Scottie Barnes raising Raptors' ceiling with change in mentality

Scottie Barnes is a giver.

Ask anyone who has watched or played with the Toronto Raptors rookie, and they’ll tell you that his natural disposition is to make plays for his teammates and to act as a Swiss Army knife-type connector. That was part of the reason Florida State played him at point guard in his lone season there, where he averaged 10.3 points and 4.1 assists per game.

In fact, ESPN draft analyst Mike Shmitz, who has covered Barnes since he was a kid, said on a recent episode of The Lowe Post Podcast that: “The question with Scottie has always been scoring. And not just can he score, but also is he willing to score? Is he aggressive enough to score?

“It’s in his nature to be a giver… but I'm not sure he’s ever going to be wired to score.”

Schmitz recalled a story of visiting Barnes in Santa Barbara, Calif., during the pre-draft process, where Barnes was working out. Schmitz explained one of the drills Barnes was working on, called “25 Perfect,” which would have every player take 30 seconds to visualize themselves scoring 25 points. Then, they would go on the court and get to each spot they visualized and score those points, with the goal of training your mind to score 25 points in a game.

“Scottie, it took him a while to even conceptualize scoring 25 points in an empty gym… He’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I need a little bit more time.’ And then he would ask, ‘But do assists count?’” Schmitz recalls. “That is Scottie Barnes 101. And as endearing as that is on one hand, on the other hand, he is so far in his mind from being this aggressive scorer. It has never been in his nature.”

It’s no wonder Barnes was constantly compared to Draymond Green during the NBA draft, with scouts pegging him as a multi-positional defender with a high feel for the game and playmaking chops, but without the ability to efficiently score from any area of the court since he was without a tight enough handle to navigate past defenders or a jump-shot to shoot over them.

Barnes has already come a long way since then, looking way ahead of schedule as a scorer, averaging 15 points (and 3.3 assists) a game this season on 49/31/74 shooting splits. He is scoring in the 73rd percentile among forwards at the rim, the 73rd percentile in floater range, and the 67th percentile from the mid-range this season, using his size, shiftiness, physicality and soft touch to consistently finish through and around his man near the rim.

The increased NBA spacing has helped Barnes find open areas of the court to score, as has playing alongside talented teammates like Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, who receive a lot of the defence’s attention and allow Barnes to typically play against single coverage and often play against size or speed mismatches.

But Barnes not only can do more, but might have to in order for the Raptors to reach their ceiling.

For someone as efficient as Barnes has been this season, especially inside the paint, he has a usage rate of just 18.8 percent, fifth on the team behind the other four starters, and just a tick ahead of Precious Achiuwa (18.0) and Thad Young (17.8). Plus, most of Barnes’ scoring comes off of unscripted “junk” plays including in transition (21.1 percent), offensive rebounding put-backs (9.2), or cuts (13.5), where 43.8 percent of his offence comes. In truth, Barnes isn’t a huge part of the Raptors' offensive scheme or high on their hierarchy. He rarely has plays called for him and, just as importantly, rarely calls his own number because that is not in his nature.

“He’s very much a “we” kind of player, which I find to be very, very rare and valuable for guys like that,” coach David Thorpe said about Barnes on The FAN Morning Show. “But to be great in the NBA, you also have to have a little bit of “me” selfishness going on. It's just part of the game and not a bad thing; It's a balance you have to have.

“Most young players are only focused on the “me” part and that's a problem, and it's hard to get them to see the “we” game. Scottie is kind of the reverse of that.”

Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes (4) celebrates a basket against the Phoenix Suns. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)
Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes (4) celebrates a basket against the Phoenix Suns. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

To be fair, Barnes is a rookie. He’s already playing a freshman-high 35.4 minutes per game while being asked to guard one-through-five on defence and learning offensive schemes and how to read and react, screen, roll, cut, and everything in between. To also ask him to be a primary ball-handler and decision-maker on top of that might be a bridge too far, Thorpe argues.

But the Raptors are starved for offence. And despite his youth, Barnes is already one of their more efficient and versatile offensive weapons, especially with OG Anunoby out with a finger injury and Gary Trent Jr. struggling to shoot the ball. The Raptors and their 27th-ranked half-court offence (in terms of points per possession) need Barnes to do more if they are going to improve enough down the final stretch of the season and be able to make some real noise in the playoffs. They need Barnes to become an even more aggressive scorer, shifting his mindset away from being a giver, at least for the time being.

“We’ve seen him do this before where he’s not quite been involved or aggressive enough or whatever and then comes out and gets super aggressive… But mostly he just decided to start imposing his size and will over the top of ‘em and got himself going,” Nick Nurse said about Barnes after his 20-point explosion in San Antonio on Wednesday.

“He’s got the freedom. I keep telling him to just be aggressive in taking it inside and using his length over the top…. We’re working together out there but he’s just being aggressive and finding most of those plays on his own.””

The good news is that mental transformation is already underway. In nine games since returning from the All-Star break, Barnes is averaging 18.3 points per game on 13.4 field-goal attempts, up from his season averages of 15.0 points per game on 12.3 field goals. His usage rate has bumped up from 18.6 to 20.3 percent.

Plus, by all accounts, Barnes is starting to demand more of the ball, with Nurse saying after the Raptors' March 1 win over the Brooklyn Nets that Barnes “was getting mad at me. Any time I was calling a play he wasn’t involved in, he’d get mad at me. He wanted to make plays.”

There are a lot of indicators that say good things happen to the Raptors' offence the more Barnes has the ball. Already, 52 percent of Barnes’ made baskets are unassisted (compared to just 35 percent for Rookie of the Year frontrunner Evan Mobley), proving he has the ability to create his own offence. Also, Barnes is attempting 20.2 percent of the team’s free throws when he is on the court and getting fouled on 11.3 percent of his field-goal attempts, which ranks in the 79th percentile among forwards, and that’s as a rookie who is still learning the tricks of the trade and the tendencies of defenders.

One of the areas the Raptors can (and have begun to) make a more concerted effort to get Barnes the ball is in the post, where he often has a size mismatch against smaller wings or even guards. Barnes is scoring 0.95 points per possession on 10.2 percent of his possessions in the post, good for 57th percentile. Plus, because he is already such a good passer, the more attention he garners in the post, the more opportunities he will have to make plays for his teammates, especially if teams begin to double-team him there.

“I’ve really been working on it a lot,” Barnes said of his post-up game. “When I come into the gym, I really work on it. I feel comfortable using it. I feel really comfortable being in the post. I work on it every single day. I felt comfortable getting to those moves.”

“He’s really a tough cover for pretty much anybody when he puts his head down and goes to the basket, so, with his touch, and his skill, being able to shoot over guys, just sometimes there's nothing you can do,” VanVleet said about Barnes. “He’s gotta keep growing as a young player, figuring it out, but he’s been really impressive and he’s given us an extra notch when he’s scoring the ball and can add to our offence.”

It remains to be seen how much the Raptors are willing to hand the offensive keys to a 20-year-old rookie, or just how much Barnes is willing to make that mental shift towards becoming more of a scorer in his first NBA season when he has always been a giver.

As his coach at Florida State, Leonard Miller, said on the Locked on Raptors Podcast before the season, “I think what you’re gonna find is that he adjusts to the NBA game… as he grows and adjusts to the system, I think what you're gonna find is that he’ll adjust and he’ll give whatever is needed of him in order to affect the game.”

Right now, the Raptors need Barnes to score. Let’s see if he is ready to make that adjustment.

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