T he Toronto Raptors dressing room at Scotiabank Arena is a circle, though not exactly symmetrical: it bends towards the gravity of stars. The shape was the brainchild of the expansion franchise’s inaugural general manager, Isiah Thomas, who thought a round room would be conducive to team chemistry, with every player equally close to the centre and able to look all their teammates in the eye. It wasn’t a bad idea, though Thomas didn’t see it through before skipping town for a broadcasting job. His loss.
Over the years, the circular dressing room has taken a certain shape: the lockers on the south end, right near the entrance, have typically been the domain of the team’s stars. Vince Carter had his locker there, as did Chris Bosh. There are no hard-and-fast rules — Kawhi Leonard had his locker on the opposite side of the curve, and Fred VanVleet has a spot on the north side too — but DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry became lifelong friends with their south-end cubicles side-by-side, playfully interrupting each other’s post-game interviews after wins, and taking turns shouldering the blame after losses.
Thanks to the pandemic, it has been more than two full seasons since an outsider entered the luxurious Raptors lair, with its dark-grained wood, plush carpet and indirect lighting. So it was interesting to note some changes when I ventured in after the Raptors played their lone home exhibition game earlier this month. Pascal Siakam, the two-time all-NBA selection, has taken up residence in the high-rent district, a change of address from the Lowry era. Makes sense. And joining him on Franchise Player Row? None other than second-year star-in-the-making Scottie Barnes. As symbols go, no high-level deciphering is required: After a stunning Rookie of the Year season, the 21-year-old from Florida State is right where the Raptors need him to be, bridging their championship past and a winning future.
But being assigned the role of franchise fulcrum, and the locker to go with it, and thriving in the role are different things. In the NBA, the demands are unrelenting and not every standout rookie is a super sophomore. As he begins his second season, that’s the question Barnes is facing: Can a kid with less than 80 starts under his belt take the kind of leap often expected of potential superstars? For reference, Vince Carter, the last Raptor to win Rookie of the Year, transitioned from highlight-reel legend to superstar status in his second season. He pumped out 25.7 points a game and led Toronto to its first playoff appearance in what ended up being the second-best all-round season of a 22-year (!) career that should land him in the Hall of Fame. Barnes is a different type of player, but given he was the sticking point in any potential deal for Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant this past summer, expectations are high. No pressure.
“Internally everything is fine,” says VanVleet, who, at 28, is as invested as anyone in Barnes living up to the boldest projections. “The question will be how everyone outside and all the noise affects what’s going on inside. What he does with us every day in practices and games, he’s been like a vet. He comes in, does his job and doesn’t complain. There’s a journey, obviously, as a 20-, 21-year-old kid trying to be a man, but the question will be: whatever people think he is, what day does that begin? Is that yesterday? Ten years from now? If people see him as this superstar type of talent, I don’t know if that just happens overnight.”
F or a Raptors team determined to be heard in a top-heavy conference, it would be nice if Barnes emerged as a no-doubt superstar yesterday. For now, though, hopes are a well-planned off-season has set him up for maximum success as quickly as possible. Brian Macon, Barnes’ long-time mentor and skills trainer, knew that Barnes was serious about building on his rookie year momentum when his young protégé reached out in the days after the Raptors were eliminated by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first-round of the playoffs. Barnes was on triple-double pace in his postseason debut — 15 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists — when he suffered a scary-looking ankle injury early in the fourth quarter after Sixers giant Joel Embiid stepped on the inside of his left foot. That Barnes came back and played effectively in Games 4, 5 and 6 only added to an already sterling rookie resume, and proved his grit runs as deep as his talent.
Coming off that injury and having played five times as many minutes in his first year as a professional than he did in his lone college season, a long break would have been understandable. But Barnes was itching to keep rolling. “I mean, it was great, because at the end of the season, he texted me first, you know?” says Macon, who has known Barnes since the gangly sixth grader followed his older brother to Macon’s basketball camps in Boca Raton, Fla. “Most of the time, it’s me leading him, but it shows his maturity and him transitioning to understanding his game and what he needs to get better and him telling me what he needs to happen. And then it’s my job to come up with the plan on how we’re going to get there.”
