Scottie Barnes provides a reminder of what he, and the Raptors, can potentially become


TORONTO — Scottie Barnes’ second NBA game was his first big NBA moment, but it was a game against the Brooklyn Nets when he showed he could be a star. In response to Kevin Durant slaying his Raptors with jumper after jumper, Barnes had an electric turn, keeping the Raptors alive with a wide array of shots — drives, hook shots, jumpers. It wasn’t enough for a win, but it was enough to produce aftershocks of hope.

That was 367 days prior to Friday night. Everyone was hoping Barnes would not need to prove his star potential again, but that’s not the way his sophomore season has gone. Barnes has clearly wobbled this year, unable to take over when Pascal Siakam was out with an adductor strain, or fit in consistently when the Raptors’ best player has been healthy. Barnes has denied it, but the joy that was so apparent for most of his rookie season has appeared to wane. He has hung out on the periphery of entire games. All of his major stats, save for assists, have dipped.

Barnes’ engagement was never a question Friday in the Raptors’ 119-116 loss, their fourth in a row. Brooklyn centre Nic Claxton deflected the opening tip into his backcourt, and Barnes zipped in to get his team the first possession of the game. The execution, though? That was in plenty of doubt, as he laboriously dealt with Ben Simmons’ ball pressure on the perimeter and had no success posting up, despite 1994 levels of attempts. It was rough. Through three quarters, he had nine points on 3-for-13 shooting.

Well, he had nine points in the Raptors’ final five possessions, finally punishing Simmons and the Nets for that pressure. It was drive after drive after drive. It was five free-throw attempts and five free throws sunk. If not for Kyrie Irving’s cinematic game winner, which coach Nick Nurse indicated the Raptors should have defended with a double team rather than just Fred VanVleet’s contest, it would have been overtime for the Raptors despite being overwhelmed on defence by the brilliant shot-making of Irving and Durant.

On the outside, Barnes’ explosion feels monumental, like a potential turning point for him and the Raptors. Inside the locker room?

“I think that you guys are waiting for him to (turn) into some beautiful butterfly,” said VanVleet, who has preached patience with Barnes as much as anybody in the organization.

“The outside noise is always just noise. I thought he was really effective and aggressive tonight, and (had) his foot on the gas. He’s got to keep it going.”

The Raptors’ Pascal Siakam guards Kevin Durant of the Nets on Friday in Toronto. (Mark Blinch / Getty Images)

Given how much the Raptors have struggled this year, there is the temptation to say Barnes’ end to the night will be propulsive for the Raptors. In reality, this might have just been the product of a unique game: Siakam was hounding Durant all night, leaving him with minimal energy for the other end. VanVleet carried the Raptors throughout with 39 points, but it’s hard for a 6-footer with ordinary athleticism to create his own shot late in games.

We will see whether there is any carryover, but it is at least comforting that Barnes’ sense of the moment remains strong, even if some of his skills have to catch up. His handle while faced up to the basket has not developed to the point where he is going to simply beat his man one-on-one very often. It was clear that Simmons’ pressure confounded him, and Barnes was looking to get off the ball quickly when that pressure arrived.

Again, until he wasn’t.

“You’ve got to meet aggressive defence like that sometimes with ultra-aggressive offence, especially when … a lot of those were picked up at midcourt or even further,” Nurse said. “And Scottie just decided to make a move and get by him — a long ways out.”

That word — “decided” — makes it seem like it should be easy. Nurse didn’t mean it like that, and, of course, it is not as simple as just deciding to dial up assertiveness. There has to be the space out there to make those drives, which he had because Malachi Flynn played next to VanVleet and made the Raptors at least plausibly dangerous from 3.

You also need the opportunity. The Raptors have consistently gone to Siakam late in games, with VanVleet acting as his screener to either open up a lane for their best finisher, or a perimeter shot for their best shooter. With Siakam exhausted and Barnes thriving, the second-year player got an opportunity that usually goes to his more experienced teammate.

“I was just … trying to get the spacing right so I could be able to get downhill and attack,” Barnes said. “I work on my game. That’s where my confidence probably comes from.”

He needs more work. The Raptors planned to operate out of the post frequently early in the game, and Barnes got a lot of those looks. There is nothing wrong with his strength. He got solid positioning on many of his shots. His touch was lacking, though. He also doesn’t have counters when the defence loads up on his strong side.

It took just one fired-out pass to Siakam for a wide-open 3 to understand the merit of Barnes working from the post. He is a wonderful passer, and until his handle improves, the post is as good as any place from which to leverage that skill. However, Barnes posting up will rarely be efficient for entire games until he can score regularly, forcing the defence to collapse on him, and making his passing lanes wider.

“I know they’re expecting a lot out of him,” Durant said. “But he’s still a young player. You got a good one up here in Toronto.”

This is what life is like when a team with designs on winning is relying on a young player. That’s not to say this season hasn’t been a disappointment so far; it has been, on both a team and individual level. Watching Barnes figure out this game as it went along, all the Raptors can hope for is he starts processing more quickly, with experience expediting his growth.

“He’s a hell of a player. If we didn’t know that already, you should know that now,” VanVleet said. “He’s a hell of a player. That’s why everyone is so excited with him and why expectation is so high. And it’s good for him.”

It’ll be good for the Raptors, too. The pain is in the waiting.

(Top photo of Scottie Barnes of the Raptors driving against the Nets’ Kyrie Irving: Mark Blinch / Getty Images)


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