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The Rookie Scale: Scottie Barnes May Not Be ROY, but He Has Turned Toronto Around

Plus, a deep dive into Evan Mobley’s defensive impact and a look at how Jose Alvarado and Bones Hyland have emerged as key contributors

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With the 2021-22 regular season officially over, I think we can all hold hands and agree that the kids are all right.

This rookie class is everything we had hoped for and probably more. Maybe it isn’t chock-full of future Hall of Famers like the 1984 class or the 2003 class (or, maybe eventually, the 2018 class), but dammit if there aren’t multiple potential All-Stars, an impressively big percentage of rotation-level players, and a potentially historic amount of plus defenders in this group.

It would not surprise me if there are multiple All-Defense appearances in store for this class, and one of the chief candidates for that honor for years to come will be Mr. Scottie Wayne Barnes.

If you’ve watched the Toronto Raptors, you know this team likes to pressure the ball. They get up in ya and aim to run opponents off the 3-point line, to the point that offensive players instinctively do what they feel they’re being invited to do—drive. But even if they’re able to turn the corner on that point-of-attack pressure, another defender is waiting for them, by design, all the way in the gap.

This philosophy is bolstered by a roster that is long across the board.

The Long Arms of the Raps

Player Height Wingspan
Player Height Wingspan
Scottie Barnes 6' 7" 7' 2.75"
Chris Boucher 6' 9" 7' 4"
Pascal Siakam 6' 9.5" 7' 3.25"
OG Anunoby 6' 7.75" 7' 2.25"
Precious Achieuwa 6' 8.75" 7' 0.75"
Khem Birch 6' 9.25" 7' 1"

Barnes is one of six players in the Raptors’ main rotation who stands between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-10, and each player has a wingspan that exceeds 7 feet. Toronto doesn’t really play a traditional center; instead, it trots out multiple players with true-5 length. This kind of ball pressure can force non-decision-makers to quickly make the correct read once they’ve drawn a help defender; away from the ball, there are a slew of physical oddities scrambling in sync to deflect the pass or force it to be awkwardly made. Four Raptors (Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby) are in the top 10 of the NBA in defensive distance traveled. Three players (VanVleet, Siakam, and Gary Trent Jr.) are in the top 10 in deflections per game.

This disruption has a way of pulling teams away from what they’d rather be doing. The Raptors want teams to speed up. They see your comfort zone and say “nah.” Toronto defends fewer handoffs or picks per 100 possessions than any team in the league, likely because it so often forces teams out of their set offenses, and it’s second in the league in turnovers forced. My guy Steve Jones Jr. calls them “annoying,” which I’d say is accurate.

Barnes’s activity, size, and mental-physical motor blends in beautifully with that culture of annoyingness. At only 20 years old, this guy can guard just about anybody. According to B-Ball Index’s “Defensive Versatility” metric, Barnes—a rookie, mind you—has posted the highest versatility rating (95.0) in the entire NBA, among players with at least 1,000 minutes played.

Because of his lateral agility, speed, and strength, Barnes can really shuttle with mobile ball handlers and body bigger players. Here he is squaring up and straight ripping Darius Garland, one of the quickest and most skilled ball handlers in the league.

Technique is huge; Barnes is great at using that excessive wingspan and making himself skinny to anticipate shot angles, stuff drivers, and avoid fouling. But as is true in many mediums, timing is critical. I feel like a keen sense for timing, specifically when a player is making out-of-area plays, is typically a sign of feel and hoops IQ. Timing is driven by anticipation, and anticipation is driven by familiarity. It’s a sense that grows throughout someone’s playing days, and it can allow them to instinctively be at the scene of the crime before the crime can take place. Barnes has that trait.

Draymond Green has become the go-to comp for 6-foot-7-ish prospects that have a something-something quality that we can’t quite put our finger on. I typically avoid evoking Green, but Scottie’s ability to snuff out shots at the perfect moment does stir up visions of him. Barnes is not usually the type to meet shots at their apex because he very often doesn’t have to.

Watch Barnes take inventory of JaVale McGee and Aaron Holiday spotted up beyond the line. The moment that Cam Payne begins his passing motion, Barnes moves into action. Because McGee is so much bigger, it’s key that Barnes jumps early here.