Identifying the gaps in Barnes’ game wasn’t rocket science, in part because what Barnes does well is also pretty straightforward. His rookie year was a wonder for many reasons, but maybe mostly in its simple excellence. He was just as good or better in more categories than all of his peers. He played the most minutes among all rookies, he was third in scoring (15.2 points per game), third in rebounding (7.5 per game) and top five in assists and steals. He got better as the season progressed, winning the final two Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month awards, and had knack for putting up big numbers against marquee opponents: In home-and-away games against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, Barnes averaged 26 points, 13 rebounds and 5.5 assists. He averaged 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three steals in his three meetings with Kevin Durant, and put up 25 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists in a head-to-head match-up with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic in Denver. In each of those cases, he also had defensive moments when he frustrated the game’s elite.
But the areas to improve were clear also. He shot just 30.3 per cent from three, and while his 73.2 per cent from the free-throw line wasn’t horrible, for a player with as heavy a game as Barnes is capable of playing, nudging that up to 80 per cent or better would only further punish opponents who can’t handle his physicality. There was also hope Barnes would develop more options to serve him in the grind of halfcourt basketball. Taking steps towards being the kind of player who can initiate offence when the game gets static and defence gets set is the most difficult thing to do in the NBA game, and the entry point for players with superstar ambitions.
Barnes describes Macon – who played collegiately as a five-foot-nine point guard at Boston University and has turned himself into an in-demand trainer – with reverence. “That’s my guy, that’s always been my guy,” he says. “He’s always been in my life, giving me mentorship, on and off the floor. That wisdom. I love hanging out with the guy, and he always gets me better. Every time I train with him, I feel like I get better immediately.”
The summer heading into his second season would be their biggest test yet.
From the beginning of May until the end of the NBA Finals, Barnes trained twice a day with Macon, on top of strength workouts he did separately. It was a heavy load, but then again Barnes had a lot on his to-do list. The beauty of Barnes is that his talent and his mentality lend themselves to so many different on-court possibilities. He’s been compared to everyone from Magic Johnson to Scottie Pippen to Draymond Green. Macon uses another hall-of-famer, Jason Kidd for reference. “Training Scottie is fun,” says Macon. “It’s like training a point guard, a small forward and power forward, all at the same time. We just had to be very organized in how we approached it. But that’s what’s exciting about it. Because in two or three years, how do you defend a guy like that? How do you stop him? Especially since at his core he’s an energy guy, he’s an offensive rebounder, run the floor type of guy. You can’t just double him in the post or trap him on the perimeter and get the ball out of his hands and forget about him. He’s got so many ways he can contribute to his team. He doesn’t need the ball all the time.”
But getting better when he does have it is a priority. Just because Barnes has the attributes and the willingness to change games in a complementary role doesn’t mean it’s the best use of his talent. “He needs to continue to develop the rhythm of his game,” says Macon. “A lot of guys have a pattern to their game, and they can play off that pattern depending on how the defence is playing them.” For a Raptors example, think of peak Kawhi Leonard yo-yoing defences while facing up from the three-point line, using his ability to score from deep, from the mid-range and at the rim to make defenders uncomfortable, and punishing them when they committed too aggressively to stop one action or another. At the end of last season, Pascal Siakam was doing much the same thing, manipulating the defence because he was a threat to hurt opponents by scoring or passing from almost any point on the floor.
Barnes has the vision and the ability to be a primary ball-handler. The Raptors listed him as a guard this season and will give their second-year star plenty of chances to operate the offence. But if you can’t put pressure on opponents as a scorer when you have the ball, defences retreat — especially in the playoffs — gumming up the spacing for everyone else. Barnes’ challenge is developing the skills and the mentality to punish defences as a scorer, opening up his options as a playmaker. “We’ve tried to give him a little bit at a time so it’s not overwhelming and he’s not completely confused out there,” says Macon. “But he’s going to have a plan [with the ball] this year. The hardest thing about training Scottie’s game is that he’s going to catch the ball in so many different positions … He might have the ball in the ball screen, he might catch it in the post, he might catch it in the short roll, he might catch it off someone else’s action. So it’s hard, because he does so much on the floor. But I think he’ll have a better plan in every single spot, and he’ll know what he likes and he’ll have more things he can go to.”
His training sessions were broken down into segments. The first chunk focused on ball-handling and guard skills, often in small group settings with some of Barnes’ friends who are still playing college basketball. After that, Barnes and Macon would work alone on his post-up skills, nailing down his footwork from various spots in the paint, honing counters when his first option is taken away and making sure that he got equal touches with his left and right hands. They broke in the afternoon and then reconvened at night to work on one specific move or skill and finish the day off with some shooting drills. “And then we’d get up and do it all over again,” says Macon. “By the end of the Finals, he was a completely different player.”
