DETROIT — Scottie Barnes has knocked off a lot of firsts before reaching the 100-game mark in the NBA.
Just last week, the Toronto Raptors‘ first-round pick had his first triple double. Last season he won his first NBA award when he earned rookie-of-the year honours over a very tough field. He had his first 30-point game last March when he out-dueled LeBron James at Scotiabank Arena.
He went through his first extended slump too, though no one thought much of it then. He was a 20-year-old rookie barely a month into his NBA career when Barnes shot just 37.3 per cent from the floor over a six-game stretch almost exactly a year ago. Barnes was on his first extended road trip and didn’t shoot better than 50 per cent from the floor once and finished off the journey by going 4-of-19 in games against Sacramento and Golden State. It was simply thought of as growing pains then.
He shook it off quickly enough and his magical rookie season began to take off.
But now, 12 months later, Barnes is in the midst of another rough patch and people are paying attention as the Raptors (7-7) have lost two straight, three of four and four six and have looked mostly unimpressive doing it. On Monday (Sportsnet, SN NOW, 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT), they face the Detroit Pistons, who have won six straight against Toronto.
“… Scottie is a highly confident individual. So, I’m not too worried about him getting down on himself or him feeling a certain way,” says Thaddeus Young, the Raptors’ designated veteran, with 16 years’ experience to draw on. “[But we need to} figure out how can we get him back going. How can we get him back to the Scottie Barnes that we had last year? The rookie of the year, the guy who everyone was talking about being a stud in his league for a long time. I think he will get back to that, but … we need to continue to make sure that he is taking us by the horns and saying, ‘Hey I’m going to steer this ship and I’m going to make sure we are going to win games.’”
It’s especially true with Pascal Siakam (groin) and Precious Achiuwa (ankle) out for weeks to come, Fred VanVleet out for his second straight game with a non-COVID illness and Gary Trent Jr. also a scratch because of right hip soreness.
The hope and expectation would be that Barnes could take the extra touches and shots available while the Raptors are short-handed.
It’s what stars do, and the Raptors very much are counting on Barnes becoming a star sooner than later.
Instead, it’s been six games of poor production and — perhaps more concerning — a breath of tentativeness, or hesitation, the lack of which was part of his charm as a rookie.
The numbers show it:
Rather than the 17.1 points a game with a True Shooting percentage (which includes the value of threes and free throws) of 58.1 per cent that Barnes was putting up after the All-Star last season as he made his rookie-of-the-year push and helped lift Toronto into the playoffs, Barnes has been contributing just 11.8 points a game on 39.3 per cent True Shooting in his slide.
When Barnes is at best, he’s bullying his way into the paint and is equally adept at finishing in traffic at the rim or connecting on the tricky floaters and push shots and jump hooks when he can’t get all the way there.
Over his last 25 starts last season, Barnes was averaging nearly eight shots a game from inside eight feet – more than all the rest of his field goal attempts from anywhere else on the floor combined — and converting on 67 per cent of those tight chances.
In his recent slump, Barnes is converting just 51 per cent of his shots from inside eight feet and his shot profile has changed too, with his field goal attempts almost evenly split between the paint and from outside eight feet.
And as for a perceived tentativeness or increased level of hesitation, it’s interesting to note that more than two thirds of Barnes’ shots the past couple of weeks have come after he’s held the ball two seconds or more, and he’s shooting just 32.2 per cent in those situations. Last season, post all-star? Only half his shots came after longer holds (though he still shot 49.7 per cent on those.)
It’s all part of a learning process, that – even for someone as talented as Barnes has shown himself to be – can only be accelerated so much.
And it’s worth noting that Barnes isn’t the only member of last season’s prize rookie class who has yet to take the big leap many were expecting. The Pistons’ Cade Cunningham – currently out of the lineup with shin soreness – has yet to touch the numbers he was putting up after the all-star break last year when he shook off a slow start to force his way into the rookie-of-the-year conversations (he eventually finished third).
Cleveland’s Evan Mobley, barely beaten out by Barnes in ROY voting, is sitting on essentially the same box score lines he was producing last year. Jalen Green of the Houston Rockets — who was taken No.2 overall last year — is another elite second-year player who has yet to find the rhythm early in the season that he finished with last year, when he put up 22.1 points a game on 58.9 True Shooting after all-star.
The key in all cases, is patience, says Rockets head coach Stephen Silas.
“For me, it’s the understanding that year two is so much different than year one. Year one is learning and figuring things out and whatnot,” said Silas when the Rockets were in Toronto last week. “But now your opponent’s figuring things out against you too. So you’re not a surprise when you’re walking into the arena this year as opposed to last year.
“Teams are going to be making adjustments … so the Year 2 can be — not as difficult as Year 1 — but very difficult,” said Silas. “… It’s an adjustment as they go through the start of the season. Then slowly but surely you see it as they grasp how they’re being played differently … so yeah, it usually doesn’t happen right away because they draw so much attention, because of the way that they played in year one, but Year 2 usually is [eventually] better because they have the experience of year one and then they kind of make the adjustment in early to mid-year.”
The Raptors would love it if Barnes could find his rhythm sooner, but believe his struggles are temporary, regardless. To them, he remains confident and fearless, and that’s half the battle. The shot-making will come.
“You still see him driving to the basket. You still see him taking shots with confidence. You still see him getting into his one-on-one mode where he has a mismatch and he is taking guys,” says Young. “So, the confidence hasn’t wavered. Its just sometimes guys have a bad streak of games or sometimes they have a bad start to the season. Then they take off at some point.
“Things will change. They always do.”