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Scottie Barnes: Finding An Identity

The many-worlds interpretation in Quantum Mechanics is the theory that envisions quantum effects that spawn countless branches of parallel universes with different events occurring in each. Every quantum question results in an infinite amount of quantum decisions and therefore creates an infinite amount of realities on which those decisions are based.

In short, the multiverse.

This theory first introduced in the early 20th century can also be applied to our everyday lives. Each decision we make has an inherent reaction, warping and shaping our reality into something new until we arrive at the next crossroads, forcing the cycle of universe-creation to continue.

By this theory, there’s a world in which I am the GM of the Toronto Raptors, a multi-platinum-selling rapper, a defense attorney, an accountant, and yes, in the current world we live in, a reporter covering the NBA.

In many ways, the pursuit of becoming a professional basketball player has its own universe-altering decisions. Which AAU program do you attend? Which high school should you go to? Which summer camp to attend? Which college do you commit to? Which agent did you sign with? All of these questions can inevitably make our break any passionate and aspiring basketball players’ hoop dreams.

It doesn’t stop even when you get to the pro level: the team you get drafted by, the roster surrounding you, the work you put in to train, the training staff, how you adjust to being a professional — all of these decisions, whether in the players control or not, has a way of altering their careers.

It’s fascinating to take this theory and apply it to someone like Scottie Barnes, a wholly unique player whose ingenuity is a direct result of the sum of basketball-related decisions he’s made throughout his life.

Barnes spent his developmental years playing at Montverde Academy alongside other young phenoms like Cade Cunningham, Moses Moody, Day’Ron Sharpe, and Dariq Whitehead, cultivating an on-court presence as a floor general and defensive stopper that would become the foundation for the type of player he morphed into in college at Florida State. At FSU, Barnes explored his skills more, coming off the bench for the Seminoles, learning to become adaptable in his role as a complementary player, and becoming well-versed in a number of areas of his game, as a playmaker, defender, and elite transition player.

Those jack-of-all-trades qualities that Barnes harnessed throughout his years at Montverde and FSU helped propel him to near the top of the 2021 NBA draft and it was ultimately one of the prevailing reasons he was named the 2022 Rookie of the Year — as a complimentary, do-it-all piece on a playoff-bound Toronto Raptors team.

The Raptors’ own egalitarian offensive style forced Barnes to wear many hats through his first 2 years at the pro level and I’m sure as his career progresses, he will wear many more in pursuit of finding his identity and peak form in the NBA.

It’s sort of like the Harry Potter Sorting Hat ceremony. You don’t know whether you’re Slytherin or Gryffindor until you put on the hat.

As that relates to Barnes, what does his peak form look like? Well, we won’t know until we know (i.e. putting on the hat). But what are the pathways to arrive at that point? Well, that’s the crux of this piece.

It’s far easier (and not as fun) to think of all the things a player can’t be. But it is much more intriguing to think of all the things they can be.

We already went through the steps Barnes has taken to get to this point. Because of those decisions, he’s accumulated high-level skills in multiple areas. He’s a long, rangy, broad-shouldered player who has incredible vision as a passer, particularly in transition and especially from a stationary position where he can read the entire floor. His frame allows him to play bully ball inside as a post player and his soft-touch around the basket allows him to finish over the top. Theoretically, he’s a versatile defender who can guard multiple positions and be a menace as both an off-ball and on-ball defender (I say theoretically because Barnes still has a lot of room to grow on the defensive end).

But for every decision, there’s indecision or the absence of a decision. These are the areas of Barnes’s game that have been left untapped, whether as a direct result of the environments he’s put himself in as a basketball player or because of the inherent skills he developed on his path.

An extreme example: Shaq was never asked to be a spot-up shooter and so he never developed into a perimeter shooter in his career. His size and sheer Shaq-ness made it so that he never had to develop his shooting touch because of just how dominant he was on the interior. By that same notion (although to a lesser extent) Barnes has never really been put in a situation where he was asked to develop his own shooting touch. His frame and plus wingspan only made it even harder to develop that area of his game as his career progressed, because he neither had the inherent body type necessary to become a good shooter nor was he asked to hone in on that aspect, as a complimentary player at both Montverde and FSU.

On top of that, Barnes’s ball-handling skills are average for his size and position and despite being an incredible athlete in the open floor, he’s not as bursty as you’d like him to be. This makes it harder for him to create advantages for himself in half-court settings, not being able to turn the corner on defenders or create lanes or openings for himself through his handle or speed.

We also have to consider the team context around Barnes.

It’s important for a young player to play in an environment that facilitates growth. That’s why development plans are so important when we’re still children in schools, there has to be a plan to inevitably reach our ‘full potential’. And as far as the Raptors and Barnes go, the team is trying to facilitate as much growth as possible, given the on-court context.

