It’s hard to call it a surprise because the Toronto Raptors front office has always kept its cards close enough to the vest that you try to read them at your peril.
But it’s fair to say that the broader NBA community was caught off guard when commissioner Adam Silver announced that Scottie Barnes, the long-armed freshman from Florida State, would be their choice with the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft on Thursday night.
“I can’t believe they did that,” one insider messaged me in the moments after the selection was announced.
But the Raptors did it, and by the sounds of it they didn’t overthink it, with general manager Bobby Webster pointing out they had been tracking the Florida native since he starred for Team USA on a U16 World Championship team and throughout the age-group system.
“First and foremost, we love Scottie as a player and as a person, so I think that's the biggest one for us,” said Webster. “I think the kind of slicing it too thin probably gets in the way of the purpose here, which is we think Scottie has a great chance to help us in summer league, in training camp, during the season, one year from now, two years from now, five years from now.”
The Raptors also drafted a Canadian for the first time in franchise history, with Toronto’s Delano Banton, a rangy point forward from Nebraska, getting the call with the 46th pick. “Shout out Rexdale,” said Webster, and the Raptors selected David Johnson – a six-foot-five guard out Louisville – with the 47th pick.
But it was Barnes going sooner than most anticipated that will be the story of this draft, with comparisons to Suggs a storyline that will reverberate for seasons to come.
The first three picks in the draft followed a script that had been settled on in recent weeks with little variation expected even as the pre-draft rumour mill picked up pace.
Cade Cunningham from Oklahoma State went first to the Detroit Pistons, then Jalen Green – who played in the G-League bubble last season – was selected by Houston followed by University of Southern California big man Evan Mobley going to Cleveland.
In days before the draft, multiple league insiders had the Raptors narrowing their focus to Gonzaga star freshman Jalen Suggs, the 6-foot-4 two-way guard that has been at the top of the draft charts all year and only helped his cause by leading the Bulldogs to the NCAA championship game.
While there was plenty of reason to connect Barnes to the Raptors – a six-foot-nine wing with high basketball IQ, playmaking skills and the ability to guard all five positions is almost an embodiment for the organization’s values – the thinking was that if the Raptors were going to take him, they might trade down to do it.
But in the end the Raptors decided Barnes' ability to affect the game in all aspects, combined with his size and make-up, made it worth simply taking the player they feel has the most upside of those that were available.
“There are a lot of good players surrounding that pick on the board, both in front and behind and even down the line,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
“You also know there have been some very good players picked all over the board in the history of the draft. There is a lot of work, discussion, thoughts on which player would be the best for us. We just felt the combination of the size, length, two-way player, possible potential down the road fit all those things. I think he kind of just nosed out some guys.”
Barnes seems comfortable with going fourth overall in a deep draft and is confident that the sky is the limit for him.
“I would say my ambition, probably, I can say I can be -- if not the top player in the league -- one of those top players in the league with my mindset because I'm just willing to work, I'm willing to get better,” he said, via a Zoom call from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the draft was held.
“I know I'm a great defensive player, but I also have the offensive tools which is pretty slept on, I would say, with the abilities that I can do on the floor. I know I can really create for myself; I really can score the ball. I will say I envision myself, if not being the best player in the league, one of the best players.”
The first thing he’ll have to figure out is how to shoot. It’s the only gap in his resume, but it’s a limiting factor to his long-term potential.
He’s fairly categorized as a non-shooter given he was just 11-of-40 from the three-point line and shot just 62-percent from the free-throw line and doesn’t have a lot of other options offensively as a scorer. He averaged 10.3 points a game for a Florida State team that advanced to the Sweet 16.
But the Raptors have seen OG Anunoby develop into a quality three-point shooter from humble beginnings while Norm Powell became one of the league’s most dangerous deep threats despite his shooting being deemed a weakness coming out of college. Pascal Siakam has shown flashes too after playing the post in college and in his first year as a pro.
“Let’s put it this way, his shot isn’t broken,” said Nurse. “People talk about his jump shot’s broken; it isn’t broken. I think there’s probably a few little mechanical things that we’ll probably look at, as we do with everybody. And then it’s going to be up to him. I think there will be some things we think we can look at, there won’t be a ton, there will be a few, and then it’ll be up to him to put in the work."
The bright side is he led the Seminoles in assists with 4.1 a game and he was skilled enough in the open floor and crafty enough in the half-court that he was trusted with minutes at point guard.
“He’s a guy with his size can board and he’s going to turn around and start bringing it,” said Nurse, drawing comparisons to current Raptors Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. “I think he’s got some handles and I think he’s got some vision and he can pass. I would think that he would be able to do some of that off the bat.”
But it’s his defence that makes him stand out and should translate quickly. He’s 225 pounds and has a 7-foot-3 wingspan but leverages his size and strength with high basketball IQ that allowed him to guard multiple positions in college, something he’s confident he can continue at the NBA level.
“I don’t back down from nobody [defensively],” said Barnes. “It’s about how tough you are, whatever you’re willing to do. I’m willing to do those things. I’m tough when I’m on the floor. I’m not gonna get bullied. I sit on defence. I guard full court. I guard the ones, the twos, the threes. I take pride in that stuff. I’m gonna say I’m one of those guys that can guard one through five for.”
Which hints at another quality that sets Barnes apart. He’s by all accounts an enthusiastic, almost bubbly personality who comes to work with a smile on his face and who teammates gravitate to and enjoy being around.
“I’m always pretty excited to see other people succeed,” he said. “I like seeing other people be happy. That’s just who I am. I’m a natural leader. I’m a guy who encourages other guys to be better,” he said. “I like seeing people be great at what they love doing. That’s just who I am, the natural guy that I am. I’m a caring guy, a loving guy. No matter what, I just want to spread love and positivity.”
If he can deliver on the promise that convinced the Raptors to select him fourth overall – to the surprise of many – the love and positivity will flow his way in short order.