There’s a lot to love about Barnes’s defensive game. Offensively, it’s been a little hazier.

Barnes manages to generate offense: He’s third among rookies in points per game, at 15.3, and he slings 3.5 assists per game. Most of that comes within the flow of the Raptors’ scheme: He gets on the offensive glass, he’s an active cutter, and the ball typically doesn’t stick in his hands. His steady handle sets him up to work as a physical driver, fearlessly and indiscriminately attacking guards, wings, and centers. He’s a punisher when he can get to his baby jump hook; it seems to be his weapon of choice in most situations, and he can shoot it with either hand.

When I would watch Barnes at lower levels, on the summer circuit, and with his earlier high school teams, he had a way of driving me a little nuts with his insistence to dominate the ball despite being a one-level scorer and fairly limited as a playmaker. Those two qualities can create a vicious cycle that can be frustrating to watch.

But I was about as in as you could get once I saw Barnes bear-hug a supporting role with the 2019 U.S. U-19 team, his dominant Montverde Academy team (which featured fellow future lottery picks Cade Cunningham and Moses Moody, and first-rounder Day’Ron Sharpe, not to mention Dariq Whitehead in the Class of 2022), and then Florida State. It was clear that this was not a selfish player. This dude wants to win.

The capability of a tool changes depending on who’s holding it. If I picked up an older analog camera, people would say, “Well, this is going to be amateurish and unwatchable.” If Roger Deakins picked up the same camera everyone would say, “Something interesting is going to come out of this.”

The latter is what happened when Toronto drafted Barnes no. 4 last year, over Jalen Suggs. The Raps have cultivated that much good will, at least from me.

They have a way of helping shaky shooters shed the “liability” label, and I don’t think it’s outrageous to speculate that the same could happen for Barnes. They’ve done it for Pascal Siakam. To some extent, they’ve done it for OG Anunoby. The Ringer’s Dan Devine made a similar observation about Precious Achiuwa.

Barnes’s biggest obstacle on offense has been the speed of the game. Speed is a cruel filter of players as they try to hit the highest levels of the sport. This is true not only because the action just literally moves faster, but because the competition is often bigger and longer. Arms and hands reach the ball sooner. Sit and watch any college athlete shoot in an empty gym by themselves and you’ll likely come away thinking “This guy is the next Tim Legler—somebody needs to give him a chance!” Speed that person up, make them move, and suddenly there are idiots on Twitter going, “This guy sucks!” No, it’s just that this shit is hard.

Movement and increased speed can cause Barnes’s mechanics to falter. The consistency of the power in the load-up of his shot starts to fluctuate. The more he dribbles and wiggles laterally before the shot, the wilder it gets. He’s hovered in the 25 to 30 percent range as a 3-point shooter at basically every level of play (he’ll finish at 30 percent for his rookie season, but climbed as high as 40 percent in the month of November). But when you watch him shoot off the catch, deliberately getting his lower body under him, it’s clear that we’re not talking about a lost cause.

Barnes has been able to incorporate a midrange dribble pull-up into his repertoire. At Florida State, he was a 23.8 percent off-the-dribble shooter overall, and that number is up 18 percent during his rookie season in Toronto. Teams will often give him a pad of space when he’s facing the basket, and it’s been fun to see him patiently say, “Cool, I can and will hit this.” He’s shooting an eye-opening 47.7 percent (44 attempts) on pull-up midrange jumpers outside of the paint.

Barnes’s shot is deliberate, relatively slow, and simple right now, and yet it feels like an area that could really grow in the coming years. There have even been glimpses of him pulling it quicker and using it in back-to-the-basket situations.

Creating offense for himself and working as a primary facilitator are still question marks. Barnes is a physical driver, and we’ve seen his fledgling midrange pull-up game. From here, we’ll start to look for playmaking reads. He’s only logged 64 reps as a pick-and-roll ball handler on the season and 29 of those came in March, when Fred VanVleet was uncharacteristically unsteady and missed six games. It wasn’t a disaster, but during that time teams were either daring him to settle for a 3 or he was driving to score or be fouled. It’s hard to know how much he can hurt defenses with reads when his scoring draws help, because we just haven’t seen a ton of it yet.

