TORONTO — The night started with a challenge of sorts delivered by Raptors head coach Nick Nurse to his second guard/forward/center Scottie Barnes.
Since putting the finishing touches on an amazing Rookie of the Year campaign, Barnes has worked to extend his reach and improve his jump shot. As the fruits of that labor begin to show, Nurse wants to make sure the talented 21-year-old doesn’t stray too far from what he does best.
“I think it’s natural that a lot of people who come in and do a lot of work on their shoot want to bring that work to the stage,” Nurse said just before his team hosted the Atlanta Hawks on Monday. “But you always have to remember, it’s kind of an extra add-on, and don’t forget the bread and butter.”
“I’ve had a few conversations with him about it. The greatest thing for me is with him [he’s] must go in the basket. It wasn’t him [doing that] enough this year… My feeling is that he doesn’t take it down there and use his physical size and strength to punish the people on the fringes.”
Of course, Barnes came out dressed as Steph Curry on Halloween night. He drilled a step-back three over the outstretched arms of Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter four minutes into the game. Barnes followed the play on the next possession, taking a pass from Gary Trent Jr. and entering another three-pointer on the opposite side of the floor. He then hit his third straight triple, this time from the top of the arc. Finally, his fourth try in four possessions – a deserved heat check – rolled around the rim and out.
As Barnes’ offensive profile continues to expand, his shot selection remains a bit of a work in progress. But that didn’t settle. This was a young star who learned to take what the opposition gave him and, most importantly, make them pay for it. Even his coach was impressed.
“Obviously he felt it out there tonight,” Nurse said of Barnes, who hit a career-best five three-pointers in nine tries in Toronto’s 139-109 win.
Barnes’ development is right on schedule, as shown by Monday’s game. Across six competitions, his numbers are virtually identical to last season’s: 15.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.2 steals. But given his role and team context, counting stats was never a good indicator of his year 2 growth. It would always require us to look deeper. And against Atlanta everything was there.
In last Wednesday’s win against Philadelphia, Barnes started at center and served as a main defender for 76ers star Joel Embiid. Now that the injured Fred VanVleet is no longer in the lineup, he played point guard and chased around the fast Trae Young. Even in a league with fewer and fewer positions and on its most diverse team, going from protector of one of basketball’s best and most physical big men to one of the game’s fastest and most dynamic guards in less than a week is a remarkable event.
It also gave us one of his best defensive performances. Last year, Barnes seemed far more comfortable guarding the post than defending smaller and faster players on the rim. But he wasn’t just hanging out with Young here. The two-time All-Star had one of the worst games of his NBA career.
More height and length than Young is used to seeing, Barnes played a big part in neutralizing the Hawks star. Young had 14 points, less than half his season average, and made 10 turnovers, more than double his previous four games combined. He shot 3 of 13 and hit only one of his five three-pointers.
“It just shows how versatile he is,” said rookie Christian Koloko, who started in the middle on Monday. “He can basically play any position out there. The good thing is he’s willing to do it. When coaches tell him to play the five, he’s fine with that. Some other people, if you tell them to play the five, they’d say, “No, I’m not a center.” But he’s willing to do it for the team, it shows what kind of player he is.”
At the other end of the floor, he was a stabilizing presence for an offensive Toronto that was missing the most important – or at worst the second most important – player in VanVleet. Barnes recorded eight assists and just two turnovers, and the Raptors outplayed Atlanta by 31 points in his 33 minutes.
Most of the time he made the right reads during the transition. After picking up Young’s pass late in the first quarter, the former fourth-seeker led the break and found Precious Achiuwa for the dunk. With his vision and size, he also has the unique ability to see over defenses and make plays that smaller guards may not be able to see. On a couple of occasions, once in the second quarter and once in the fourth, Barnes was able to throw the ball over a Hawks defender and find Koloko in the pick and roll.
“It helps a lot if he’s just 6-8, 6-9 or whatever they say he is,” Koloko said of Barnes, who is listed at 6-foot-9. “I think they tried to blitz him and it just allows him to see over the defenders [and make the pass]… It feels great to have someone who can play the point guard position and he’s like 6-9.”
As for the jumper, after scoring just 30 percent of his three point attempts as a rookie, Barnes is 11-21 from afar to open the new season. The sample size is small and it’s obviously due for regression, but that’s a good start.
That was a focus for him in the summer. With some mechanical adjustments to his release and plenty of reps, he shoots the ball with confidence and gets results. Now it’s a matter of finding the balance and, above all, continuing to read the defense and take what the opposition gives him.
Last season, nearly 60 percent of his field goal attempts came within 10 feet. In his first six games, that number has dropped to 45 percent. Thirty percent of his shots come from beyond the arc, up from 20 percent a year ago.
So far, Barnes hasn’t noticed much of a difference in how teams approach him. Most of them need to see that his improved shooting is sustainable before making the adjustment. If and when they do, that opens up even more opportunities for Barnes, both as a goalscorer and playmaker.
“I feel like they’re really challenging me to shoot the ball,” he said. “But I’ve been working on being consistent with my jump shot.”
“Last year I felt like I was pretty good in color. I feel like getting into the color gives me a simpler look and finish. Being able to go downhill, get in the paint, be aggressive, be able to kick shooters, it just opens up so many different things for our offense.
As he becomes more adept at making those reads and determining when the coverage is asking him to shoot, attack the dribble, or make the pass, it becomes even more difficult to stop him. Gradually we observe how he takes these steps.
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