Everyone loves a prodigy. It’s human nature. Maybe it helps us believe the future is going to turn out fine. Maybe it’s because it’s just fun to extrapolate. But almost no one is immune from it. When you see the eight-year-old running circles around the other eight-year-olds, it’s common to think, ‘hey, maybe this kid is going somewhere?”
For the most part the answer is no, which is why it’s important to keep youth sports fun. The real prodigies are hard to miss.
Goran Dragic, as an example, has known Luka Doncic since the Dallas Mavericks star was five years old. The 35-year-old Raptors veteran was just starting his own professional career as a teenager in his native Slovenia and his mentor was Sasa Doncic, who would bring his five-year-old son to the gym.
“He would sit in the corner, eating a sandwich,” Dragic said the other day.
Not too many years passed before Dragic and Doncic were starting together on the Slovenian national team. They won the European championship in 2017, one of the most competitive tournaments in the world. Doncic was 18. There were some that doubted if the husky guard’s European success would translate to the NBA.
Ridiculous, says Dragic.
“I mean those people, they don’t know basketball because when he was 18 he was MVP of EuroLeague [and] it’s one of the best leagues,” said Dragic. “ … He’s just a pure natural talent that you just don’t see.”
It didn’t take long to for the NBA to recognize Doncic’s talent. He followed up his rookie-of-the-year award in 2018-19 with consecutive first-team all-NBA nods. He’s among the pre-season favourites for MVP this year.
But as Doncic and the Mavericks arrived in Toronto on Saturday night it was hard not to wonder if maybe – just maybe – the Raptors have something special of their own on their hands.
In some way the game itself – the Raptors lost 103-95 to fall to 1-2 – was secondary.
It’s early and everything, but what if Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes is really, really, good?
Not that the No. 4 overall pick is the kind of scoring and offense generating machine that Doncic is. They are different players.
And Barnes had to acknowledge: Doncic was not the kind of player who he'd match up with while a freshman at Florida State.
“He can do so many things with the ball, with the ball in his hands, and he just makes things happen,” said Barnes after Doncic put up a near triple double with 27 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. “He torches people coming off the ball screen, hitting the weak-side guy, scoring, getting to the basket, being able just to get a lot of attention being able to do so many different things.”
Was Doncic what he expected, Barnes was asked?
“Yeah, he is. But I didn't know he was that tall, cuz he's big as hell. He can do it all.”
But Barnes’ game intrigues, there is no doubt of that. He’s already shown he’s got feel, poise, smarts, size, and a motor. There’s a lot to work with.
Barnes did seem largely unaffected by playing on a back-to-back for the first time, though he didn’t have the steals, blocks and deflections he’s been known for so far. Barnes was further hampered as he picked up his fourth foul only moments after he hit a pair of third-quarter buckets that looked like they might spark something just as the Mavericks were beginning to assert control of the game in the second half. Instead, Barnes headed to the bench briefly.
He wasn’t finished. Barnes played to the end. He blew by Doncic for a dunk late in the fourth quarter and then completed a three-point play with 58 seconds left to pull the Raptors within nine after trailing by as many as 16 in the quarter. He finished with 16 points and nine rebounds – his third straight double-digit scoring night to start his NBA career.
But Raptors head coach Nick Nurse wants more of what Barnes showed in the fourth quarter.
“What I think he needs to do is one of the things he did in the end, like when he's got the space and a one-on-one matchup, he's got to put them in the rim until they stop him, right?” said Nurse, “Put them in the rim and do it over and over and over and over and over again.
“And if they do stop him, if they do back off against him, then pull up for a 10-or-12 footer, that's fine too. But there's where we’re gonna start seeing him pass, his passing will show. Once he starts drawing other defenders, and that's just him being aware.
“He needs to be more aggressive, like, you know all those layups he put up, we need to double that number of attempts, to triple it. Then he’ll be in the paint, and we'll be firing them out to our open shooters and that's pretty much what we watched the other guys doing tonight.”