He shows that same erratic touch on the move when he’s placing lob passes or threading the needle to cutters. It’s the same with entry passes, but when he’s stationary, he’s shown that he can carefully drop the ball over the top. Barnes operates well right now as a quick decision-maker who can pinpoint an open teammate after he’s caught a pass.

As you can likely tell by now, Barnes is relentless. He is tirelessly high-motored on both ends, and one of my favorite times to observe this is when he sprints in transition to target a smaller player for a quick-hitting post-up. Watch him spy Delon Wright running unsuspectingly in transition like a doe wandering into the sight line of a grizzly bear. This is during the first quarter of a Monday road game.

The Raptors have become one of the most dependable developmental settings in the NBA. After falling into the lottery last season, here they come again, wielding talent but lacking a bona fide superstar, but with an infuriatingly active and resilient group of players who’ve propelled them into the fifth seed in the East. Barnes might not win Rookie of the Year, but you can imagine why Raptors fans are so giddy about the front office’s unconventional decision to take him on draft night. He’s made Toronto’s year, and likely will do more of the same in the years to come.

Mobley Will Send It Back

I enjoy the moments in life when I set out to watch one thing and then get transfixed by another. In 2012, I went to see Grizzly Bear play at the Ryman in Nashville, and this band called Unknown Mortal Orchestra opened for them. They melted my fucking brain.

This happened frequently while I was working on an episode of The Leap featuring Cavs third-year All-Star guard Darius Garland. I’d open a second window and start jotting some notes for later, and suddenly I’d have pages and pages of thoughts on Evan Mobley, the wiry, clever, and alluringly skilled 6-foot-11 center whom the Cavs selected third overall in the 2021 NBA draft. He’s that alarmingly talented for his size, and hey—it’s no secret: He’s the front-runner and my pick for Rookie of the Year.

Generationally special players typically occur when uncommon size and skill set overlap.

In today’s breakneck, exceedingly spread-out game, players who can function as both a rim deterrent and a rim protector have become immensely valuable. These are the gifted few who are impervious to being schemed off the court when teams decide to go with a ton of speed and shooting. I’m talking about players like Giannis Antetokounmpo or (when he’s healthy and lean) Anthony Davis.

I think that’s exactly what the Cavs have in Mobley. The 20-year-old leads all rookies in blocks and rebounds per game. He’s fifth in scoring, and among the 54 NBA players who defend five or more shots at the rim per game, he has the eighth-best defensive differential. As a rookie, Mobley is already in the company of defenders like Giannis, Rudy Gobert, and Jaren Jackson Jr.

I stood pat and kept Cade Cunningham ahead of Mobley throughout the draft process last year, but one part of the argument that I would consider having again is the rarity of each player type. Which is more likely to come your direction: a 6-6 point guard with exceptional playmaking ability, strong scoring upside, and moderately good defensive versatility, or an exceptionally mobile 6-11 center with elite defensive versatility and strong scoring and playmaking upside? I still love Cade and truly believe that he’s going to be a fantastic player, but you’re kidding yourself if you can’t admit that the latter is pretty damn unusual.

Mobley’s presence (when paired with Jarrett Allen, who has also been terrific) has had a dramatic impact on Cleveland’s interior defense.

Lane Production Against the Cavs

Season Touches Per 100 Possessions Team Points Per Game Points Per Possession BHR FGA Per Direct Touch BHR TO Per Direct Touch
Season Touches Per 100 Possessions Team Points Per Game Points Per Possession BHR FGA Per Direct Touch BHR TO Per Direct Touch
2018-19 22.918 24.634 1.392 0.719 0.058
2019-20 21.444 24.062 1.406 0.746 0.052
2020-21 23.393 25.042 1.343 0.738 0.063
2021-22 22.279 22.163 1.3 0.688 0.074
2021-22 22.907 15.537 1.271 0.689 0.072

Mobley has an exceptionally exceptional ability to cover substantial ground—whether on the ball or away from it—without getting himself out of position. This is in part due to his hip mobility, which is common in smaller players but more unusual in larger players. He not only has pop—or, the ability to quickly burst with control in a given direction—he has access to more directions in general.