B arnes’ willingness to do the work only captures one part of what makes those familiar with him so excited about where all of this can lead. At the Raptors’ training camp in Victoria, one of head coach Nick Nurse’s guests was former University of Victoria and Canadian men’s team head coach Ken Shields. Now 76, Shields is one of the most accomplished coaches Canada has ever produced, in any sport. He won seven straight titles with UVic, had several players represent Canada internationally, was pivotal in the early development of a promising local kid named Steve Nash and was a sought-out clinician and consultant for years after his retirement. He suffers no fools and sees everything on and off the court through the prism of how it affects team success.
After four days of watching the Raptors practice behind closed doors on the floor that bears his name at the university’s athletic centre, Shields shared his thoughts on Barnes and, tellingly, it wasn’t Barnes’ size or athleticism or skill that impressed. Instead, it was the harder-to-measure attributes that are so crucial to elite performance. “Sometimes talent gets in its own way,” Shields told me. “It’s not getting in Scottie’s way. He’s devoted to learning. You can see his concentration is very, very high in practice. His mind’s not drifting. He’s attentive. He tries to do what the coaches are asking him to do. He’s committed. That’s what I think is so important: his work rate, his concentration. He’s taking charge of his own talent by the quality of his effort. He wants to excel, and with his talent, the universe is open to him. It’s beautiful to see.”
Like so many things with Barnes, his focus and attention to detail seem to have come naturally. “He’s always had this ability to see something or be told something and replicate it out on the basketball court,” says Macon. “I think that’s a special talent that he has.” But that doesn’t mean he takes his abilities for granted. Barnes is intentional about fine-tuning even what comes easily. “I take pride in trying to get better every time I step on the floor,” he tells me from the chair in front of his locker. “I’m always trying to find those little things I really need to work on, like my pick-ups off the dribble or trying to get to certain spots or working on certain moves from those spots. I really try to get very detailed and get right the things my coaches or trainers are trying to teach me, because those go a long way in the process of trying to get better. I try to focus on those things because it’s going to help me in the long run, but it’s a process.”
The early returns were evident even before the Raptors met in Victoria. The first hint came in intra-squad scrimmages the Raptors held in Las Vegas around Summer League. It was a glimpse of Barnes’ expanding game and confidence provided by the man himself as he enlisted a videographer to capture his off-season, then packaged it in a two-episode series titled, The Life of Scottie Barnes. In the first episode, “Summer League Edition,” Barnes narrated his own highlight package, to the delight of 146,000 viewers (and counting). “Breaking the defender down. Giving him a little bump. Go finish at the rim,” he says of a play in which he scored on 10-year NBA veteran and Canadian national team star Kelly Olynyk, who helped fill out the Raptors scrimmages. Over a shot of him putting teammate Precious Achiuwa on skates before pulling up for a triple: “Going downhill to a step back. Trey ball. Stick the follow through.” It’s not everyone who can pull off doing their own play-by-play and somehow make it fun or funny, rather than borderline obnoxious, but the genuine delight Barnes exudes watching himself put his newly honed skills to the test is infectious. You can’t help but root for Barnes rooting for himself.
As light-hearted as the videos are, the hope can only be that the improvement they showcase is just an appetizer. “He’s a strong kid and he’s got a good body. A lot times with young guys it’s, ‘He’ll be all right once he gets a little stronger,’ but he’s already there,” said Olynyk of his experience scrimmaging against Summer Scottie. “But I think what struck me the most is how ambidextrous he is. He’s got jump hooks with both hands, finishes with both hands, dribbles with both hands. You cut him off, he can go the other way with one strong dribble. … When he can start knocking down shots, he’s going to be a huge problem in this league. Everyone with the Raptors, with the national team, are so high on him, and you can see why. He loves basketball, loves to compete and he enjoys it. There’s not much more you can ask from a 21-year-old.”
In some ways it’s that final quality, the joy with which Barnes moves through his basketball life, that convinced the Raptors he was the player for them — both at the draft and in the future. According to league sources, the only other player Toronto would have considered taking among the top four was Evan Mobley, the versatile seven-footer chosen third overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers who was a close second to Barnes in the ROTY vote. For all his athletic gifts, competitive fire and basketball potential, Barnes’ people skills were the special sauce they believed would influence not only their team, but their franchise. “The more we were around him during the pre-draft, you could see the impression he leaves on a lot of people,” says Dan Tolzman, Raptors assistant general manager and vice-president of player personnel. “He’s treating everybody from Masai [Ujiri, Raptors team president] down to the interns with the same level of joy and energy, and then after he leaves, you have staffers on all levels talking about ‘Man, that guy was incredible’ and just how much fun he was to be around.
