In historic win streak, Barnes proving potential as fulcrum of Raptors’ future

Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes (4) dunks against Los Angeles Clippers forward Robert Covington (23) during the second half of an NBA basketball game. (Ashley Landis/AP)

Scottie Barnes has been under the spotlight all season as the No. 4 pick in the draft, and the 20-year-old may well be the fulcrum on which the future of the Toronto Raptors balances.

From draft night onwards there have been questions. ‘Can he shoot’ and ‘will he be able to score’ were the most common ones in the early going, then it became ‘can he really be this good’ and ‘how good can he get?’

Barnes played some of his best basketball of the season as the Toronto Raptors closed out a highly successful six-game road trip against the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night. The 103-100 win extended their winning streak to five games and gave them a 5-1 record on the trip – the best mark in franchise history on a trip of that length.

Toronto’s record improved to 39-30 as they pulled into a tie for sixth place with the Cleveland Cavaliers, though the Cavs have the head-to-head tiebreaker should it come to that.

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The Raptors were bolstered by another brilliant game from Pascal Siakam, who led all scorers with 31 points while adding 12 rebounds and three assists on 13-of-22 shooting in the eighth straight game he’s had at least 27 points. Fred VanVleet, who was a game-time decision with his wonky knee, added 21 points. The key bucket came from Precious Achiuwa, who gathered the Raptors’ 12th offensive rebound on a Siakam miss and put it back to beat the shot clock and give the Raptors a four-point lead with just over a minute to play. The Clippers cut what had been a 17-point third-quarter lead to one with 35 seconds left.

The Raptors could have iced it when VanVleet got to the line with 15.7 seconds left. The 88-per-cent free throw shooter missed the second, got his own rebound and then missed his second free throw again, but Clippers forward Marcus Morris couldn’t get any room as Achiuwa was draped all over him on a potentially game-tying three.

It was not Barnes’s most spectacular game of the trip, though he still finished with 15 points and four rebounds and found ways to make some big plays down the stretch: A fast-break dunk off a turnover and another coast-to-coast drive where he read the defence loading to Siakam and VanVleet and drove the ball 90 feet himself for critical score with 2:25 left to play. There was a potentially costly turnover too when he took command of the offence, drove the lane but fumbled what was supposed to be a kickout to an open VanVleet, but the good far out-weighed the bad.

“Well, I like it a lot. Just because he’s in a mix, making plays with the game on the line, and the more cracks he can get at ‘em the better for me,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse of trusting Barnes with the ball down the stretch. “… he brings the ball up the floor and people think ‘well, he’s too big to do that, we’re gonna pressure him,’ and he’s making them pay. They don’t take it from him and he puts it on ‘em and he puts his body on ‘em and he goes in an makes plays and that’ll end that pretty quickly. And the one pass out was a little shaky, but like I said, the more reps the better it will be for him later on.”

With Barnes and the Raptors, the future is looking bright, so in that theme and with the California sun still shining, it’s as good a time as any to check in on the Raptors rookie, whose game is growing, right along with his ambitions:

“Hopefully, one day be in the Hall of Fame. Be an All-Star, be on an All-Defensive Team and of course, this year, try to win Rookie of the Year,” Barnes told on Monday. “Just trying to be recognized as one of the best players in the league.”

You gotta love a man with big goals, especially when he doesn’t turn 21 until August.

Here are some questions and some answers as Barnes and the Raptors head into the final weeks of the season, with the last big road trip in the rearview.

1. Is Barnes the Rookie of the Year?

He’s making a push to join Damon Stoudemire and Vince Carter as the only Raptors to win the award, and his case gets better all the time. Heading into the Clippers game Barnes was the only rookie ranked in the top five of every major box score category: Third in points (15.3), third in rebounds (7.6), fifth in assists (3.4), fourth in steals (1.2) and fifth in blocks (0.8). He’s hit the gas since the All-Star Game, as the February rookie-of-the-month is putting up 18.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists with 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks in March. His main challenge is that the 2021 draft class is proving incredibly deep.

“He’s definitely one of the top-five candidates for rookie-of-the-year,” said Clippers head coach Ty Lue.

Realistically he’s no worse than top-three and he’s building a strong case for No. 1, though the Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham and Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley will have their say until the final day of the regular season.

2. What makes Barnes so good?

The list is long. He scores well, rebounds well, passes well, defends well and does it all efficiently – he’s third on the Raptors (and first among all rookies) with 5.3 win shares, but he’s only eighth on the team in usage rate. His best attribute might be that he finds a way to be near the ball all the time.

“If you’re a guy who has a nose for the basketball that means usually you have good anticipation about what’s coming ahead of time, before it happens,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Guys that seem to end up where the ball ends up, that takes, I think, an anticipation or a thinking ahead or just playing a lot. I know he’s 20 but we’ve talked about all the stories of they could never get him out of the gym, he was always playing pickup in multiple age groups … he’s played a lot I think to acquire that sense.”

3. How significant a scorer can Barnes be?

In some ways it’s the least of Barnes’s or the Raptors’ concerns; he’s already proven to be a player that can affect games by being a complimentary offensive option: He doesn’t need to dominate possessions night in and night out. He makes the most of his chances.

In the first quarter, he dribbled into a post-up on the right block and scored on Clippers veteran Morris, a big, physical defender. In the second quarter, he dribbled into a post-up against Amir Coffey. He found glass each time, his ability to dribble into post-ups and finish is something the Raptors have been relying on more and more as the season moves along. His three-point shooting shows promise – he had a 12-game stretch he shot 41.3 per cent in before Christmas, and has the ability to shoot well from the mid-range – he’s a 50-per-cent shooter from 3-to-10 feet, showing touch on contested shots in tight quarters and has connected on a reasonable 40.3 per cent of his long twos. Early in the fourth, he looked more than comfortable stepping into triple from the top of the circle that gave the Raptors a little breathing room when the Clippers had cut that lead to two.

His diet of shots will improve over time and likely his shot-making too. Throw in a more concerted effort to get to the line, his ability to generate extra possessions – he leads all rookies in offensive rebound rate, and he gets more than his share of steals – and it all adds up to a player who can find his way to 20 points a game. Given everything else he can do, it would be a great threshold to reach.

4. How does Barnes fit with the rest of the Raptors lineup?

That’s been one of the most exciting developments of Barnes’s post-All-Star surge. He and Siakam have found ways to complement each other’s games, rather than crowd each other. During the Raptors’ impressive win against Denver on Saturday Barnes and Siakam combined for 17 assists and six of them were to each other. Otherwise, they took turns reading match-ups and attacking the more favourable one: Not too many teams have two defenders that can handle big wings that can play point and attack in the post equally as well. It was Siakam’s night more often than not against the Clippers, but Barnes still found a way to crack double figures for the 50th time in 61 games this season.

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5. What position will he ultimately play?

That’s perhaps the most remarkable thing about Barnes’s rookie season: It’s almost over and it’s still anyone’s guess. It’s worth noting that some of Barnes’s best minutes came early in the fourth quarter when Nurse trusted the rookie enough to run the team with both Siakam and VanVleet on the bench. When they came back in the game it was Barnes who picked up Clippers guard Terrence Mann, pressuring the ball. He forced a turnover and it turned into a full-speed, rising smash as part of a 10-2 run in the fourth. That plays, no matter where Barnes plays.

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