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Scottie Barnes rediscovering rookie-year joy as Raptors round into form

Scottie Barnes rediscovering rookie-year joy as Raptors round into form

Reaching the top of the mountain is a difficult endeavor. Staying atop the mountain is even harder, and eventually, there will be a taller one to scale.

Such is life for Scottie Barnes, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year who’s in his second season with the Toronto Raptors and has found his rhythm over the last couple of months after a slow start to the campaign.

When teams in this league can pinpoint tendencies, it can be tough to adapt. Opponents figure out your spots, where you like the ball and how you process the game, and they try to exploit any weaknesses in your game that pop on film. That can be especially daunting for somebody who burst onto the scene the way Barnes did.

To his credit, Barnes has fought through it, and it's led to results for not only him, but also his team.

“He is playing really well right now. He's on probably a good six-week stretch where he's looked like he was a year ago and improving from that,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse told Basketball News. “He had probably a little bit of a rocky start; at times, some of those things you talked about probably weighed in. Who knows, man?”

Barnes downplays the notion of teams figuring him out early, and that it’s solely been on him to adjust.

“It's all about me, for sure. I don't think it's nothing else. It's all about me,” Barnes told Basketball News following Toronto’s loss in Cleveland on Sunday. “I feel like I can control the game in the way I want to control it. Every game is different, every team is different, every team is gonna scheme you a different way, play you a different way. It's just about how I attack the game.”

A lot has been asked of Barnes. There have been games where he’s been the primary ball-handler when Fred VanVleet has missed time. In November, there was a stretch where All-Star forward Pascal Siakam went down and he had to step in as a go-to scorer. When both have been healthy, he’s had to go right back into his Swiss-Army-knife role without a hiccup.

Barnes has suited up anywhere from shooting guard to small forward to power forward to center. The Raptors knew he had this versatility when they drafted him, and in many ways this year, it’s been much-needed.

Comparing the first half of the season to the new year thus far, he has clearly been more aggressive and the breakthrough is evident.

Scottie Barnes

Post-Jan. 1 (Per-Game Avg.)

Pre-Jan. 1 (Per-Game Avg.)

Games Played

27

32

No. of Possessions

81.11

74.22

Points

16.59

14.44

True Shooting Percentage

54%

51%

Net Rating

+5

-1

Fouls Drawn

3.70

2.25

Free Throws Made/Att.

3.52/4.63

1.84/2.41

Catch & Drives Made/Att.

0.89/1.56

0.38/1.09

C&D Percentage Made

55%

34%

Post-Ups Made/Att.

1.04/1.92

0.75/1.88

Post-Up Percentage Made

57%

40%

Secondary Assists

1.37

0.59

Screen Assists

2.04

1.34

(Scroll right to view full table on mobile)

In addition to the figures on this chart (courtesy of InStat), Barnes has cut his isolation possessions in half while boosting his efficiency by 10%. Asked where he’s made the most strides offensively as a sophomore, Nurse pointed to his comfortability with letting it fly from three.

“He's really shooting it — on the catch-and-shoots, anyway, he's really shooting it pretty good, pushing up towards over 36%, which is right there with about any decent shooter in the league; that's a pretty good number. I'm trying to get him to take more of 'em. I'm trying to get 'em to always take more of everything,” Nurse said. “That's a big thing. He's a good free-throw shooter, he's getting a little better there. Again, he still uses his size and physicality getting to the basket.”

“Definitely more in the pick-and-roll, trying to make those reads, trying to play out of the pick-and-roll,” Barnes responded. “I feel like that's something that in the future I'll probably be really good at. As long as I just keep getting more and more reps — I feel like I'm pretty solid at it now, but I feel like as time goes on, I'll be in that more. It'll be a part of my development, for sure.”

Once January hit, it felt like the 21-year-old made a forceful attempt to up the ante. During that month, Barnes averaged 18.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals across 16 games. In seven of those games, he scored 20-plus. 

“Probably my body felt a little bit better,” Barnes explained. “I feel like that was one thing that was really affecting me early, little tweaks that was going on. But my body felt better. Just playing well. We was probably playing better as a team as well, so that's probably why. Of course, if we play better as a team, everybody else individually will probably look better as well.”

Barnes’ comment raises a good point, as the Raptors (31-32) have been on the rise for the last month-and-a-half and are now winners of eight out of their last 10 games. Tussling with a couple of other squads, they’re nipping at the heels of the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. 

Shaking off the rust of a heavy-legged loss in Cleveland, Toronto bounced back with a home win over the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday — and it can't be understated considering the standings battle and the fact that a five-game road trip is ahead of the team.

"Every game is a must-win," Barnes said postgame Tuesday.

Aptly nicknamed "Fourth Quarter B," Barnes came up huge once again in the final period on both ends. He had 8 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocks, including an incredible sequence where he served up two swats on Coby White and Andre Drummond, rebounded it himself, drove the floor in transition and found a streaking Siakam for a slam. 

“It’s special, man," said VanVleet, who returned following a three-game hiatus due to personal reasons. “He made a couple plays not many guys in this league can make — blocks to push the break, the and-one. He was talking. He was keyed in. 

“That’s a big boost, especially (with) a lineup out there without me and Pascal for him to carry that in the fourth and get us some separation. That really won us the game ultimately was his defense and his playmaking and just putting pressure on the rim. We need him to keep making those strides. We know how special of a player he can be, and he shows us that at times.”

In addition, Barnes took on the responsibility of guarding Nikola Vucevic. Nurse knows that he is big enough to body up centers and laterally savvy enough to stay with opponents on the perimeter. Nurse referred to Barnes' competition level and defensive effort as “inspirational to the other guys.”

“I was just trying to come out and bring energy throughout the entire game,” Barnes told TSN Sports reporter Kayla Grey after the victory vs. Chicago. “The fourth quarter, I was playing big man, so I was just trying to protect the rim, be that energy guy, just try to do everything right, and it worked out well."

“He was amazing,” O.G. Anunoby added. “He was everywhere — making blocks, getting the rebound, pushing, passing, finishing. He was doing everything. He’s a great player.” 

Add that performance to a gutsy 13-point frame in a Feb. 5 win over the Memphis Grizzlies and a number of switch-flips he’s done seemingly out of thin air on the attack in critical moments, and it’s clear that he has a knack for closing games out strong.

“Just the really competitive side of him really starts emerging in the fourth,” Nurse said following the team’s latest win. “He just starts playing really physical and really tough.”

Entering March, VanVleet, Siakam and Anunoby are finally healthy together, and Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher bring a jolt off the pine. Jakob Poeltl has given the team a rim-altering, protective presence it had been lacking for quite some time. Plus, the organization just signed veteran swingman Will Barton for the rest of the year for even more of a boost too.

This battle-tested and unique Raptors group filled with versatile players has a real chance to continue ascending the standings during this stretch run — and Scottie Barnes can play with any of them.

“Just being able to come out there and play with super joy and enthusiasm every night like you did your rookie season, I think he's back to that,” Nurse said. 

“He's really having fun playing right now.”

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