Everyone thought the real NBA draft started with the fifth pick. Turns out it started at no. 4. The Raptors made the most shocking move in the lottery when they passed on Jalen Suggs to select Scottie Barnes. Barnes was the biggest riser in the predraft process, but few thought he would pass the Gonzaga guard who became a household name after his near-half-court buzzer-beater in the Final Four. The decision will have huge long-term implications for Toronto and Orlando, which had Suggs fall into its lap. Let’s examine both sides.
Raptors Drafting Barnes
Suggs seemed like a perfect fit in Toronto because he could slide into the backcourt void likely created by Kyle Lowry’s impending departure in free agency. Drafting Barnes presents less straightforward lineup decisions for the Raptors given that they already have Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. One solution would be to embrace small ball and move Barnes to the 5, which could be his best position in the NBA.
Barnes has a fascinating collection of strengths and weaknesses. At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s a huge forward with ballhandling and playmaking chops, plus a great feel for the game. The problem is that he’s also a limited outside shooter who doesn’t have the elite first step to get past defenders sagging off him. He’s often compared to Draymond Green, though Kyle Anderson is probably a more realistic example when it comes to career trajectory.
One problem with Draymond comparisons is that few players in that mold are ever put in the same role he has in Golden State. There are so many centers in the NBA that it’s hard to find minutes at the position for smaller players. And few teams have the necessary floor spacing to create the passing and driving lanes that Draymond was so successful at exploiting.
That’s what makes Barnes’s fit so intriguing on the Raptors. Toronto has a ready-made core around him, with four players who can shoot and defend in Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Anunoby, and Siakam. The one thing the team was missing was a center, as it never truly replaced Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. It would be unfair to throw Barnes into the fire as a starting center as a rookie. But don’t be surprised if he’s soon closing games at the position.
Barnes is the rare young player who should be able to defend at a high level early in his NBA career. He checks all the right boxes. He’s a smart player who has shown the ability to rotate as a weak-side defender and diagnose plays as they happen. He already has the size and strength to hold his own physically. Plus he has a reputation at both the college and high school levels for competing on that end of the floor. He should fit right in with the culture in Toronto.
The best-case scenario for the Raptors is that Barnes, Anunoby, and Siakam become a dream of a small-ball frontcourt. They could fly all over the floor on defense and make plays for each other on offense while having just enough shooting between them to survive. This should be a one-time pit stop in the lottery. There’s no reason that Toronto can’t make a playoff run next season. The question is whether it can beat Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo playing this way. But that would be a question even if it hadn’t taken Barnes.
The Florida State product couldn’t have landed in a better spot to develop. So much of whether or not a young player succeeds in the NBA depends on the situation around him. Barnes would have been much worse off if the draft had gone according to plan and he landed in Orlando, which has a logjam at center and doesn’t have the shooting at other positions to open up the floor for him. Toronto is the perfect landing spot, but Barnes still has an uphill battle to be as good as Suggs.
Magic Drafting Suggs
Orlando was in a tough position coming into Thursday night. The Magic were a rebuilding team without a cornerstone to build around that was picking fifth in what was regarded as a four-player draft. But it’s better to be lucky than good. The Magic know that firsthand after the lottery balls didn’t bounce their way during their last rebuilding project in the 2010s. Suggs finally gives them someone who could develop into the star they’ve been sorely lacking since Dwight Howard.
Suggs didn’t get to showcase his full game at Gonzaga, where he was a role player on one of the best college teams in recent memory. He was one of five NBA prospects in their starting lineup. He took turns playing on and off the ball on offense and devoted himself to the defensive end of the floor. It would have been fascinating to see Suggs play a similar role for the Raptors. But falling to the Magic might have been better for him in the long run.
It’s not that Suggs won’t have competition for minutes and touches in the Orlando backcourt. The Magic signed Markelle Fultz to a $50 million extension last season and also drafted Cole Anthony with the no. 15 pick. The problem for those two is that Suggs combines their best features—and none of their weaknesses—into one package. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, he has the size and physicality of Fultz and can shoot as well as Anthony. They will have to figure out how to fit around him.
Suggs can do a little bit of everything. He’s an elite athlete who can defend multiple positions on the perimeter, run the pick-and-roll, get to the rim, and knock down open shots. But he’s not elite at any one thing on offense. He averaged 4.5 assists and 2.9 turnovers per game and shot 33.7 percent from 3 last season. That’s why he’s often compared to Jrue Holiday, a combo guard who excels on defense but is neither an elite shooter nor passer.
The biggest area for growth for Suggs is his shooting. The path to stardom for most point guards in the modern NBA is knocking down pull-up 3s and then taking advantage of the pressure that puts on the defense. He’s such a good athlete that he will probably be given jumpers early in his career to keep him out of the lane. His free throw numbers in college were decent (75.4 percent on 3.8 attempts per game) but not good enough to indicate that he will be a great marksman, either.
The good news for Suggs is that he should have the opportunity to grow into that role with the Magic. It’s a new day in Orlando, which is starting over after trading away most of its veterans last season. Franz Wagner, whom the Magic took at no. 8, will be an excellent complementary player who can defend, spread the floor, and move the ball. If the Magic hadn’t landed Suggs, Wagner would have had no one to complement. But they did. And their latest rebuild is off to a great start.