As the 2021 NBA draft neared, it became clear that Scottie Barnes was rising up the big boards of many teams (and experts). Coming off a solid freshman season at Florida State, Barnes’s primary appeal stemmed from his defensive versatility. He was a jack-of-all-trades stopper, guarding all five positions and nabbing the seventh-most steals per game in the ACC.
At 6-foot-7, Barnes also offered a unique blend of passing skills that not many forwards, let alone players, his age possessed. He dished 4.1 assists per game, good for fourth in the ACC, consistently leading his teammates into high-percentage looks. Factor in a 7-foot-3 wingspan, and teams were looking at an extremely well-rounded 19-year-old with alluring intangibles.
There was one glaring concern, however. He averaged 10.3 points per game, a solid number considering he just started seven out of the 24 games he played. But he hit just 27.5 percent of his 3-pointers and 62.1 percent of his free throws, figures that didn’t bode well for production in the pros. Could Barnes meaningfully contribute to an NBA offense?
The Raptors certainly believed so.
Toronto selected Barnes fourth overall, nabbing him after the consensus top-three prospects: Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, and Evan Mobley. The Raptors couldn’t wait to utilize Barnes’s point-forward skills; though he looked to be a bit of a project, they were more than willing to take the time to develop him.
Turns out, Barnes didn’t need much time at all. In 13 appearances, Barnes is first among all rookies in points per game (16.3), rebounds per game (8.3), and minutes per game (35.5). The biggest change since college has been his shot selection: he’s only attempted 11 3-pointers. 15.1 percent of Barnes’s points have come from mid-range, which leads all rookies. And he’s already earned the trust of head coach Nick Nurse to take shots—Barnes has the second-highest percentage of unassisted field goals among rookies playing over 20 minutes per game.
Beyond his unexpected scoring numbers, Barnes has lived up to his branding as a do-it-all player. His offensive rebound percentage of 7.3 and rebound percentage of 11.3 shines above all rookies. Barnes’s defensive rating of 107.3 is not as spectacular (eighth among rookies), but we have to remember that he’s just 13 games into his NBA career. He’ll improve on the defensive side of the ball every single night.
In pre-draft coverage, Barnes drew comparisons to three-time champion Draymond Green, currently anchoring one of the best defenses in the league in Golden State. And he didn’t shy away from the lofty compliment.
“I would say that comparison is fair in some ways,” Barnes said during his media session at the draft combine. “I would say, just the things he can do defensively—guard multiple positions, play small-ball five, being able to set people up for easy shots, coming down and doing zooms and the way he can get to the rim—different things like that. Another thing I would say is just his competitive nature—how competitive he is.”
That last sentence is an inside look into Barnes’s psyche. Green’s passion and energy on the court is infectious, and it’s been evident since his high school days at Montverde Academy that Barnes seeks to bring that same effort. Raptors guard Fred VanVleet had high praise for the rookie’s impact, proclaiming that “he knows what he’s talking about.”
“[You] need voices like [Scottie's],” VanVleet told Toronto media after a preseason win against the Philadelphia 76ers. “We love that, there’s not just one leader of a team, there’s a bunch of leaders on a team, and everybody has different roles, and if he’s going to step up and be that guy who’s keeping the bench together and communicating while he’s on the bench, that’s a big part of the game.”
Barnes couldn't have been drafted to a more perfect team than the Raptors. He shows up everywhere in the box score nightly and plays with boundless passion—perhaps most importantly, he understands his role in Nick Nurse’s system. Not yet 21, the teenager plays with the confidence of an NBA veteran, driving to the rim for tough layups and pulling up for mid-range fadeaways like he’s been doing it for years.
The evolution of Barnes’s game from his first game at Florida State eleven months ago to now has been truly magnificent. He’s changed his game to work to his advantage while staying true to himself as a teammate and a well-rounded basketball player. Winning Rookie of the Year in June is in the cards if he continues to build upon his excellent start. It would be the first award in what fans and pundits hope to be a long and illustrious career for Barnes.