April 20, 2024

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The Sports Fanatics

Scottie Barnes is no joke: The Raptors’ remarkable rookie is everything, everywhere, all at once

Twenty years old, 11 days into his rookie season, up by one, 6.4 on the clock, Scottie Barnes walked to the free-throw line in Indianapolis. He heard boos and thundersticks. 

It was Barnes’ second road game as a member of the Toronto Raptors. He’d missed three of his four free-throw attempts. If he was feeling any nerves whatsoever, he had a strange way of showing it. 

“He had game-winning free throws the other night and he was laughing,” Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet says at a morning shootaround at Madison Square Garden. “He’s just having fun. He doesn’t even understand the gravity of what we’re doing. He’s just a kid in a candy store. His dream is to be in the NBA. He’s here. He’s a top-four pick. And he’s been a breath of fresh air.”

Some rookies act like they’ve been there before. Not Barnes. During introductions before his first preseason game, he playfully patted 35-year-old teammate Goran Dragic’s shoulders and draped an arm around him. “I have a nephew that’s 12 or 13 and they’re identical,” VanVleet says. “So I just keep going back to that in my head. ‘Cause when he first came, I didn’t really know how to take it.” 

I say that I’ve read about Barnes hugging everyone in the room before sitting down for team breakfasts at Florida State, and VanVleet interrupts: “Oh, it is [still happening]. He’s hugging people. He’s punching the coaches in the chest before the game. He’s doing all kinds of stuff, man. He’s a nut.”

He is also, potentially, a franchise-changer. Barnes finds cutters out of the high post, bullies smaller defenders and communicates like a veteran. “It’s crazy,” VanVleet says. “It’s a good recipe, though, for sure.” Since the All-Star break, he has averaged 17.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists, helping the Raptors leap to fifth in the East and strengthening his already strong case for Rookie of the Year. 

On a team that plays a frantic, physically demanding brand of basketball, Barnes ranks 13th in the league in total minutes. Standing 6-foot-7 with a 7-3 wingspan, he jumps virtually every opening tip, regularly plays point guard, constantly tells his coaches that he wants to defend stars and generally appears to be having the time of his life. Is Barnes too naïve to know that your rookie season is supposed to be grueling? Is the transition genuinely easy because he’s so advanced? 

“He’s pretty advanced,” VanVleet says. “It’s either he’s really advanced or he’s just super talented or, probably, a combination of both. His reads are OK. He gets sped up — you know, he’s still 20 years old, he’s figuring it out — but he makes some good passes. He’s understanding the game plan. And then he just goes out there and plays.”

Talking after a practice and an extended session in the weight room, Barnes says the hardest part of being in the NBA is not anything that he’s faced on the court, but “time management, really,” i.e. figuring out when to lift and get treatment, when and what to eat and how to prepare for each game. Captain Youthful Enthusiasm says that he’s getting better at sticking to his daily schedule. 

At the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, it seemed like Barnes knew every player in the gym. He wasn’t participating in the five-on-five scrimmages, but there he was, all day, dribbling a basketball, joking around with prospects and cheering them on. Endearing as this sounds, to executives considering investing millions of dollars in him, it raised questions: Is he just everybody’s buddy? Does this dude take anything seriously?

The Raptors contingent saw all of that, and then they interviewed him. By the end of their 30 minutes with Barnes, they felt not only like they knew all about him, but like he knew all about them. They were not put off when, in the hallways of Wintrust Arena and the Marriott Marquis, he hugged them “like he’s known ’em his whole life,” as Brian Macon puts it. Macon, Barnes’ trainer since seventh grade, emphasizes that “it’s no dap or a head nod, like you see with other players — he’s really hugging those guys.”

To Macon, that’s just Scottie. That same week, “I went to go get my credentials,” he says, “and I’m like, ‘I’m one of Scottie Barnes’ trainers.’ And [the people handing them out said], ‘Oh, we love Scottie. He gives us hugs every time he sees us.'”

Brooklyn Nets big man Day’Ron Sharpe, who teamed with Barnes at Montverde Academy when they were high school seniors, describes Barnes as a “high-energy person. Goofy. He brightens up the room. His smile is contagious. You don’t ever see Scott down, for real.”

Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes is having a ball
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“He always wants everyone to be happy,” says Tavarus Harris, who coached Barnes in his freshman year at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Florida. “He wants you smiling. It doesn’t matter if you’re a head coach, it doesn’t matter if you’re the ballboy, it doesn’t matter if you’re the water girl, it doesn’t matter if you’re the scorekeeper, it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan that’s just checking him out. If you’re not happy and you don’t look happy, brace yourself: He’s coming to hug you.”

