Scottie Barnes Might Be the Rookie of the Year — and Toronto Raptors Fans Have Masai Ujiri to Thank for it

When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver strode to the podium last summer to announce the No. 4 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, the consensus was that the Toronto Raptors would select Jalen Suggs and not relative unknown Scottie Barnes. After all, Suggs was the hero of Gonzaga’s run to the NCAA Tournament Championship Game, and Barnes was but a bit player at Florida State.

When Toronto brazenly did pass on Suggs and pick Barnes, the Raptors’ fan base — one of the most passionate and well-informed groups in the NBA — went predictably nuclear and had so many questions. How could the franchise not address its lack of wing scoring by picking Suggs? How could the Raptors select a seemingly position-less forward who played just 23.8 minutes a game in Florida State’s platoon system? How would Barnes ever see playing time on a roster already with similarly long and lanky forwards Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby?

As it turns out, there is a moral to this story: Never, ever doubt the expertise of Toronto President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri, who just might have snagged the NBA’s Rookie of the Year for the Raptors.

Just 20 years old, Barnes has already shown why he might be the runaway winner of the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award

Just as Ujiri was right to deal beloved Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan away for one season of Kawahi Leonard (see: 2019 NBA champions) and hire Nick Nurse as head coach (also see: 2019 NBA champions) years earlier, he was right on the money in selecting the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Barnes.

The do-everything forward has already validated his lofty draft position and drawn some incredible praise from Brooklyn Nets’ superstar Kevin Durant. Then, there’s also this: Barnes was so dominant early in the season — even while maintaining a team-first type of approach — that he evoked comparisons to another Scottie.

As in, Hall of Famer and six-time champion Scottie Pippen.

For a franchise that has lost Kyle Lowry, DeRozan, and Leonard in recent years, Barnes has given the Raptors the belief that they might have found their next cornerstone player. Also, the Raptors might avoid the pain and suffering that usually comes with an extended re-tooling of the roster with the multi-skilled Barnes in the mix.

To this point, Barnes has kept the injury-and-illness-riddled Raptors (16-17 through Jan. 3) afloat by stuffing stats sheets nightly with 15.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.0 blocks. He’s already had seven 20-point scoring nights, five double-doubles, and two games in which he registered at least 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists.

He wasted no time proving he was ready for the NBA. He gashed the Boston Celtics for 25 points and 13 rebounds in just his second NBA game. Five days later, he carved up the Indiana Pacers for 18 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists, and he outplayed Suggs (21 points and nine rebounds) on Oct. 29.

Proving his hot start (18.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG, and 2.0 APG in October) was no fluke, he closed 2021 with another stellar month (16.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG, and 3.7 APG in December).

Barnes’ IQ, love for the game drawing extremely high praise from Durant

To prove just how much progress Barnes has made this season — and why he is the leading candidate to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award — compare what he did in two games against Durant and the Nets.

The first time Barnes played against Durant — a daunting task, for sure, for a wide-eyed 20-year-old who grew up idolizing the two-time champion — he fell a bit flat and played passively. Barnes racked up seven rebounds, four assists, and five steals, but he wasn’t nearly aggressive enough and scored just eight points — one of just two games this season in which he failed to crack double digits in scoring.

In the rematch in Brooklyn on Dec. 14, Barnes showed out in front of Durant. Time and time again, he matched Durant shot for shot and showed zero fear in the white-hot glare of the big moment. That night, Barnes finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, and three made 3-pointers.

Durant already likes everything he’s seen from Barnes and thinks the rookie is on a collision course with greatness.

“You’ve got a lot of guys who love to compete and love to win, but what’s more rare about Scottie Barnes is his IQ for the game, his length, his enthusiasm for the game,” Durant said in his postgame news conference. “All of that stuff shines bright when you watch him play. You can tell he wants to be there for his teammates, and he makes winning basketball plays.”

Speaking of winning, Barnes is the odds-on pick to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year because of how he stacks up among his peers. As of Jan. 3, he ranked second in scoring, second in rebounding, fifth in assists, third in steals, and tied for second in blocked shots.

Surprisingly, Orlando rookie Franz Wagner — and not the injured Suggs — leads all rookies in scoring (15.7 PPG) thanks to his recent 38-point effort against the Milwaukee Bucks. As for Suggs — the player many Raptors fans wanted drafted fourth overall — he struggled mightily with his shooting and hasn’t played since Nov. 29 because of a fractured right thumb after being whacked across the hand by Philadelphia center Joel Embiid on a drive to the hoop.

Barnes’ emergence is allowing the Raptors to look like Ujiri envisioned before the NBA Draft

When the Raptors selected Barnes, fans were right to wonder how the South Florida native with the big smile would ever see the floor with Siakam and Anunoby already on the roster. However, that wasn’t an issue early on when Siakam missed 13 games while recovering from labrum surgery and Anunoby missed 15 games with a hip pointer. Expected to be eased into the rotation this season, Barnes instead took advantage of the opportunities provided by those absences, proved himself ready, and carved out a solid role on the squad.

Ujiri, who has long been considered the most important decision-maker in the Toronto franchise, envisioned a time when the Raptors could throw a small-ball lineup at foes that featured all three tough and long-armed forwards playing simultaneously. The idea was to have several position-less players capable of guarding all types of players on the court together to make life miserable for foes trying to score.

That was the case on Sunday when Siakam (35 minutes), Anunoby (30 minutes), and Barnes (30 minutes) all started and smothered the New York Knicks to the tune of 44% shooting. Not only did Barnes have 13 points, four rebounds, a steal, and a block for the Raptors in their 120-105 win, but the squad was also incredibly a plus-19 on the scoreboard when the No. 4 overall pick was on the floor.

Again, the moral of the story is this: Raptors fans should never doubt Ujiri when he makes a personnel decision. After all, his latest pick already has the look of being the 2022 NBA Rookie of the Year.

Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com

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