Normally, in wide-open space, the best dribble separators in the world can string together sequences of extreme acceleration and abrupt stopping, or wide lateral movements from one side or another, to force big guys to move. Because the average big can’t tightly mimic these movements, space is often created for those smaller creators to get off clean looks.

But being guarded by Mobley creates a conundrum. Not only is he wildly versatile in the ways he can move directionally, he’s also gifted with great control and restraint over how much he moves. Raw block totals can at times be a little deceiving. Mobley can erase his mistakes and he does, at times in spectacular fashion, but that’s the thing: Because of that mobility, he doesn’t even need to block a shot. Oftentimes, he will outright deny an opportunity.

Whenever you get a chance, do yourself a favor and watch Mobley’s hips as he mirrors an offensive player one-on-one. If you really lean in and watch, it’s baffling.

Pacers rookie Chris Duarte is not the fastest or the shiftiest handler in the world, but watch him prod at Mobley to try and find an opening.

He attacks with a left-hand dribble and Mobley cuts him off. By the time the ball is in his right hand, Mobley’s hips are open and awaiting the next move. Duarte hits him with a hesitation and Mobley doesn’t flinch. Then Duarte hits him with a hard righty start-stop move and steps back, to the left, and Mobley hops in front of the drive without losing his balance, flips his hips again, and takes a huge lunge toward the shot.

Miles Bridges is one of the most powerfully twitchy athletes in the game. Watch how quickly Mobley flips sides and then hops into the driving lane.

Mobley throws into motion the Five Stages of Grieving Your Own Offense.

Denial. “I should be able to drive past this guy, but I can’t seem to shake him. He keeps walling me up. Weird.”

Anger. “Nah, I’m not letting him stay in front of me, I’m trying this again.”

Bargaining. “OK, fine, there won’t be any assaults on the rim or the paint, but maybe I can get to my jumper.”

Depression. “This dude’s arms are somehow still lurking near me even though I’ve tried to create some north-south separation. How is this possible?”

Acceptance. “This probably isn’t going to happen, I should get rid of it.”

Mobley is a defensive mind-melt. It’s not ridiculous to bring up names like Kevin Garnett or Anthony Davis when we talk about him. Honestly, how many 20-year-old big men have been better defensively than Mobley? I’m dead serious when I say very few.

Of course, this doesn’t even begin to touch on what he could become on the offensive side of the ball! He’s averaging 15.0 points per game on 54.9 true shooting with 8.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists. We can’t fully go into it here, (maybe a video is in our not-too-distant future) but there’s a world where Mobley becomes a Defensive Player of the Year and a respectable floor spacer, a legitimate post presence, and a bounce creator who can consistently attack closeouts.

The Pelican Thief

It’s easy to get swept up in the “will he, won’t he” mania of Zion Williamson’s injury saga. The Pelicans seemed like an unmitigated disaster, losing 16 of their first 20 games this season. Failing to beat them was seen as a source of embarrassment for some. But while the basketball world was turning its head away in disgust, New Orleans quietly rallied back to become competitive and cohesive. That upswing earned them the 9-seed and a spot in the play-in tournament. One could dole out credit in a number of directions for that positive development, but I want to shout out one of the more entertaining stories in the league this year—NOLA rookie Jose Alvarado.

This time a year ago, optimism for Alvarado’s chances in the league existed, but it was scarce—hell, it was the same this time four months ago. But somehow, in defiance of every nose-thumbing draft guru out there, the two-way deal that Alvarado signed in August 2021 was converted to a four-year, $6.5 million deal with the Pels this past month.

The worry with Alvarado focused on three pain points. First, his size. Although he’s ninja-quick, he’s 6 feet tall on a good day. Second is his offensive skill set. He doesn’t exactly set the world on fire with scoring (6.0 points per game, 2.9 assists) or with efficiency from the field, and he is not a threat from the NBA 3-point line. Third, his age. He was a four-year player at Georgia Tech and he’s nearly 24 years old.