“We do a ton of background on draft prospects,” continues Tolzman, who helped the Raptors identify VanVleet as an undrafted prospect and Siakam as a late first-round pick, among other draft successes. “And when you have enough calls to different people unconnected to each other that had such similar experiences with Scottie, it’s kind of one of those things where it’s got to be true. There can’t be that many people that have the exact same feeling about who he is as a person and what he can do for a franchise and the locker room and as a building block for a team. It just became too much to ignore.”
In simplest terms, Barnes’ teammates really like him — and so does pretty much everyone else. It’s evident in the self-made docu-series. “I just wanted to show who I am off the court and make something for the fans … just give them some content, just something for them to watch and be a part of,” Barnes says of the project, which shows him cracking up his teammates, talking trash with YouTube prankster JiDion at an NBA 2K launch party in Las Vegas and shopping for vintage wrestling t-shirts in L.A.
Off camera it wasn’t much different, says Max Gilburg, the 21-year-old who Barnes assigned to document his first summer as a young, talented millionaire. They met when Gilburg was shooting video for Barnes’ agency during the pre-draft process and hit it off based on their mutual passion for video games (NBA 2K and Call of Duty are Barnes’ go-tos), sports and goofing around. “He’s kind of what you see in the vlogs,” says Gilburg. “He’s this super genuine, super goofy, funny guy that you would never expect to be this rising star in the NBA. He doesn’t have this big ego and he doesn’t treat people like they’re below him or anything. People get nervous when they come up to him, but he just treats them like a good human being. He’s just this normal kid who’s really good at basketball, you know?”
Barnes’ silly side, his willingness to drop the pretense of seriousness that pro sports so often demands and goof around, serves as a catalyst for those around him to indulge their own. “His energy is different,” says Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr., who rarely cracks a smile when he’s on the clock, but never seems to stop when chilling with his younger teammate. ”He comes into the room, he brightens it up. He’s screamin’, he’s yelling, he’s six-nine. His body’s like a baby reindeer, he walks funny, but he’s a great person. He’s always joking. He’s super serious about his craft, but he can uplift people, put smiles on their faces.”
He delighted both the crowd and his teammates when he slow-rolled onto the floor during player introductions at the open practice that concluded training camp in Victoria, doing a convincing impression of a WWE star making his way to the ring. And that confidence — whether in front of a crowd or on the court — is nothing new. “Let me tell you, Scottie is extremely comfortable in his own skin,” says Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton, who began tracking Barnes as a prospect when he was in ninth grade. “He’s the kind of guy that, if you got into a street fight, you want him [with] you. You know he’s not gonna fall until you fall. But he is also intelligent, has a strong moral compass and doesn’t over-react or get emotional, and when the games are more stressful, is when he becomes more focused.”
It all contributes to the reputation Barnes has gained as a teammate, a nebulous skill that can pay off exponentially. David Thorpe is a leading NBA skills coach and consultant, and one of the league’s most respected opinion makers via his role with longstanding digital imprint Truehoop.com. He’s also got history as friend and mentor to Masai Ujiri. Thorpe says he sat up and took notice of Barnes when his son, Max, played with Barnes at FSU. It was during COVID and he was talking to Max daily, making sure his son was adjusting well. All reports were good, and practices especially were going well, but after about a week there was a call where Max sounded down and told him practice had been lacklustre. Before Thorpe could give a pep talk, Max explained: “He said, ‘Scottie was sitting out with a sprained ankle, and we all realized that those first five or six days that were all so good were because of his energy. As soon as he didn’t practice, no one else did anything. We were all playing off him’. That was like a lightning bolt to my heart when I heard that,” says Thorpe. “Everyone in Florida knew about his talent, but when you have that quality? Now we’re talking about another level. That was a game-changer. That was it for me.”
N ot every moment in Barnes’ rookie season went perfectly. Nurse pulled him early in the first quarter in more than one game. But he started every game he played, and the Raptors weren’t good enough or deep enough to offer him the luxury of making mistakes without consequence. VanVleet, in his first season as the Raptors de facto leader, didn’t hold back on Barnes. “The reason I’m on him,” he says, “is because I see greatness.”
