It’s hard to have real, genuine takeaways from pre-season games because there are a lot of moving parts. There are guys fighting for contracts, other players fighting for minutes, and in the case of the Raptors, a whole new scheme and style that the players are slowly but surely adjusting to around a rookie Head Coach who is trying to figure out his own routine and approach.
It’s well-known at this point that the Raptors are trying to change the way they play. A team that was near the top of the league in isolation frequency over the last few seasons is trying to shift away from iso ball and into something that provides more ball and player movement. This ‘0.5’ motion offense revolves around making quick, split-second decisions that can bend a defense and in turn, create more open opportunities for any given team. The Warriors, Nuggets, and even the Phoenix Suns as of late have honed in and mastered this style.
In order for this type of offense to be successful, though, a roster needs to have a few different things:
- Players who are willing to play that style
- Players who are good at making quick decisions and oftentimes, making those decisions the right ones
- Players who can do a number of different things on the court: dribble, pass, shoot, finish at the rim but maybe most importantly… shoot.
As that pertains to the Raptors, they have about 2.5 of those things down. So far, at least 3 games into the pre-season, the players have been willing to buy into the style Coach Rajakovic is trying to implement. We’ll see how that pans out through the course of an 82-game season, but at least for now: buy-in? Check.
They also have players who can do multiple things on the court. The Raptors have been lauded in the past for their versatile roster, especially defensively, and while there is definitely overlap in skills and position, their ‘6-foot-9’ mantra, has helped them garner a roster with personnel that can wear multiple hats on offense. 80% of the roster can dribble, pass, and slot into any given position on any given set and it provides the Raptors with a level of fluidity. The shooting is something that they, without a doubt, have to work on — they were near the bottom of the league in the 3-point shooting department last season, and given Fred VanVleet’s departure — they’ve gotten even worse in that category. That being said, the additions of Gradey Dick and the hopeful return of Otto Porter Jr. from injury this year should give them some much-needed extra shooting off of the bench.
And as far as players who can make quick decisions? Well, the Raptors have arguably one of the best in the league in that department: Scottie Barnes.
Barnes is a cerebral decision-maker. His length and size allow him to see over the top of opposing defenses and his confidence as a passer allows him to make reads on the court that few would dare to do. His big body gives him an advantage in situations where he’s rolling to the basket, working off of a dribble-hand-off, or operating in the post as a sort of post-hub that teams shouldn’t dare to double-team because of his passing ability (I highly recommend reading Samson Folk’s latest article on that).
But with the lack of shooting and playmaking on this current Raptors team, the roster construction hasn’t been optimized and maximized to compliment a player like Barnes… until about 2:52 left in the 1st quarter against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday.
To be fair, the idea with hiring Rajakovic, implementing this new style, and even drafting a player like Dick was to eventually get to the point where you are leaning on Barnes’s strengths — but for about 5 minutes against the Bulls, we saw what that could potentially look like in the future.
Like a time machine, we were able to get a glimpse into a not-so-distant reality where Barnes is working as a hand-off hub, constantly moving to create advantages as a roller or post-hub and playing alongside a fun blend of shooting and defense that maximizes his skillset.
With 2 minutes and 52 seconds left in the 1st quarter of a preseason game versus the Bulls, the Raptors trotted out a lineup that includes Barnes, O.G. Anunoby, Jalen McDaniels, Gary Trent Jr., and Malachi Flynn — the perfect blend of size, shooting, and playmaking that spurned Barnes into action.
Out of a timeout, the Raptors run a Chicago action (pindown screen into a dribble-hand-off) with Barnes as the hub. Watch how seamlessly they go from that to a ghost screen with J-Mac and Barnes and then into a high pick-n-roll with Barnes and Trent, who hits the rolling Scottie for a layup.
Next possession, the Raptors run Chicago again (but this time with J-Mac slipping the screen), and no advantage is gained, they go into a side pick-n-roll with Flynn and Barnes, again, no advantage, then a dribble-hand-off with Barnes and Trent at the top of the key… still no advantage. But, the Bulls switched the action! Barnes now has the mismatch of LaVine guarding him, he trots down to the post, the Bulls elect to try and help LaVine and Barnes finds the wide-open Trent Jr for a three on the weak side.
In this possession, Barnes uses his gravity as a roller to draw attention, Drummond is focused on the weak side because of it, and J-Mac is able to cut in from the strong-side corner for a dunk.
This time, it’s a pseudo-transition opportunity, the Raptors are running and Barnes does an excellent job of hunting out the mismatch in the post, sealing Jevon Carter, and taking advantage of the much smaller player.
Bonus points on this sequence for the excellent pick-n-roll defense by Barnes that leads to the stop. The Raptors quickly run a ghost screen action with Barnes slipping to the basket, Trent Jr delivers, yet again, another nice pass for the easy finish.
And finally, two possessions to start the second quarter where the Raptors run similar actions involving Barnes. They seamlessly flow together because of his connectivity ability on offense. This is the exact way he should be used now and in the future as the team’s primary ‘ball-handler’.
Barnes is a special decision-maker. Because of his length and size, he also projects to be an elite roller, screen-setter, and post-hub and in those 5 minutes of basketball, we saw all of that.
It was a peek into the future, one with Barnes at the helm of it all. And it was a lot of fun to watch.