defender capable of winning moments, possessions, games, seasons. On top of the offense.

In a way, Toronto traded its entire 2023-24 season for Barnes’ development. And a new core of foundational players, of course. But that was secondary. Barnes is making the trade of season for self worth it.

Barnes just put together a top-five season among young Raptors in franchise history. (Based on BPM among players in their first three seasons, only Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Jose Calderon (!) surpassed him.) And he’s so far from done. Toronto finally rosters a team built in Barnes’ image. Barnes surely has much to improve on, and he’s only just starting to realize his ability to impact the floor. But at this point in his career, he’s ahead of schedule. He, more than anything, made 2023-24 bearable for someone who watched Raptors games. And from the team-building perspective, he made the year a success. A year that saw Jontay Porter banned for life, the Knicks sue the Raptors, half the team traded away, and more, Barnes made the year a success. No matter what he does next year, the year after, ever again, that will be hard to top.