To talk to people who have been around Barnes is to be bombarded with similar sentiments: He is wired differently than other players his age. He is friends with everybody, but he’s also savvy, maniacally competitive and obsessed with winning. 

“He does things to inspire his team, he does things to irritate the hell out of the opponent and he wins,” Montverde assistant coach Rae Miller says. 

The Raptors “did their homework,” Nightrydas Elite founder Maurice “Kenoe” Jordan says. “And they made the right decision.”

Barnes worked out for Toronto in Tampa Bay, its temporary home. By the end of the brief trip, he was texting with multiple staffers. 

“I’m sure everyone you’ve spoken to has said the same thing,” says Jim Carr, who coached Barnes as a sophomore and junior at University School in Davie, Florida. “I think Scott has an incredible ability to connect with everybody. No one has bad days around this guy.”

For Barnes, the court has always been a safe haven, dating back to when he started playing with his older brother in West Palm Beach. He says basketball was “a way to keep my mind off things and stay away from the bad things in the area.” 

Barnes continues: “I really loved pickup. So any chance there was to play pickup, that’s what I did. Going to Salvation Army, the rec center. I just was outside playing. I just went outside playing basketball, just to stay away from certain types of things that was going around.”

I ask him what he loved about the game as a kid, and he answers in the present tense. “I would just say just having fun, really,” he says. “When I’m on the court, I really just have fun all the time. No matter if it’s just communicating with teammates, seeing people smile, just trying to bring energy, talking smack, all that. It just brings so much fun to the game.” 

His personality, he says, comes directly from his mom, Kathalyn Wilkins. “She always has a smile on her face,” he says. “She’s very caring. She has a great heart.”

Leading up to the draft, Barnes worked out at the Page Youth Center in Santa Barbara. Twice a week there was a Zumba class on the other side of the gym. “He would start to do the movements they were doing,” trainer Packie Turner says. “And these were all older women. On multiple occasions after the Zumba finished, a few of the ladies would come over and be like, ‘And who is this young gentleman over here?'”

“The elderly people were really going hard,” Barnes says. 

Barnes didn’t scrimmage with the other prospects from his agency because it was too much of an injury risk. “The first time we wouldn’t let him play, there were some older gentlemen on one of the other baskets,” Turner says. “He said, ‘Well, I’m just going to play with my friends over there.’ He just went and shot around with these guys who are 50-plus, just shooting around. And he had ’em throw lobs to him.” Later, Barnes decided that, since he couldn’t play, he would ref. 

Basketball is Barnes’ job now, but he says that watching film doesn’t feel like work. Unlike plenty of his peers, he prefers full games to highlights. In November, after a one-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Scotiabank Arena, he ordered food and put on the Golden State Warriors vs. New Orleans Pelicans game. Jordan, who was visiting him, says Barnes was “standing in front of the TV and all into it.”

Jordan says it wasn’t unusual for Barnes to drive to LA Fitness and play for hours with whoever happened to be there, after a full day of school and a practice. Multiple people told the Raptors to make sure he doesn’t find out where the local runs are. 

“Basketball just brings joy to my life,” Barnes says. “I like keeping basketball around me. I would say that’s one thing that makes me such a happy person.”

In about 30 seconds, VanVleet goes from ribbing Barnes’ affinity for no-look passes to marveling at the mileage he gets out of them.

“That’s just a little showboating, it ain’t that deep,” VanVleet says. “I think he’s trying to make the home-run plays, right? He thinks he’s Magic Johnson out there. 

“But nah, it works. Every time, I’m like, ‘How does this keep working?’ I’m running up the floor with him, so I see it. And he’s usually looking at me to throw it. So I’m just like, ‘All right, man.’ But it’s working. He’s been great with the look-offs and kind of knowing where he wants to go with it, but setting it up. That takes a different level of understanding.”

The no-look is “something I just always do,” Barnes says. “I do it for no reason sometimes.” But when he removed his Dolce & Gabbana face mask on his way to shake the commissioner’s hand, a photo of Magic Johnson passing the ball was beside his ear-to-ear grin on the NBA Draft telecast, which noted that he “REGULARLY WATCHES MAGIC JOHNSON HIGHLIGHTS AND EMULATES HIS GAME.”

“You definitely can see it,” VanVleet says. “It’s funny at times. Sometimes, it’s not funny.”

