How the Raptors unlocked Scottie Barnes' superstar potential

Though the move came with plenty of scrutiny and risk, the early returns of handing the keys to the franchise to Scottie Barnes have been promising.

The Toronto Raptors found themselves at a crossroads at the end of last season. Coming off an impressive 48-win campaign in which Scottie Barnes was named Rookie of the Year and the Raptors put a scare in the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, the Raptors faltered at every level, winning just 41 games in 2022-23 as internal tensions boiled over, Barnes’ development stagnated, Nick Nurse placed one foot out the door, and the team failed to make the playoffs for just the second time in 10 years.

Team President Masai Ujiri called his team “selfish” and said “I did not enjoy watching this team play.” But instead of blowing it up or trading for a star, Ujiri ran it back with a new coach, a different point guard, and one more significant change: It was Barnes’ team now.

“He’s very confident,” Ujiri said about Barnes ahead of the season. “...He’s motivated to become a really good basketball player in this league and he wants to be great.”

“That’s all Scottie has been. And that’s what attracted us to Scottie.”

It was a bold choice to not only hand the keys to Barnes, but to bring in a new coaching staff and style of play in his image. But it wasn’t the first time the front office put all their eggs in the Barnes basket. After all, it dates back to the 2021 NBA Draft, when the Raptors selected Barnes ahead of Jalen Suggs, the presumed No. 4 overall pick and the obvious fit at point guard for a Raptors team that lost Kyle Lowry that same offseason.

Scottie Barnes has arrived. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Scottie Barnes has arrived. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Barnes, on the other hand, played the same position and had the same shooting deficiencies as the Raptors' best player, Pascal Siakam. And after coming off the bench in his lone season at Florida State, he appeared to be a relatively raw prospect without a clear position in the NBA — nevermind the fact he runs like a gazelle and plays an unorthodox brand of basketball, making his future even more unclear.

That’s all to say that drafting Barnes was risky. Prioritizing him to the point that he was held out of potential deals for superstars like Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard was controversial. And allowing former point guard Fred VanVleet to walk in free agency just to hand the ball to Barnes while completely re-shaping the coaching staff to better fit his personality and playing style was one of the boldest moves management has made since taking over the team in 2013.

But the early returns of handing Barnes the keys to the franchise have been promising. Even if Toronto is hovering around .500, the 6-foot-9 forward out of West Palm Beach, Florida is averaging 19.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 5.7 assists on 56.6% true shooting with three STOCKS a game while playing the best defense of his career. Meanwhile, Barnes has gone from hitting 28.1% of his 2.9 three-point attempts per game to hitting 38.2% on almost double the volume (with a lot of those shots being taken off the dribble and almost all of them coming from above the break).

Despite being asked to carry heavy bench units as the lone starter on the floor to start the second and fourth quarters of games — a factor that has led to his usage jumping from 20.3 to 24.4% this season — the Raptors have a neutral net rating with Barnes on the floor. And the combination of Barnes, Siakam and O.G. Anunoby is among the best high-volume three-man combinations in the league at +7.5 per 100 possessions.

“He's been our driving force for us. He's been driving the car,” 17-year veteran Thaddeus Young told Yahoo Sports Canada. “Since the season began, he's done a really good job of putting himself in a position to be successful and help us be successful. Obviously, our record doesn't indicate it. But we're getting a lot of positives out of the basketball that he's playing.

“So, whenever he brings his energy, his intensity, it gives us a chance to win each and every night.”

To be sure, there were signs that it could work with Barnes running the team before this season. Throughout his first two years in the NBA, Barnes showed flashes of the dominant player he could be on both ends of the floor when he played with maximum effort and intensity, and how brilliant he could be as a playmaker when he had the ball in his hands to quarterback the team for extended stretches.

But Barnes lacked consistent energy, focus, and fitness during his sophomore campaign, when he floated in and out of games and tended to save the best for last when he would come to life in the fourth quarters. Now, Barnes has been shot out of a cannon to begin his third season, playing with more energy and verve than ever before as he screams at opposing players on defense at the start of games while making those all-important hustle plays — even when he's struggling to score. In fact, Barnes is averaging 4.1 STOCKS in the nine games he has shot worse than 50% from the field this season.

“There’s been a big difference,” Ujiri said at Media Day about Barnes’ offseason work. “Sometimes we forget that Scottie is a young player coming into a new league and there are adjustments that these players all have to make, especially when you’re very young in this league…

“Scottie has worked incredibly hard this summer and has shown the commitment that he wants to get better. He’s gotten stronger and his conditioning has gotten better.”

Barnes made it a priority this offseason to get more fit in order to have better legs later in games without the need to conserve energy early on, putting on 9 pounds of muscle to blossom up to 240 pounds for the first time in his life, while running much more than usual in his offseason workouts in order to prepare for the opportunity to have the ball in his hands more and “to try and take it to the next level,” as he explains it. That has allowed him to take over games down the stretch, and his teammates have taken notice of the change.

