“That’s my favourite player. I was in the stands, I saw him, I just wanted to touch his hand, it was a good moment for me,” Barnes said about his interaction with Siakam at the Raptors 905 game on Monday afternoon, which Barnes posted to his Instagram account for a viral moment.
Asked why Siakam is his favourite player, Barnes said: “The amount of hard work and effort he puts in every single day. He comes to the gym extra early, and then when you see him on the court, he’s just really good, is able to get to his spots and score. He’s also a great defender.”
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 7, 2021
Of course, Barnes was mostly kidding around — the 20-year-old rookie is always kidding around. But what’s more important than how the two Raptors forwards are getting along off the court is how they are playing together on it: Over the last two games, both wins against good Eastern Conference opponents, the Raptors have a net rating of +3.7 when Barnes and Siakam share the floor, and it’s obvious that their chemistry is starting to come along.
It’s a really important development for the Raptors long-term. After all, when Barnes was drafted fourth-overall by the Raptors, the main question was "how will he fit with Siakam, especially on the offensive end?" People went so far as to assume that Barnes being drafted meant that Siakam was going to be traded, presumably for a guard. But Toronto's vision was to play big and long, with multiple wing-sized players who could handle, pass and shoot. In Barnes and Siakam, they have at least two players who fit that vision.
Let’s look into the fit between Barnes and Siakam on three different levels: half-court offence, transition offence, and defence.
The half-court offence was the main area of concern for many Raptors fans when it came to the fit between Barnes and Siakam, and a lot of it was due to spacing concerns. After all, Siakam shot 29.7 percent from three last season, and Barnes was deemed a complete non-shooter when he entered the NBA.
How were these two going to play together, especially alongside a traditional big?
The answer is that they are both really smart basketball players who can each do a lot of different things offensively, making them a hard combination to defend. Both can comfortably attack a mismatch, shoot mid-range jumpers, pass out of a double, cut and finish at the rim, set screens and play out of the short roll, and shoot the three when open.
Siakam and Barnes are two of the best Raptors at creating an advantage out of nothing, whether it's through a post-up or by just dribbling to their spots, with the threat of a pull-up jumper making defences send extra help.
The ability to force those rotations is enabling them to create easier buckets for each other and for their teammates.
While the spacing is still a work in progress, it has improved as of late. It’s not a coincidence that Raptors head coach Nick Nurse publicly called out Barnes to shoot more threes right around the time that Siakam returned to the lineup from injury, as teams were packing the paint against Siakam and daring his teammates to shoot, leading to a really clunky half-court offence.
After taking only 19 attempts from deep over his first 18 games, Barnes has shot 23 threes over the last four games, making 10. But what’s even more encouraging than his hot streak is his willingness to take them, because the only way to improve as a shooter long-term and to get defences to change how they guard you is to take open shots when they come to you. Plus, Siakam is up to 33.3 percent from three on the season, and although he is shooting only 3.7 attempts per game, the lowest since the 2018-19 season, the increased spacing is allowing him to feast inside the paint, averaging 22 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists on 53.8/35.5/76.7 shooting splits over his last eight games.
“There might be times when it might not go in, but it’s just the confidence in taking them,” Siakam said of Barnes’s recent uptake of three-point shooting. “I don’t really care about the result of it, I really think [the fact] that he’s taking them is enough for me and I know that he’s working on them so I’m sure that it’s gonna balance out, he’s gonna make them. I just like that he’s taking them.”
The Raptors are scoring 114.5 points per 100 possessions with Barnes and Siakam on the court without a traditional centre beside them, which ranks in the 86th percentile in the league, including 97 points per 100 in the half court (76th percentile). However, those numbers drop drastically when Precious Achiuwa or Khem Birch enter the fold — whom they need for defensive reasons we’ll get into below — because the spacing gets extremely tight, especially with Achiuwa, who is still learning where to be on the offensive end.