The final ingredient the Raptors thought Barnes had in his makeup but couldn’t be sure about until he was actually drawing pay cheques was that the lighthearted kid in a man’s body loves to be coached. VanVleet noticed it right away, when he got on Barnes for some careless — or, at least, risky — passes during the rookie’s first training camp. “It was just me being me, trying to express the importance of a possession to a kid who has never played in the NBA before,” says VanVleet, who feels the same way about turnovers as most people might about, say, bed bugs. “He wasn’t that happy to hear about it and he fought me a little bit, but I could tell he was listening, and that’s all you can ask for. We let it die down and revisited it later, but I could tell it sunk in.”
Like so many of Barnes’ attributes, his ability to accept criticism is both somewhat innate – “I told his mom she did a great job. He’s a great kid,” says VanVleet — and honed with practice. Florida State is renowned not only for the quality of their basketball program, but for the culture Hamilton has built. The coach has had 20 former players drafted into the NBA, with teams attracted not only by his players’ talent, but their maturity too. A lot was made about Barnes agreeing to come off the bench for the Seminoles, but he wasn’t the first high lottery pick to make that a sacrifice — Chicago Bulls forward Patrick Williams did the same thing the season before and was the fourth-overall pick in the 2020 draft. In 2019, Burlington, Ont.’s Mfiondu Kabengele, currently with the Boston Celtics, was chosen in the first round after not starting a game in his two seasons playing for Hamilton.
The willingness to sacrifice individual goals is in part a reflection of who FSU recruits — not every one-and-done prospect is willing to come off the bench — but also how they are brought along in the program. The Seminoles are the rare, possibly the only, Division I basketball program to have regular group therapy sessions. “We talked about everything and anything you could ever talk about in those sessions,” says the Bulls’ Williams, who first met Barnes when they were at a Nike camp for top high-school prospects and later hosted him on his recruiting visit at FSU. “There really weren’t no secrets, as a team, and it just made you really care about and be happy for the person sitting beside you.”
It also created an atmosphere where criticism and honest coaching were not only accepted but welcomed. Hamilton calls them “hot call-outs,” where teammates or coaches had license to address actions or plays they viewed as detrimental to the team. They were part of the group therapy program and carried over onto the floor and the locker room. For a people pleaser like Barnes, the practice of giving and taking criticism was a crucial tool FSU provided him and one that he carried into the NBA. “It helped me deal with face-to-face conflict,” Barnes says. “That was really a key thing when we did those sessions, is to be able to have those face-to-face conversations, and have it translate onto the court. That helped me a lot, to be able to have someone look you in the eye and call you out and be able to receive that and not have negative energy back towards them. That was something I didn’t face that much before, but it helps you get better as a team, helps you grow as a person, it was really good.
“It helped me [last year],” he continues. “As a rookie you’re trying to figure every single thing, every single detail. It didn’t take that long to fit because I’m a pretty smart player and I catch on to things pretty fast but being around these guys that have been here for a while, and around the coaches, it helps you understand what they want you to do.”
The Raptors, of course, want Barnes to be great, and the sooner the better. His spot in the locker room is just one indication. The hope is that as the ball goes up for his sophomore season, the big kid with the goofy grin will be able to carry an even heavier load on his broad shoulders than he did as a rookie. How that will look, though, is still a mystery. “Honestly, Scottie’s one of those guys, like, can you tell what that guy is going to be? … He’s one of those players of the future. I don’t know how to describe it,” said Ujiri when the Raptors opened training camp. “Who knows what position he plays. He’s one of those guys that just plays basketball, [but] he’s an incredible basketball player and wants to win … incredible teammate, incredible person, but just so dynamic on the court. Growing pains will come as usual, but you saw [last year] a player and somebody who’s committed to winning.”
This past summer the Raptors had a chance to veer from their patient, steady-as-she-goes approach when the possibility of acquiring Durant arose. But talks cooled when it was clear the Nets asking price would include Barnes. That the Raptors stood pat rather than going all-in to acquire a two-time Finals MVP and inarguably one of the most lethal scorers to ever play the game is a hell of a vote of confidence. How did that feel? “Like they have that trust in me,” Barnes says, his feet on the same spot on the carpet as Kyle Lowry’s when the point guard was leading the Raptors to their 2019 title. “They see my future…. It just shows, they have a big-picture plan for me in this organization.”
The hope is that before he’s done Barnes will complete the circle, bringing the Raptors from the lottery to the Finals, and doing it all with a smile.