The Raptors shouldn’t have been as bad as they wound up last season: 12th place in the East, six games out of the play-in tournament, the franchise’s worst finish in nearly a decade. And, really, they weren’t that bad on paper. Toronto finished 15th in offensive efficiency and just a tick below that on the defensive end, getting outscored on the season by just over one point per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. You’d expect a team with that efficiency differential to produce about 33 or 34 wins in a 72-game season.
Instead, the Raps finished 27-45. Reasons for that include an 11-28 record in “clutch” contests; a brutal bout with COVID-19 derailing a start that had them tied for fifth place at the end of February; and the fact that starters Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby combined to miss 91 games. But the gray cloud covering the organization as it struggled with its pandemic-forced full-season road trip in Tampa eventually produced a silver lining: the no. 4 pick in the 2021 NBA draft. (Some strategic rest might’ve helped a little, too.)
Toronto architects Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster used that fourth pick to select Scottie Barnes, a tantalizing Swiss Army knife out of Florida State who has spent his first professional month helping the rebooted Raptors to a 6-6 start—and convincing anyone watching that he’s got a chance to be special.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. Ask somebody who’s got a pretty good sense of what “special” looks like.
Kevin Durant isn’t the only one Barnes has impressed in the early going. Coming out of Florida State, talent evaluators expected Barnes to be a ready-made defender and complementary playmaker (2.6 assists per game, sixth in the rookie class, and 6.7 potential assists a night, which ranks fifth) at the next level. His scoring touch, though, has been something of a revelation: After averaging 10.3 points per game in the ACC last season, Barnes has come out of the gates firing, averaging a Class of ’21–best 17 points per game on 53.3 percent shooting.
Barnes has yet to extend his range out to the 3-point arc, but he’s already shown surprising refinement in the midrange game. He has flashed an ahead-of-schedule sense of how to read defensive coverages, find the soft spots—whether by cutting into open areas off the ball or creating space with a live dribble—and get to his pull-up, runner, and floater.
Combine that kind of court sense and touch with the physical tools to get to the rim and finish in traffic—he’s shooting a crisp 73.6 percent in the restricted area—and baby, you’ve got a stew goin’. According to Basketball-Reference.com, only one 20-year-old has ever averaged at least 15 points, eight rebounds, and two steals per game while making half of his field goal attempts: Chris Webber, back in 1994.
Obviously, we’re a long way from Barnes establishing himself as the sort of perennial 20-and-10 producer that winds up enshrined in the Hall of Fame. I’m just saying: When it comes to statistical player comps through the first month of a dude’s career, you could do a hell of a lot worse. Especially when you factor in what Barnes is capable of on the other end of the floor.
The 20-year-old has been as advertised defensively, guarding opponents all over the positional spectrum—Mo Bamba one night, Jayson Tatum the next, toggling from Durant to James Harden in a given possession—and being awfully disruptive in the process.
At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and exceptional agility, Barnes already looks like one of the NBA’s most malleable defenders. According to The BBall Index’s matchup data, he has spent nearly a quarter of his defensive possessions checking point guards, and more than 20 percent matched up against centers and small forwards, with plenty of time against shooting guards and power forwards sprinkled in—good for third in the NBA in positional versatility metric.
Two slots below Barnes in that ranking, and last season’s leader among players to log at least 500 minutes? His new teammate, OG Anunoby. (Ujiri has a type: “omnipresent game-plan wrecker whose placid demeanor belies a real badass mean streak.”) Now in his fifth season, Anunoby has taken a big step forward as a scoring threat, as my Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor recently detailed:
Given more room to create on a team in need of playmaking after losing Lowry in free agency and Siakam to shoulder surgery, Anunoby’s averaging 19.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.5 steals per game, all career highs. His 3-point accuracy is down, from 39.8 percent last season to 34.4 percent this season, which coincides with an uptick in volume—he’s launching more long balls per game than James Harden—and a dramatic increase in the number of pull-up triples he’s trying. After hoisting just 83 long balls off the bounce in 253 career games before this season, OG has already fired 26 in 12 games, more than three times his previous per-game high—another step in his evolution from a limited offensive player best suited for no-dribbling spot-up duty to one capable of threatening defenses in a variety of ways with the ball in his hands.