Scottie Barnes plays point guard when Toronto needs him to
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The truth is that Barnes was throwing Showtime passes long before his stepdad, John Simpson, had him watch Johnson highlights. That didn’t happen until “around 10th, 11th grade,” Barnes says, by which point he’d already won a gold medal at the 2017 FIBA Americas U16 championship in Argentina. Simpson, who is also Barnes’ former AAU coach, saw “that Magic Johnson role” in him, Barnes says. And, watching Johnson, Barnes saw it all: The spirit, the size, the versatility and especially the vision.

“That was just something that I related my game to,” Barnes says. “Being such a big point guard, making those flashy passes, no-looks, bringing that energy, always having a smile on the floor, being a great teammate.”

During the recruiting process, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton talked to Barnes about Johnson leading his hometown Michigan State Spartans to a national championship. Hamilton offered Barnes the opportunity to stay in his home state and exclusively play point guard, like Johnson did. 

“Most people when we first did it, they thought we were all drunk,” Florida State assistant coach Charlton “C.Y.” Young says.

Barnes played like a point guard, but until college he’d never run the show. The staff had to sell him on the idea that the switch would help his development and make him more attractive to NBA teams.

Early in the season, Young sat Barnes down and pulled up Johnson highlights on YouTube. “The Florida State coaching staff, they used to always just tell me that they see me as a baby Magic,” Barnes says. In the Seminoles’ next game, Barnes hit a running, one-handed hook.

“I’ll never forget,” Young says. “Of course, in Scottie style, he looked at me,” Young says. “During the game. He was like, ‘Magic!'”

In December against the Nets, Barnes made a nasty step-back 3 off a crossover in the right corner. Directly behind him, Sharpe sat on Brooklyn’s bench, mouth agape.

“When he starts hitting mess like that, that means he’s hot,” Sharpe says. “When he gets hot, he don’t be missing.”

It made Sharpe think about a particular practice at Montverde. “He hit like eight straight 3s, little step-backs, turnaround jumpers, all types of mess,” he says. “And I was guarding him, so.” In pre-draft interviews, NBA executives asked Sharpe about Barnes’ jumper. “I’m telling ’em he can shoot. I’m telling that story that I told you.”

In 24 games at Florida State, Barnes shot 11 for 40 (27.5 percent) from 3-point range. He never, however, skipped or cheated a shooting workout. In his “20-minute hits,” as Young called them, Barnes would do form shooting, two balance drills and then shoot from seven spots. “When he first got here, he was a dart-thrower,” Young says. Young worked with him on locking his elbow and shooting up, not out. 

Pre-draft, the goal was to show that his shot had improved. “All I tried to focus on was his feel of it,” Turner says. Barnes needed to engage his legs in the shot and be more connected to his lower body. 

“For two weeks, he thought I was crazy,” Turner says. “Like, ‘This guy is just nuts, I don’t know what he’s talking about.’ And then he just turned to me one day and he said, ‘I feel it.’ And I was like, ‘What do you feel?’ He said, ‘I feel my legs. I get it.'”

When the ball left Barnes’ hands, Turner wanted him to call it in the air. Barnes kept this up in front of scouts and decision-makers at his pro day in Chicago

“There were a couple scouts who came up and were like, ‘What the heck was that? Why did he say yes every time he shot?'” Turner says. “That’s Scottie being in tune with his shot. And on one of them he said no and he made it and then he turned and went, ‘Psych!’ real loud to everybody and everybody started cracking up.”

The Raptors have since “made major adjustments to his shot,” Macon says. Barnes is shooting from the right side of his body, rather than the middle, and the ball is coming off his index and middle fingers. He is shooting only 30.1 percent from deep, but he’s extremely early in the same process that worked for Pascal Siakam. 

That step-back in Brooklyn was his third 3 of the night. In the third quarter, he sprinted to the corner in transition and raised his arm, calling for the ball. When he got it, left all alone, he held his follow through. Yes. 

Back at Barclays on the last day of February, Barnes made his first 11 shots and scored 24 points in the first half. Half of those points came from put-backs, and Toronto coach Nick Nurse said he didn’t draw up a single play for Barnes. 

It was the kind of performance you can’t practice. Except, in a way, he did. “Visualize 25,” Barnes says, is an exercise in imagining “how I would be able to score 25 points” in an NBA game. At the beginning of every pre-draft workout, Turner and trainer Ross McMains had him take three minutes to think about where those points could come from, then walk through each bucket. 

“It was just going through different sequences,” Barnes says. “Trying to visualize in my mind me playing in a game, me scoring in different ways, where it’s either going to the basket with different variants of moves, shooting free throws, get a couple 3s in, transition.” 