“He put in a lot of work,” Precious Achiuwa says. “Stuff like that don't just happen overnight. He put in a lot of work over the summer time and obviously it's showing.

“And we also as his teammates, we're trusting him — he's had games where he literally drove us to win… it was a lot of games like that this season so far where he just imposes his will and literally just helped us win the game, literally won us the game.”

Scottie Barnes headshot
Scottie Barnes
SF - TOR - #4
2023 - 2024 season

Take the opening night win over Minnesota, in which Barnes stuffed the stat sheet with 17-8-5-2-5 to get the win. Or the game against San Antonio, when Barnes had 30-11-6-3-3 to lead the Raptors to a come-from-behind win after being stuck 15 at the start of the fourth quarter, when Barnes scored 17 points.

“[It] makes me feel good. You know, just having the ball in my hands, being able to play-make more, being able to make good decisions whether I need to pass or score, I feel like I’m really good at that,” Barnes said about his expanded role.

“... I'm confident in my game. That's really what it's about. Just working on your game, just building confidence. So when you go out during the season, you can just go out there and dominate. That's my mindset, to go out every game and be able to dominate and just try to win games.”

“I think he loves it,” Young says about Barnes having more of the ball this season. “Just for the simple fact of: when the ball is in his hands, he has more opportunity to kind of prove what he can do and show what he can do. And the sky's the limit for him.”

Barnes is a man on a mission this season. But on top of getting stronger, more fit, and developing his skill set, he has fully bought into the team and the new coaching staff, who have empowered him to play his way and shaped the style of play in his image.

After all, the selling point on Barnes has never just been about his body or skill set. It’s also that he has an infectious personality that is easy to rally around, as well as a fun, unselfish style of play based on his desire and ability to feed his teammates (often through no-look passes) from different spots and unique angles on the floor — a style that in theory should lead his team to being greater than the sum of its parts. Right now, his assist percentage of 24.9 ranks in the 97th percentile for forwards.

“What he can do is unlike, you know, really anyone anywhere. And the way he can handle the ball, still facilitate, and the brain he has for the game is crazy,” Raptors rookie Gradey Dick says. “It’s special. And it makes it easier not only for himself but just the other guys around him including me.”

Darko Rajakovic was in many ways brought to Toronto to bring Barnes’ best qualities out of him. But that didn’t just mean on the court. As soon as he was hired to replace Nurse as head coach this summer, Rajakovic flew to Florida to spend time with Barnes, working to establish a connection off the court that he believes will play dividends on it.

“We're just constantly talking basketball, talking life, trying to spend time together,” Rajakovic says. “Scottie is easy to get along with and I really love our relationship and the way it's developing.”

He's always coming in motivated, always trying to find different ways to put the emphasis on the game, push us,” Barnes says about Rajakovic. “...On a personal level, he just always comes in with great energy, a great smile. It translated. It carries over to the team.”

After all, that emphasis on relationship-building is maybe the biggest change from Nurse’s old-fashioned regime to Rajakovic’s new-school one. And as much as some analytic-oriented fans might pooh-pooh the idea that people might play better when they get along with each other and feel wanted and empowered in the locker room, it’s something that Rajakovic clearly believes in.

“We need to enjoy and have fun,” Rajakovic says. “We should not put too much pressure on ourselves and then nobody functions well under the pressure. Everybody functions really well if there is healthy self motivation and aggressiveness.”

“Obviously that speaks to his character, speaks to him trying to help us as a team build chemistry,” Jakob Poeltl says about Rajakovic’s approach. “Because it's not just on the court, it's also off the court. You got to — you spend a lot of time with each other. So, you gotta make this an enjoyable process.”

“If you're dreading getting around each other, then it's going to reflect on the court. So, for him to put that effort out there it's obviously, it's really good. And I respect it a lot.”

Perhaps that has to do with why Barnes is playing so hard. For the first time in his NBA career, Barnes has the opportunity to truly run a team, as well as a coach who believes in him and is giving him the opportunity to do it his way. And that means regularly setting the tone with his energy, enthusiasm, and selflessness — qualities that can be seen bleeding into the entire organization.

As Precious Achiuwa tells it, “you could run through a wall for someone that you trust.”

“And that's kind of the culture that we're trying to build — I believe that [Rajakovic’s] trying to build. Once you develop trust from people, they could do anything for you.”

The Raptors, despite all their faults in recent years, have found their franchise player. And it shouldn’t be taken for granted that they saw something in Barnes three years ago as a bench player at Florida State that almost nobody else did. The fact that Barnes is playing at an All-Star level on a rookie scale deal — with a rookie-max likely coming in the offseason that will keep him in Toronto for at least five more years — is a massive luxury for a franchise that has three core pending free agents and a lot of questions around it right now. And as much as depth and fit matter in today’s NBA, finding “the guy” is and will always be the most difficult part of the team-building equation.

The Raptors have done it. And his name is Scottie Barnes.