LOS ANGELES — The NBA superstar tried to intimidate the young rookie with his towering frame and brute strength. Instead of backing down against his childhood idol, Toronto Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes embraced the one-on-one matchup with Los Angeles Lakers legend LeBron James.
Barnes pump faked. Then, he dribbled between his legs. After not finding enough space to fire an outside shot, Barnes then posted up on James. Once James tried to swipe at the ball, Barnes picked up his dribble before swishing a pull-up jumper.
That play in the Raptors’ recent win over the Lakers captured two things. Barnes showcased his versatility, which has made him a candidate for the Kia Rookie of the Year award. He also displayed the same mindset against an NBA star as he would against any other opponent.
“He’s not scared of anything, he’s not scared of anyone,” Raptors forward Pascal Siakam said. “He has that confidence.”
Barnes did more than withstand James’ physical presence. On another play, Barnes was unperturbed as James spiked the ball off him in an attempt to win an out-of-bounds call. He covered himself to prevent the ball from hitting him in the face. Nonetheless, Barnes looked neither intimidated nor angry with James’ tactic.
“I’m really just locked into the game,” Barnes said. “It was just the heat of the moment. I wasn’t really worried about it.”
Desire to ‘be better’ drives Barnes
Expect Barnes to offer a similar mindset when the Raptors (38-30) play the LA Clippers (36-35) on Wednesday. After the Raptors selected him as the No. 4 pick following his freshman season at Florida State, Barnes has become consumed with a quality that he hopes leads to an accomplished NBA career.
“Hopefully, one day be in the Hall of Fame,” Barnes said. “Be an All-Star, be on an All-Defensive team and of course, this year try to win Rookie of the Year. Just trying to be recognized as one of the best players in the league.”
To reach that goal, Barnes maintained he will have “to keep winning basketball games and winning championships.” Perhaps a stretch this season since the Raptors are fighting to make the playoffs through the NBA’s Play-In Tournament. But Barnes has tried to accelerate his learning curve with a distinguishable quality.
“It’s self-motivation,” Barnes said. “It’s me wanting to be better each and every night. I’m trying to find ways how I should be better in different aspects.”
Therefore, the 20-year-old Barnes and those around him report he has stayed consistent with a daily routine.
Barnes works out in the weight room both to further strengthen his 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame and keep his legs stable. He watches game footage both by himself and with the Raptors coaching staff to enjoy his highlight reels and to scrutinize his weaknesses. He also consumes more footage to study every opponent’s scoring and passing tendencies.
At every practice and shootaround, Barnes completes a workout that calls for him to shoot in a variety of ways. He takes set shots with both his left and right hand. He shoots jumpers in both off-the-dribble and catch-and-shoot drills. He takes those shots near the basket, in the post and from deep.
“Those are qualities you don’t really see young players have. But he already has it now,” Siakam said. “If he keeps his head down, continues to work hard and keeps doing what he’s doing, I can only imagine what he can accomplish in the league.”
The Raptors already have imagined Barnes’ trajectory. Toronto coach Nick Nurse said that Barnes “should be right there” for Rookie of the Year consideration. Siakam added that “it’s a no-brainer” for Barnes to win the award.
Barnes making his case for ROY honors
Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham and Cleveland Cavaliers center Evan Mobley might offer rebuttals. Cunningham leads all rookies in scoring (16.9 ppg), is second in assists (5.3) and fourth in rebounding (5.3). Mobley is fifth among rookies in scoring (15.1 ppg), he leads his class in shooting percentage (50.1%), rebounds (8.3) and blocks (1.7).
Still, Barnes is right in the mix. He’s on pace to finish first in his rookie class for most 20-point double-doubles (six). He has also ranked third in points (15.3) and rebounds per game (7.6) in a class-leading 35.6 minutes per game.
“His versatility with playing a lot of different positions and with guarding a lot of different positions while handling, passing and scoring? I think that is unique around the league, let alone in that class,” Nurse said. “I think he’s got a sky-is-the-limit type of deal.”
The Raptors have already seen Barnes reach new heights within one season. Shortly after the Raptors drafted Barnes, Nurse viewed him as “a guy that could do a little bit of everything” albeit “nothing maybe super outstanding.” But the Raptors discovered how useful Barnes could become with players missing significant time due to injuries (131 games combined) and COVID-19 (33). They also became encouraged with how Barnes overcame bad performances.
After finishing January with the lowest output of his season in points (12.6), shooting percentage (42%), rebounds (6.6) and assists (3.5), Barnes earned Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors in February. Then, Barnes showed marked improvement in points per game (15.2) and shooting percentage (54%) while posting similar numbers in rebounds (6.8) and assists (2.6). Since the All-Star break, Barnes has averaged 19.2 points on a 57% clip along with 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 36.1 minutes per game.
“When he does have some down stretches, he comes out with another pep in his step and tries to make amends for it,” Nurse said. “I think that’s a good sign.”
The Raptors also consider it a good sign that Barnes has not made excuses.
Barnes downplayed whether any of his lapses stemmed from playing substantially more games this season (60) than during his lone year with the Seminoles (24). Not with how Barnes has stayed disciplined with his treatment, dieting and rest. He has only missed a combined six games due to minor ailments as well as two others because of the league’s health and safety protocols.
“Of course, your body sometimes hurts with soreness and stuff like that. But I wouldn’t say I felt that rookie wall,” Barnes said. “I really feel like I want to play.”
Barnes also dismissed whether it became challenging to play home games without fans for a three-week stretch because of pandemic-related restrictions in Ontario. The Raptors have played home games at full capacity this month.
“I don’t think it was a big deal to me,” Barnes said. “In college, there were a lot of really empty arenas at places we went.”
Instead, Barnes attributed his improvement simply toward staying disciplined with his craft.
Barnes has leaned on Siakam and Raptors guard Fred VanVleet for guidance on what he called “little things.” Siakam has prodded him both to stay patient with how he plays while finishing strongly at the rim. Barnes has listened attentively to Nurse, who encourages him to attack whenever he sees a mismatch.
“He’s given me the opportunities to be able to play,” Barnes said of Nurse. “There’s so many times that I’m playing a lot of minutes and he’s putting his trust in me in game situations.”
Barnes averaged only 31.8 minutes through 12 games in February, but that number correlated with playing two games in the low 20-minute range during blowout losses. Barnes also averaged 36 minutes per game in January during his month-long slump. Otherwise, Barnes has assumed a gradually increased workload from October (34.9 minutes per game), November (35.7) and December (37.9) to March (38.8).
“I’m willing to live through a lot of mistakes,” Nurse said. “I think on-court minutes are invaluable for young players. I try to take that approach with guys that I think will be really good players, or that there’s something there to be expanded.”
By planting those seeds, the Raptors don’t seem surprised that Barnes has blossomed. Certainly not to full bloom. He is a rookie, after all. Yet Barnes already has sparked rave reviews with his speed, athleticism, hustle and versatility on both sides of the floor. Barnes impressed the Raptors with how he thrived against James as well as kept his composure after James threw the ball at him. And they sound intrigued about what awaits.
“He can accomplish whatever he wants,” Siakam said. “It’s just a matter of working hard, keeping his head down and continuing the trajectory he is in right now. God knows what he can accomplish.”
Perhaps at least collecting a Rookie of the Year trophy.
“Of course, it’s a goal of mine to try to win it. But it’s not something I look at so much,” Barnes said. “I’m really just trying to be me on the floor. Once I take care of everything, things will fall into place.”
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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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