Barnes averaged 10.3 points in 24.8 minutes at Florida State and came off the bench for more than two-thirds of the season. On perhaps the most stacked high school team ever, next to Cade Cunningham, Moses Moody and Sharpe, he didn’t need to score more than 11.6 points per game at Montverde. “He’s always looking for somebody,” Sharpe says. “Defense, he’s talking, he’s loud. He’s always trying to help everybody else.” NBA scouts liked all of that, but wanted to know how Barnes was going to score.

“All I could think of was, well, how does Giannis [Antetokounmpo] score?” Carr says. Transition. Post-ups. Open jumpers. “I really believe in the Giannis thing, and I love the Penny [Hardaway] thing, too, because of size and the creativity, the willing passing.”

The point of “visualize 25” was to highlight parts of his game that would be effective in the pros and to show him that scoring 25 points is not that hard if you break it down. When Barnes yelled, “Mouse in the house!” as he went right through his trainers, they took it as a sign that it was working.

From Day 1, Nurse told Barnes that an aggressive mindset would lead to more help defense and more double teams, giving him more opportunities to pass to open teammates. As of this week, Barnes is 13th in post-up efficiency among those with at least 50 attempts in single coverage, and no one in the NBA has scored more points out of post-ups in transition, per Second Spectrum and FiveThirtyEight. He is also 13th in second-chance points, per PBPstats.

According to Barnes, he is a different player than he was when he left Tallahassee. 

“I really do a lot more things on the floor,” he says. “You can see my vision on the floor. I really take it to the basket a lot more. I would say it’s just so many different things that I was able to show. Now I’m showing a little bit of midrange game, a little bit off the dribble. People really didn’t just see that scoring aspect that I could really do.”

Ujiri’s front office had found numerous hidden gems since he arrived in 2013, but until what he would call “the Tampa tank,” the Raptors had always won too many games to draft a blue-chip prospect. Without a perfect storm of good and terrible fortune — a pandemic-prompted relocation, a COVID-19 outbreak that sent their season spiraling, a three-spot jump on lottery night — they wouldn’t have had the No. 4 pick. They did not want to get it wrong. 

Experts, almost without exception, expected them to take Jalen Suggs, provided that Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jalen Green were off the board. To Toronto, Barnes was in the mix with those guys at the top of the class. 

All five were on the team that won gold at the FIBA U19 World Cup in Greece in 2019. Barnes came off the bench and served as a glue guy, but he was completely on board with the plan. He gave Team USA an energy boost every time he checked in, and they dominated. 

“Scottie is the guy [for whom] no task is too small and no task is too big,” Young says, adding that, if Barnes had been asked to sweep the floor before practice at Florida State, “he would sweep the hell out of it. And he’d be singing and dancing while doing it.”

The Raptors’ Rookie of the Year candidate connects with everybody
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Young meant this hypothetically. It sounds like hyperbole, unless you play for Carr at IMG Academy. None of the players took it upon themselves to clean up a wet spot at an early-season practice, so Carr told them about all the times Barnes grabbed a mop in high school. Barnes, a former MVP of the prestigious City of Palms Classic, has wiped the floor with his competition at the tournament, and he has also literally wiped that floor — in an overtime game. 

“It would drive me crazy,” Carr says. “I’d be trying to steal an extra timeout, get the team organized, and he would be obsessively mopping up this wet spot.”

The Raptors bet on Barnes’ upside, using their highest pick since 2006 on a big, powerful playmaker who defends all five positions and could become an all-around superstar. They also bet on his ability to amplify other players and bring them together. Barnes is a “culture-spreader,” Carr says, and will not hesitate to call out his teammates when they’re not playing hard. 

In November, after a game against the Memphis Grizzlies conflicted with the Seminoles’ schedule, Barnes caught up and FaceTimed Young. “He’s in the bed watching Florida State and Purdue on his computer and he’s calling me and saying, ‘Tell Ray this, tell so-and-so this,'” Young recalls. In February, Miller met up with Barnes in Minneapolis, where he learned that Barnes had been watching all of Montverde’s games and shouting at the screen. 

“He was talking about one of the kids on the team and how much the kid pissed him off because he wasn’t competing,” Miller says. 

When Carr’s eight-year-old daughter, Lucia, is playing tennis and her energy dips, he will remind her to “be a Scottie.” He is most proud, though, when she says it to herself as a pick-me-up.

“It just makes you feel good about the world,” Carr says. “My little eight-year-old recognizes that hey, this is what I should be in life as a competitor. She’ll say, ‘I gotta be a Scottie today.'”