“I think one thing that will help both of those guys is getting Precious in the right spots,” said Fred VanVleet after the Milwaukee Bucks game. “I know we’re sliding him in to play the five, and naturally it’s not really the way he plays. He’s one of those forwards that kind of slashes, and you know, he can shoot it a little bit. I think if we get his spacing right, and get him down there where the five goes, in the dunker space, on the baseline, I think that will open the floor up for both Pascal and Scottie.”
The other thing that is helping the Raptors score the ball efficiently with Barnes and Siakam on the floor is that they rarely play in the half court in the first place. In fact, 19.9 percent of Raptors possessions are coming in transition when those two play together, where they are scoring 115.9 points per 100 possessions, a below-average mark that is trending in the right direction. Again, the transition offence is more efficient when the two of them play without a centre on the floor, as it enables them to play faster and with more space.
Watching Barnes and Siakam in transition, the collective creativity stands out: Both are good rebounders for their position and can handle the ball on the run, pass, and finish through contact at the rim with a head of steam. The combination works best when Barnes pulls down a rebound and fires away a quarterback pass to a leaking Siakam, similar to how Kyle Lowry and Siakam used to thrive in transition.
That puts each player in their most comfortable position: Barnes, the creative playmaker and Siakam, the flexible finisher.
“They're getting used to playing with each other. I think the games and minutes and the frequency that they're out there together is helping them,” Nurse said of Barnes and Siakam in transition. "I would say they're kind of similar that their strength is getting it to the rim or getting it to the paint, and when help comes, they gotta find the other one of them.”
The defensive fit between Barnes and Siakam is pretty obvious: two players around six-feet-nine with plus-wingspans who can slide their feet well enough to stay on guards and yet are strong enough not to get backed down by most centres. It’s no wonder they switch almost every screen between them, as offences gain no advantage by going from being defended by one to the other.
“I think obviously of his versatility. On defence, just being focused and guard anybody, really. That gives us a boost on our team, just having someone who can guard anyone,” Siakam said of Barnes. “I feel like for most of the time, I was always one of those guys. I think just having more of that, sometimes I feel like I’m alone out there, so it feels good to have someone who can just do like everything, literally.”
Despite not having a single player taller than six-feet-10 on their roster, what the Raptors lack in height they more than make up for in length and wingspan, with Barnes and Siakam learning to collectively use that length to force steals and protect the rim even without a centre on the floor at times. Last game, the two of them carried a bench unit of Dalano Banton, Yuta Watanabe, and Chris Boucher that could only survive against Washington Wizards bruising centre Montrezl Harrell because of the collective size on the floor.
Still, the defence is a work in progress. It is the one area where Barnes and Siakam have been aided by having a traditional centre on the floor, allowing just 110.0 points per 100 possessions with one of Birch or Achiuwa and 117.1 without them.
While Barnes and Siakam have managed to force a ton of turnovers regardless of if a centre is on the floor with them or not, they have struggled to grab defensive rebounds and avoid fouling without a centre on the backline, giving up 37.6 percent of offensive rebounds and fouling on 22.5 percent of possessions.
“I think we know we have the personnel, we have people. I mean, obviously we don't have a seven-footer out there but we have guys that can do multiple things and are great on defence,” Siakam said. “I think we just got to bring the effort and every single night because in the league, every game that you play, like everyone's coming at you and we just got to be consistent, stick to the game plan and then follow it and be serious about knowing the potential that we have as a defensive team and taking pride in that.”
Toronto's defence has been much improved as of late, but the question of whether or not Siakam and Barnes can thrive together on that end without a traditional centre is one that will hang over this team until it gets answered definitively.
Currently, the team’s five best players are VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Barnes and Siakam, and they need to find minutes to play all five of them together. For now, they can play them for short stretches and maybe even close out games with them, but if they don’t learn how to effectively rebound and avoid fouling, their defence will never get to where it has to be, and their ceiling will be limited.
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