CHARLOTTE — At the end of my first conversation with Scottie Barnes, he started rattling off his long-term goals about his NBA career, which had only just begun — that is if you consider the Las Vegas Summer League a start.
“I want to be a Hall of Famer,” Barnes said, sitting just past the baseline of the suburban community gym where his Toronto Raptors were finishing a July practice. “I want to be an all-time great. I want to dominate this league.”
He is taking the individual leaps necessary. He won Rookie of the year in 2021-22. Now, in his third season, he is an All-Star. NBA commissioner Adam Silver named him, along with Trae Young, as an injury replacement for Joel Embiid and Julius Randle. If you wanted to be a downer, you could put an asterisk next to Barnes’ injury-aided berth, but that would be foolish: This seems far more likely to be the first of many, many trips to the All-Star Game rather than an early-career anomaly. Barnes is 22. After coming into the league with a game that made observers worry about his ability to score, he has a 57.5 true shooting percentage, putting him right around the likes of De’Aaron Fox, Mikal Bridges, DeMar DeRozan and Jaylen Brown. That puts him in the middle of the pack for efficiency among higher-usage players, but considering that is his relative weakness as a player, it’s pretty darn good.
“I will say it’s baby steps,” Barnes said Wednesday morning, hours before the Raptors beat the Charlotte Hornets 123-117, when asked if this was getting him closer to his goals. “It’s a part of the journey, taking it step by step.”
GET UP 4️⃣ pic.twitter.com/8Zz0MWS6gn
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 8, 2024
Meanwhile, here is the list of players averaging at least 25 points, 10 rebounds, seven rebounds, one block and one steal per 100 possessions this year: Nikola Jokić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Alperen Şengün and Barnes. Now, Barnes has by far the fewest win shares this season in that group, which is what happens when you set the arbitrary goalposts at points that are sure to include Barnes while excluding as many other players as possible. It is good company to keep, but it brings the most interesting word Barnes said up top into focus: “dominate.”
If there is a criticism of Barnes’ season, it is Barnes’ primacy, which is related to the Raptors’ record. Barnes has improved in many facets this year, and shows flashes of that dominance almost every game, but rarely if ever throughout an entire game. If you are a veteran, that means you get credit for letting the game come to you. If you are a young player, that means you carry a burden of proof, which is why his effort down the stretch against Oklahoma City seemed so notable. There are moments of poor effort that leave you wanting more, too.
To his credit, Barnes is trying to straddle the line between being happy for the honour and disappointed with how the season has progressed.
“It’s probably not what I expected so far — nowhere near,” Barnes said. “I just want to keep trying to win. I feel that’s my most important goal and what I expect out of myself, being able to try to lead in any way possible. Leading and winning: That’s my main focus, my main goal. We’re not winning right now, so I don’t think I’m (pleased).”
Let’s appreciate what Barnes has accomplished here: Even with the fact that he was the 13th or 14th player selected in the less talented conference, Barnes is one of just two first-, second- or third-year players of the now 26 players who have been invited to Indianapolis. Orlando’s Paolo Banchero is the other. Along with Tyrese Haliburton, Tyrese Maxey and Anthony Edwards, they are the only players in the game who are 23 or under. He is definitively part of the up-and-coming class of this league.
All of this inevitably gets put in the conversation concerning Barnes’ ability to lead the Raptors into the future, with Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet gone within the last eight months. Yes, the Raptors are the worst team represented by a player in the All-Star Game, but they were 12-19 before the Anunoby trade and 6-14 since. Sure, if Barnes were impacting winning more, the Raptors would be better, but it is not his fault the Raptors find themselves in the early stages of a rebuilding process, nor did Barnes ask to carry disastrous bench-heavy lineups before the trades. All of that was part of giving Barnes the best chance to experience as many scenarios as possible, hopefully expediting his growth as a star. Before the game, Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it is necessary to have five quality starters and four quality reserves to have a chance to be consistently competitive. If you squint, the Raptors might have four and three, respectively, and that’s before Thursday’s trade deadline. Maybe those numbers are generous.
Now, Barnes is expected to lead the Raptors as they see out this long-delayed process.
“This is the best job in the world,” Barnes said. “I’m happy every day I come in here and try to work, build around our teammates and just continue to grow as a team. … Just got to go out there and try to execute and work together to try to win. It’s fun to go through these growing pains. It’s never going to be easy. Winning in the NBA is hard.”
“We spent an hour and half together (at the hotel on Tuesday) and we talked about the season and ups and downs and learning what is the next step for him,” Raptors coach Darko Rajaković said. “He’s so open. He wants it so bad. He wants to get to the next level. As proud he is and how happy he is to be an All-Star, he doesn’t see this as an end goal.”
In July 2021, Barnes set incredibly high goals for himself. That’s great. It’s on Barnes and the whole Raptors organization to set him up to reach them.
• Raptors general manager Bobby Webster called Barnes while he was on the team bus on Tuesday, handing him off to Silver to give him the news. Barnes was able to tell teammates Gary Trent Jr. and Otto Porter Jr., before the coaching staff told the rest of the team so they could celebrate together. Barnes told his friends from Florida in his group chat, but let his mother find out in a surprise.
“She sent me a whole paragraph, tears of joy, things like that,” Barnes said.
Let’s give it up for moms.
• The Raptors played an abysmal defensive game, from Barnes not navigating screens well to Bruce Brown getting too aggressive on Brandon Miller. The miscommunication between RJ Barrett and Trent that left Miles Bridges wide open at the start of the third quarter resulted in Rajaković getting as visibly upset with his team during a game as I’ve seen this year. The coach had to burn timeouts early in both halves, with the Hornets scoring 36 and 37 points in the first and third quarter, respectively. The Hornets were missing LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward and rank 28th in offensive efficiency in the league. Why do you ask?
“I was not happy with the intensity. I was not happy with our communication,” Rajaković said about the timeout. “Just the urgency was not there. … “I just expressed my feelings, in a soft, Serbian way.”
“We weren’t playing no defence. I wasn’t playing any defence,” Barrett said. “It was good. He came, we listened and we responded.”
• Jakob Poeltl, king of the New York Times Twitter feed, had a couple huge defensive plays to help secure the game.
From @TheAthletic: The Raptors’ Puzzlepalooza tournament, where team personnel competed against each other in Wordle, Connections and more, endured controversy this week after Jakob Poeltl’s public allegations of match-fixing. https://t.co/06TPE6uZiF
— The New York Times (@nytimes) February 7, 2024
• I’m not sure why Dennis Schröder closed the game ahead of Gradey Dick. It worked, but Dick has been playing well enough that development should have been the priority late in the game.
• Immanuel Quickley’s floater has been off since he came to Toronto, but used it in a really cool way in the first quarter. Quickley almost picked up his dribble on the three-point line, and then took his two steps to get himself into floater range.
• Running scoop, Thaddeus Young!
• Brown left the game briefly after getting his thumb caught in an opponent’s jersey, but he returned before the first half was out, saving us a bunch of screaming the night before the trade deadline. The Raptors played their usual rotation ahead of Thursday.
• Thank you to Clifford for not challenging this out-of-bounds call in the second quarter. A beat writer on the 10th day of an 11-day trip appreciated it. I’m coming home, Walter.
(Photo: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)