After fouling out against the Celtics last week, Barnes assumed his role as Toronto’s best hype man. By the time the buzzer sounded, he’d already bounded onto the court waving a towel. He congratulated Siakam on a 40-points-in-47-minutes performance with a high-five, a chest bump, a scream and a bow. Siakam, exhausted, barely reacted. 

It reminded Carr of a certain 6-9 point guard, euphoric, bearhugging a certain 7-2 center, not euphoric, after the center hit a skyhook at the buzzer to win their first game together.  

“He’s going to prolong [and] help some of those guys’ careers because I think he brings people back to the first time you played,” Carr says. “He has that innocence about him, which is really amazing. That was Magic’s thing when he first got to his league, right?”

Right. But Kareem famously told Magic to calm down because they had 81 games left. The Raptors are surely trying to make sure Barnes stays steady … right?

“Yeah, well, I gave up on that a long time ago,” VanVleet says, less than two weeks after opening night. “Me and him, we had our argument for the year. We had a conversation and we’ve been good ever since. You gotta let these guys grow and be who they want to be.”

Young says that, from a young age, Barnes has had a gift that allows him to make plays others can’t see. Draftniks call it processing speed. Young calls it high-speed Wi-Fi. 

“Scottie, when he gets a video, it comes in quick. Instantly,” he says. “He’s like, ‘Whooo, there’s pretty good Wi-Fi here.’ That’s how he is on a basketball court. He can process plays and information so quick and make a decision at a high speed. That’s rare.”

Rarer still is a player who pairs that basketball-genius stuff with garbage-man stuff. Two decades ago, Toronto’s energy guy was Jerome Williams, known to many as the Junk Yard Dog, who earned cult-hero status by hustling for loose balls and fighting for rebounds … and by barking like a dog. “If you didn’t want that or you weren’t in the mood, you get away from JYD ’cause he’s not going to calm down,” Sportsnet analyst and former Raptors guard Alvin Williams says. The shenanigans weren’t always appreciated by the veterans, but over the course of an 82-game season, there would be times when you needed a lift.

“As long as [Barnes] is out there doing what he’s doing, performing-wise, everyone’s going to have to fall in line or adjust to him,” Williams says. “Because that’s the personality he has and that’s what he brings to a team.”

Barnes might be the only player in NBA history who invites comparisons to both the Junk Yard Dog and the Greek Freak. He will happily come off the bench, and he will tell you that he wants to make the Hall of Fame. For the Raptors, he’s a center and a point guard, a featured scorer and a connector, depending on which game — or even which possession — you happen to be watching. When he says that he tries “to help the team in any way,” he actually means any way. 

“I don’t want to sound like a philosopher, [but Barnes] understands more than most kids the extrinsic stuff that goes on in the game,” says USA Basketball’s Don Showalter, who coached him with the U16 team, the U17 team and at three minicamps. “What goes into making Magic Johnson who he is? Well, it’s his smile, it’s the way he plays, it’s having fun. And so Scottie’s no dummy. He’s figured that out quite a while ago, that he could be that same type of guy. Not only how he approaches the game, but how he makes everybody else feel.”

The city of Toronto fell for Barnes immediately. “Anywhere he goes, people are running up on him, wanting autographs,” Jordan says. “He can barely go to the movies, grocery stores.” Williams, a fan favorite in the Vince Carter era, sees it as a right-place, right-time situation.

When Williams played, he felt that Toronto fans gravitated toward toughness above all else. Now that the Raptors have won a championship and produced stars, “you gotta bring some skill with it as well. You gotta bring some talent. And it has to result into wins.” In Williams’ view, Barnes has “every trait that you want” from someone who could be a “megastar.” 

“And,” he says, “he’s out there playing his butt off every night.”

At Toronto’s team hotel in Minneapolis, Miller told Barnes how much he enjoys watching him play with the same “childish energy” that he had in high school. In response, “he just laughed,” Miller says. “It put that big grin on his face.” 

Miller is convinced that, after Barnes retires, he’ll be a great coach. 

“I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that,” he says. “But I think it’s clear when you look at him and his desire to be on the floor. He loves being in the gym. He loves helping others. And that usually spells a future of a coach.” 

Is Barnes like a kid in a candy store? Yes. Has he had a strong sense of purpose and conviction about his ability since his high school days? Also yes. Looking back on those clutch free throws in Indiana, Barnes gives the booing Pacers fans a nod for “trying to be loud” and putting forth their best effort. “It really just made me laugh,” Barnes says, because he knew he was going to knock them down.

“I’m at the free-throw line,” he says, “and in my head I’m just like, ‘This is what I want.'”