With Fred VanVleet’s departure and the arrival of Head Coach Darko Rajakovic (impending lawsuit be damned for a second), there is going to be much more opportunity for Barnes to develop as a playmaker. Coach Rajakovic has said as much any time he’s been asked about Barnes. Quite simply, VanVleet led the team in touches per game for the last 2 seasons and ran more pick-n-rolls than any player on the roster — it doesn’t take rocket science to assume that Barnes, the player who has called himself a point guard in the past and who’s new coach has explicitly said he will be handling the ball more this upcoming season, will be taking the bulk of available touches in VanVleet’s absence.

At the same time, the Raptors spacing next season looks to be even more troublesome for Barnes than it was last year.

Despite having shooters like VanVleet, O.G Anunoby, and Gary Trent Jr. on the roster, adding Jakob Poeltl to the lineup made things much more congested in the paint for Barnes and Pascal Siakam to operate. Taking VanVleet out of the equation is only going to make things even more congested next season, regardless of how creative Coach Rajakovic gets with the way he spaces out Poeltl, Barnes, and Siakam.

The frontcourt lacks spacing and they no longer have a release valve like VanVleet to help alleviate some of that pressure. That only makes life and development that much harder for Barnes as he steps into a role with much more responsibility next season.

On the other side of that, there is a giant Nimbos cloud hanging over the head of the Raptors with regard to Siakam and his chances of being on the team next season. Not only because of the spacing and wonky roster fit issues but because Siakam is due for a contract extension and has been in extensive trade rumours all summer. Whether he stays or goes is going to play a massive part in Barnes’s development. One could argue that it’s not Siakam’s presence on the roster that’s the issue developmentally for Barnes, but rather the team context around both of their do-it-all wings that makes it impossible for both or either to thrive. If Poeltl was more adept as a shooter this wouldn’t be an issue but alas, that’s an article for another day.

In summary: more responsibility, less room, and potentially more bad vibes ahead for Barnes and the Raptors next season.

With that being said, with those neural pathways set in our minds (what Barnes is capable of, what he needs to improve, and the on-court context laid out in front of him) — what is the range of possible outcomes for Barnes?

Admittedly, it’s mostly up to Scottie.

As the old adage goes “Life is 10% what happens to you, 90% how you react to it.”

How Barnes is able to adapt to his new environment, how he is able to hone in on the areas of his game that he needs to improve, and how he doubles down on the areas of his game that can blossom is ultimately up to him.

The Raptors can do their best to enhance growth, to put the proper pieces around him to make things easier but ultimately, it’s about how Barnes reacts to any given situation that will shape his future in this league.

Nonetheless, given what we know about the team context next season and Barnes’s pre-existing skillset, what can we expect of him at his best?

A Playmaking Hub

The one indisputable skill that Barnes will be able to hang his hat on will be his playmaking. I’ve already discussed this above. But how does it look? Barnes averaged fewer than 2 pick-n-roll possessions per game last season with the Raptors generating a meager 0.69 points per possession. This season the Raptors will without a doubt throw him into more pick-n-rolls as the primary ballhandler but it’s hard to see there being a ton of success in that department.

Teams will likely just go under or switch screens that involve Barnes as the ballhandler and it’s tough to see this area of his game blossoming without the help of a gigantic shooting leap.

Still, there are ways to be more successful in the pick-n-roll. Have a second-side action to engage the help-side defense and have the taller, longer Barnes be able to dart a pass over.

Even when an advantage isn’t created, Scottie will be able to dart a pass over as long as there is off-ball movement. And that’s ultimately the key to building any team around a player like Barnes, willing movement and shooting.

Ultimately, Scottie’s utility as a playmaking hub is going to be best served elsewhere. Barnes has already become elite as a transition passer, a post-playmaker, and a stationary passer in delay actions above the break.

Quick decision-making like this makes him incredibly potent in the open floor.

This way he can serve as the connective glue of an offensive system, punishing defenses for over-helping or finding open and willing cutters.

The most intriguing aspect of Barnes’s playmaking has to be from the post, where he can see over the top of most defenders and make excellent reads to find shooters and cutters.

He can also do damage in the middle of the floor. Either as a roll-man, making reads in the short roll:

Or as a zone-breaker, who can flash middle and make a decisive read with precision.

This season, it’ll be interesting to see if the Raptors run more dribble hand-offs with Barnes as the initiator with the likes of Trent Jr, Anuoby, and rookie Gradey Dick — an area where Barnes can thrive as a passer.

Ultimately, the Raptors are right in trying to put the ball in Barnes’s hands more and ask him to make plays. It is the one defining and high-level skill he’s been able to bank on at the professional level. Now he’ll be given an arena to experiment.

A Small Ball Defensive 5

Entering the draft process, one of the main selling points about Barnes was his defensive acumen. That hasn’t necessarily materialized in a tangible way through his first 2 seasons in the league but he’s shown promise of what he can inevitably be as a defender.

