There are few players in the Toronto Raptors franchise history whose debuts were as anticipated as that of Scottie Barnes. The fourth overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft sits near the top of a short list that includes the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Vince Carter, Jonas Valanciunas, Andrea Bargnani, and Hedo Turkoglu. After a mere five games, it seems safe to assume that even at his floor, Barnes’ career will align closer to the former three names than the latter two.
Coming out of Florida State University, Barnes was advertised as a player whose impressive defensive chops and passing ability would land him in the lottery range of the draft, but given that he was a ‘zero-level scorer’ it would be a mistake to waste a top-five pick on him. Ha!
Through his first five games, Barnes ranks second among all rookies in scoring output at 17.0 points per game, and second among all rookies in the rebounding department, tearing down 8.2 boards per game. What’s even more impressive than the raw numbers is the fact that Barnes is finding all of his looks within the flow of the offense. He’s not being spoon-fed any layups on sets drawn up for him – he’s being asked to manufacture all of his own offense for himself. Thus far, he has been able to do so efficiently by hustling on the offensive glass, taking slow-footed big men off the dribble, backing down anybody whom he has a size advantage on, and running the floor in transition just as one would expect him to.
There were flashes in the first couple of games where one would hope for him to be more aggressive and look for his own shot. Playing alongside NBA Champions in OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, it can be daunting as a 20-year-old kid to go hunt for your own looks, but outside of VanVleet, who has his own issues finishing around the basket due to his smaller frame, Barnes is the most capable of putting the ball on the floor and getting to the cup. If the Raptors want to attempt to alleviate the pains of their halfcourt offense, Barnes will need to carry more of the shot-creating weight on his shoulders, and last night, he did a great job of that.
About five minutes into the second quarter, Barnes was given the ball in the low-post against Malcolm Brogdon, whom despite being a good defender, Scottie had about four inches of height on. He backed Brogdon down to the low block and threw up a contested shot over his right shoulder that clanked off the heel of the rim. Unsurprisingly, Barnes beat a crowd of yellow jerseys to the offensive rebound, and quickly flipped the ball back up and in. That play epitomized the energy and the offense of Scottie Barnes thus far.
Although his shot has not been falling for him just yet, Scottie’s form appears to be tweaked from what it was during last year’s college season. During training camp, Barnes spoke about how he has been working with Nurse to release the ball from his middle finger on every rep. In addition to the finger adjustments, his entire motion seems much quicker now than it was before. The jumper is far from broken, but it will need a lot more reps before he can begin knocking down shots consistently.
Onto the other rookie, Dalano Banton had a bit less of an anticipated debut than Barnes – primarily because fans didn’t know what to expect regarding his playing time. Arguably the most welcome surprise of the young season has been Banton’s emergence as a backup point guard. For any team, if a mid-second round rookie cracks the rotation prior to any injuries occurring, one would assume that the team lacks any sort of depth. In Banton’s case, it seems more like he has made the most of every opportunity that he has been given, and he has performed to such an extent that it would be foolish to relegate him to the bottom of the bench.
In a post-practice press conference on October 26th, Nick Nurse was asked about why Malachi Flynn – who won Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honours in April of 2021 – has been riding the bench for the entirety of the season thus far. Nurse responded to the reporter, “Dalano’s the one you should probably be asking me about. He’s played outstanding every minute he’s been out there… You guys should be all over me for not playing him more.”
And that, he did. After a luckluster defensive performance from Goran Dragic during Monday night’s loss against the Chicago Bulls, he was cut from the rotation in favour of developing Dalano. Nurse told the media after last night’s game that the decision to give the veteran’s minutes to the rookie was made to help Chris Boucher find his rhythm, noticing that Boucher plays better off the ball with Banton than he does with Dragic. Even if that was the intention of the move, it seems much less black-and-white regarding how the guard rotation will look like moving forward.
On one hand, Nurse knows that Goran Dragic – who was an All-Star in 2018; who has averaged over 13 points for each of the last nine seasons; and whose primary goal is to increase his trade value so that he can play the back-half of the season for an American team – will not be willing to spend one of his final seasons of peak productivity warming the bench. On the other hand, how could you possibly bench Banton if he’s winning you games?
Not to mention, Dragic is a liability defensively. His 35-year-old legs struggle to keep anyone in front of him, and he does not remotely fit into the Raptors’ defensive identity which requires players to be switchable. Replacing Dragic with Dalano, who is six inches taller and who has a wingspan comparable to a traditional power forward allows the defensive schemes to operate so much more seamlessly.
On offense, Banton has shown that he is mature beyond his years, and despite questions surrounding his susceptibility to turning the ball over, he can run an NBA offense in spurts. He is always looking to push the pace and get out in transition – which given how much the Raptors offense struggles to score in halfcourt settings – is what Nurse loves to see. Banton also plays with an unselfishness that is uncanny for young players who are on sitting on the fringe of the roster.
In garbage time last night, I thought that Dalano had one of the most interesting plays of the game. He is not typically seen as a guard who likes to use the pick-and-roll. It is a traditional play more suited towards a shorter guard who is capable of shooting to punish defenders who slip under the screen, and who has the ability to manipulate defenses by driving, whipping a pass to the weakside corner, or finding the screen-setter on a roll to the basket. Simply put, Dalano is the type of guy who likes to get downhill on his own, and see how the offense can develop organically without running any on-ball actions. With a minute left in last night’s game, Banton was caught in the halfcourt offense and decided to try something new. He ran a high pick-and-roll with Precious Achiuwa, and upon quickly seeing that the two defenders were blitzing him on the action, he threw a lob pass inside to the rolling Achiuwa for an easy two. If Dalano can learn to play more diverse styles of offense, both Dragic and Flynn might have to say goodbye to their hopes of cracking the Raptors rotation.
In the NBA’s first edition of their Kia Rookie Ladder, which was published prior to last night’s game Scottie Barnes ranked second among all rookies, and Dalano was omitted from the list. If both of the young studs can maintain their stellar play going into next week, there is a good chance that they will both make an appearance on the next rendition of the Rookie Ladder. Their next chance to get into action will come on Friday as they square off against Jalen Suggs and the Orlando Magic.