But if conventional thinking creates challenges for you, the move is to go unconventional. Alvarado’s irregular playing style is almost guerrilla in spirit. He’s the embodiment of “chef throws ingredients into pan and steps back in terror.”

Alvarado is so low to the ground and fast that he frequently back-taps even the strongest ball handlers before anyone can warn them. He explodes into gaps like a lockdown corner jumping a passing route. He has Spider-Man-esque grip when he reaches into a scrum for the ball.

His essence as a player reminds me of a quote about Muggsy Bogues that I heard years ago, at the time conveyed anecdotally by Rex Chapman and then later attributed to Dean Smith, who coached against Bogues at North Carolina: ​​“If you bring the ball up the court and you don’t see him, you pick up the ball!” Alvarado consistently burns that little extra bit of energy while getting up under ball handlers or sneaking in to make a play.

On top of all that, he does some riotously funny shit when people aren’t being careful with the ball. Alvarado’s best thefts are something out of an online match of NBA 2K—just straight-up lowdown sneak attacks on unsuspecting inbound passers or sauntering guards. This isn’t pretending to run back and then turning on a dime; these are deliberate “I am hiding” moments. It’s the kind of stuff that you simply can’t believe is happening in an NBA game.

Honest to goodness, the way the camera cuts away and we come back with the ball suddenly in Alvarado’s electric, almost anxiously energetic hands—I laughed so hard at this that my eyes welled up. It’s like a scene from a movie where we see the aftermath of some calamity and we’re left guessing what the hell just happened.

Alvarado logs only 15 interesting minutes per game at this point. He’d league the league in steal percentage if he qualified, and he’s an overall nuisance to anyone handling the ball in his vicinity. For him, chaos is a ladder. He’s a harbinger of havoc. An itch that can’t be scratched. I thought “The Pelican Thief” could also work as a nickname for him, but I’d just like to say that “Grand Theft Alvarado” is brilliant. Sometimes you hear a nickname that makes solid contact with the ball, and this is one of them. Bravo.

Bones Is Money

All right, enough with the defensive talk. It’s time for some O, and as bucket-driven as Bones Hyland is, it wouldn’t surprise me if O were his blood type. (My editor threatened to punt me into the sun for this joke.) He seems like he was put on this earth to put it in the basket.

Bones had a cult following during last year’s draft process for some obvious reasons. He’s an electric, tireless offensive force. His self-belief is so boundlessly palpable that it frequently crosses over into hilarity, and most importantly, HE GOES BY THE NAME “BONES.” Coaches, broadcasters, writers, you name it—they all call him that! That’s a game, set, match of badassery.

Luckily, all of those things have translated fairly seamlessly to the NBA game. Hyland has likely been bumped into an accelerated role this season due to the absence of Nuggets star Jamal Murray, who’s still mending from an ACL tear that happened last season. The lanky, long-armed rookie guard has primarily been a second-unit weapon this season, averaging 19 minutes per game, 10.1 points, and 2.8 assists. When he’s in, he’s letting the damn thing fly; among players who log less than 20 minutes per contest, Bones is second in the NBA in attempted 3s, and is hitting on 37 percent of them.

Hyland has an interesting gait and posture for someone who seems like he’s absolutely a descendant of the Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams, Malik Monk bloodline. He’s herky-jerky and a little upright when he’s trying to create space, and a good deal more efficient when he’s playing off the catch rather than working off the bounce. Overall, I think he could be a pretty versatile shooter from deep, one who could be even more dangerous if he adds some distracting off-ball movement.

He’s also developed a fun chemistry with DeMarcus Cousins in the past couple of months, working off him in the high post as a cutter. Of course, this is a team with the Mozart of cutter passing, Nikola Jokic, and Hyland’s severe change of direction comes in handy in lineups with either big guy.

The Nuggets are like a few NBA teams in that they are not where we thought they might be based on what happened during the 2020 bubble playoffs, exacerbated by the fact that their young trio of stars is missing 66 percent of its personnel. They’ve been spinning plates all season with an incomplete crew. I’m excited to see how Bones will factor in once they’re playing with a full deck.