Message received: “I’m a big player, I’m pretty strong for my size,” said Barnes. “I feel like I have the ability … to torch defences with being able to get to the rim, being able to create that attention, being able to kick out if they react to it. I would say I’m totally capable of doing that.”
Nurse wants his prized young talent to put pressure on defences the way Doncic did to the Raptors – especially in the second half.
His job was made easier because Barnes and OG Anunoby – the Raptors' primary match-ups on Doncic – were in foul trouble most of the second half.
But it’s telling that Nurse trusted his 6-foot-7 rookie to take on the 6-foot-7, 230 pound (though he’s likely bigger than his listed size) Dallas star.
It’s that versatility, with Barnes coming off a casual 25-point and 13-rebound showing as the Raptors dismantled Boston on Friday night on top of his impressive pre-season campaign, that makes it fun to wonder about the heights the rookie can reach.
Nurse gets it. He’s not anointing anyone at this stage, but he understands the temptation.
If Raptors fans want to convince themselves that Barnes is Magic Johnson with a little more bounce, well, he’s not going to rain on anyone’s dreams.
“Really?” Nurse said, when told of some of the comparisons bubbling on Raptors Twitter. “I like Magic. Magic was good.”
“Well, listen, I think this is a long process, right? I think when you see the size of a really young player, then to me the ceiling is really high,” said Nurse said before the game. “It’s just depending on a lot of things like, how much do they want it? How much work are they willing to put in? How healthy can they stay? There’s a lot of ‘are you in the right spot? Are you working on improving? Are you listening, watching film?' It’s going to be up to him how far he wants to go.
“[But] he’s doing just fine. That was a heck of a game effort-wise for him [against Boston],” said Nurse. He just was where the ball was a lot and that to me is an instinctual thing. I don’t know where he got it. You ask me how does Doncic do what he does at 22 or how does this guy have this anticipation for the ball. He’s got it.”
He didn’t really begin showing it until the third quarter when Doncic – like the great ones do – sensed that the Raptors' legs were getting a little wobbly. He put up 12 points and four assists in a third-quarter burst that helped turn a six-point Raptors lead at half into an eight-point hole before a quick surge by Toronto to close the third quarter cut Dallas’ lead to 74-72 to start the fourth.
The Mavericks kept pushing. Tim Hardaway Jr. got rolling – a beneficiary of Doncic’s seeing-eye laser passes – and scored 10 points in the first six minutes of the final frame to help push the Mavericks' lead to 10. He ended up with 25 points – 13 in the fourth quarter alone as Dallas pulled away.
The Raptors' bright spot was OG Anunoby, who came into the game shooting 7-of-35 from the floor and 2-of-14 from deep. The fifth-year wing knocked down eight-of-10 first-half shots, including four triples on five attempts for 20 first-half points. But he picked up his fifth foul late in the third quarter and had to go to the bench. He didn’t score again until late in the fourth and finished with 23. It was an improvement and a solid outing. Also welcome were 20 points and five assists on 8-of-17 shooting from Fred VanVleet – given the guard was 8-of-30 through his first two games.
On the night the Raptors' defensive effort held firm, even with Doncic’s excellence. But they could only manage to harass Dallas into nine turnovers – after forcing more than 20 in each of their first two games and they only turned those into a measly three points. They weren’t nearly as active on the offensive glass either, grabbing 11 to the Mavericks 13. Without those advantages, shooting just 40 per cent from the floor becomes a problem.
The Raptors got to see one of the NBA’s true prodigies on Saturday night in Doncic, and he was the best player on the floor without trying all that hard.
Maybe Barnes will – in his own style – find a way to lift his team and impact games the way the Mavericks star and very few others can. Even if he gets halfway there, the Raptors will have a player.
It’s fun to think about, even on nights when the wins don’t come.