Prior to this season, only 13 players had averaged 20-and-5 by age 24 while shooting 35 percent from deep on at least five attempts per game. All of them have All-Star selections on their résumés. We’ll see whether Anunoby follows that same trajectory; he’s not the same sort of high-usage offensive hub as most of the other players on that list. But when you pair the growth he’s shown with his well-established bona fides as an All-Defensive Team–caliber stopper, you’ve got one hell of a player—the kind of foundational piece that can help the Raptors not only rebuild for the future, but retool on the fly in pursuit of an immediate return to the playoffs.
Toronto’s path back to the postseason begins on the defensive end, because despite Anunoby’s advancements, Barnes’s breakout, and an excellent start to primary point guard duty for VanVleet—averaging 18.7 points on 37.8 percent 3-point shooting and a career-high 7.1 assists per game while leading the league in minutes played—the offense remains a work in progress. Case in point: Wednesday’s 104-88 loss in Boston, in which Toronto shot 6-for-24 from distance, got just 15 points from its bench, had nearly as many turnovers (18) as assists (20), and never led once.
This was to be expected. Cracking open opponents’ paint-packing coverages will always be tough when you play lineups featuring multiple players who don’t shoot from outside; Barnes has attempted just 10 3-pointers in 10 games, and the center tandem of Precious Achiuwa and Khem Birch, while an improvement over last season’s disastrous Aron Baynes–Alex Len duo, offers zero stretch. Doing it while spacers are struggling with their shot—Gary Trent Jr. has missed two-thirds of his triples, and Chris Boucher’s just 6-for-33 from deep—is even tougher.
Managing it all without Siakam, the team’s leading scorer in the previous two seasons, promised to be downright brutal. The Raptors have consistently struggled to generate quality looks against set defenses, ranking just 25th in points scored per play in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass.
One solution? Don’t play in the half court so much.
Doing that means getting out in transition more. Doing that means abruptly ending opponents’ offensive trips down the court. Good thing, then, that Toronto employs an armada of huge havoc wreakers, with a roster featuring 10 players 6-foot-7 or taller and seven rotation players boasting wingspans of 6-foot-10 or longer. Among them is surprise second-round pick and local native Dalano Banton, who’s earning minutes and raising eyebrows with his play as a huge backup point guard. (The non-condors in the group are playmakers, too: Trent Jr. is tied for second in the league in steals per game and leads in deflections, while VanVleet ranks fourth in the latter category.)
Give Nick Nurse, one of the league’s most creative defensive coaches, license to unleash all that length and athleticism, and watch gears grind and sparks fly:
The Raptors lead the NBA in deflections per game by a mile, and have forced turnovers on 18 percent of opponents’ offensive possessions, the league’s second-highest rate. They’ve cashed in on that chaos, scoring 20 points off of turnovers and 14.9 fast-break points per game—both top-10 marks.
The injection of offensive efficiency has helped somewhat mitigate Toronto’s half-court struggles, keeping the feisty young Raps afloat while awaiting the reintegration of their no. 1 option. Siakam made his season debut on Sunday, scoring 15 points in 25 minutes in the loss to Brooklyn; he, like the rest of the squad, struggled against Boston’s length on Wednesday. His return bumped the scuffling Achiuwa to the bench, reconfiguring a starting lineup that’s been very solid early—outscoring opponents by 8.3 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions—while giving Raptors fans a glimpse of what they hope is a blindingly bright future to come. Close your eyes and you can picture it: Siakam, Anunoby, and Barnes seamlessly switching assignments, then taking turns using their expanding offensive games to hunt shaky defenders and punish mismatches on the other end.
In the meantime, though, there’s still the present to contend with, and the Raptors have plenty to figure out in the here and now: how to reconfigure the rotation after Siakam’s return, how to continue to feature Anunoby and Barnes while affording Siakam the scoring chances he merits, how to build a quality half-court offense while light on shooting, and how to keep from getting destroyed on the glass while playing smaller up front. Toronto ranks 22nd in defensive rebounding rate and 24th in second-chance points allowed; Celtics center Robert Williams busted the Raps up for 16 points off of eight offensive rebounds on Wednesday, at times looking like a varsity dude scrimmaging against the JV.
There are issues to address, but also enough talent and smarts to figure it out; while Torontonians justifiably dream about that bright future, they’ll be watching a team that should contend for a slot in the play-in tournament in a significantly improved Eastern Conference. Sometimes, a lot has to go wrong for something to go right. The Raptors’ sojourn in South Florida brought pain, frustration, and the end of an era; it also brought Barnes and an opportunity to reset. The question now is just how far Toronto can go with that opportunity, and just how special the young core that Ujiri and Co. have built can be.