Barnes is much more adept at guarding up than guarding down, or rather, he is more comfortable guarding bigger, stronger players as opposed to quicker, faster guards.

His reaction time is good and he has great hands. Mix that with his added length and size and you have yourself a pretty good small ball 5.

Even when he gets bumped off his spot, he’s able to compensate with his length.

The biggest issue with Barnes on defense, currently, is his over-aggressiveness at the point of attack. Barnes loves to take on a challenge, but sometimes it’s best if he were to give the quicker, speedier guards more space and allow for his length to compensate.

Otherwise, there was a lot of this last season:

But the potential is there and can absolutely be harnessed if put in the right positions to succeed. It usually takes players a few years to become good defenders at the pro level. It only becomes more difficult when you’re trying to figure out how to guard multiple positions like Scottie has been.

What will be interesting is how the Raptors use Barnes defensively next season with Poeltl in the mix. But the future is incredibly promising for him on that end. And I think it’s something he’ll inevitably be able to hang his hat on.

A Unique Scorer

Barring some miraculous leap in shooting touch, I’d be surprised if Barnes ever becomes a potent pull-up shooter from behind the arc enough for it to be a consistent aspect of his game.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t be an effective scorer.

Scottie projects to be an elite paint scorer, he has the size to finish through and over the top of defenders in the post and if he gets a running start, has the ability to barrel through players on drives.

He also projects to be a good-to-elite free throw merchant. This is a good thing! The very best in the league are able to manipulate defenses and draw fouls. Scottie drew fouls on 10.7% of his shooting opportunities last season, ranking in the 70th percentile for his position, according to Cleaning The Glass.

It’s mainly because of his ability to square his shoulders regardless of what the defense is giving him. Barnes is incredibly strong and consistently punishes teams in the post because of it.

For instance, Pascal Siakam in the 2018-2019 season drew fouls on 13% of his shots and now is among the best forwards in the league, drawing fouls on over 15% of his shooting opportunities.

Scottie projects to do the same. Barnes put up 20+ points in 18 games last season. In 12 of those, he attempted 6 or more free throws. There’s a huge correlation between his effectiveness as a scorer and his ability to draw fouls.

The only question that remains is his willingness to be aggressive consistently. It can be taxing on a player to play that style of basketball and punishing the body like that is no easy feat. While Scottie’s aggressiveness waned in his 2nd season, he showed in his rookie campaign what kind of scoring potential he had, if he continued to attack the basket.

Beyond that, I think Scottie will end up being an effective (enough) mid-range scorer to keep defenses honest. He showed as much in his rookie season, knocking down 43% of his mid-range shots and ranking in the 94th percentile for his position in mid-range attempts. The most complete scoring games he’s had so far in his career have been those where he’s been able to punish sagging defenses in the mid-range area and from watching his training videos, it seems like it’s a point of emphasis as well.

The fact that he can square his shoulders despite contact makes me believe in the short-range jumpers even more.

And off the ball, he’s undeniably good at punishing tilted defenses. He’s a willing cutter and can punch a gap with ease because of his length.

Where the Raptors may want to tap into more with Barnes is his ability to score as a roll-man, where he put up 1.25 points per possession last season, albeit on low frequency. Here he is punishing DPOY finalist Evan Mobley.

What Scottie turns into as a scorer is all up to him and what role he’s meant to play on the offensive end. I struggle to see him becoming a primary scorer for a contending-level team because of the lack of shooting. He’d have to be a Giannis-level paint scorer to compensate.

But he can easily be a secondary scorer, one that operates both on the ball and off of it, getting downhill, attacking the basket, punishing post-switches, operating as a roll-man, and being an elite cutter.

Combining all of that with his cerebral playmaking ability makes him a highly unique offensive player. A sort of hybrid between Draymond Green and Pascal Siakam, if all goes well.


There have been attempts to compare Barnes to other players. He’s gotten comps from Magic Johnson to Ben Simmons and Draymond Green, Domantas Sabonis, and even Nikola Jokic. The truth is, none of those are right. Sure, there’s some merit to the comps. At his best, he projects to be a defensive-minded playmaking hub with the potential to be an elite secondary scorer.

But Barnes is wholly unique to himself, borrowing and evolving traits from all of these players and melting them down into his own version of basketball ingenuity. He’s the metamorphosis of all of these rangy, playmaking forwards.

What will inevitably help separate him, creating a branch reality of his own, is the decisions he makes along the way, the situations he’s put in, and how he responds to them.

A lot has been made in the past year about Scottie’s work ethic, whether he’s lost his ‘joy’ for the game or whether he’s up for the task ahead of him. All of those concerns, whether they are valid or not, will undoubtedly be at the forefront of the discussion around him heading into a massive 3rd year. Will it all be figured out next season? Not even close.

But it’s all in the pursuit of finding his basketball identity. His final form. Whatever that may be. And it’ll ultimately come down to the decisions made along that journey.

Because what are we if not the sum of our choices?