Two weeks into the new season, Scottie Barnes looks like a completely different player from the one who stagnated as a sophomore.
Barnes’ 22.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game are all massive jumps from his averages of last year. He also looks much more comfortable as a defender, and his blocks and steals have skyrocketed.
What has driven Barnes’ sudden ascent? A new role is part of it, as is more confidence and some hot shooting luck.
Here’s how much of Barnes’ improvement is for real, and what will probably regress as the season goes on.
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Barnes is getting more opportunities this season to create, and he’s been thriving in them.
Per Cleaning the Glass, his usage (an estimate of how many possessions he uses) has gone up about five percent. His assist percentage, or the percentage of teammates’ made shots that he assisted on, has climbed six percent.
Driving much of Barnes’ offensive improvement is a more accurate shooting stroke. That has always been a big issue for Barnes — he hit just 29.0 percent of his 3s over the course of his first two seasons in the NBA and wasn’t much of a shooter in college either.
So far this season, Barnes is hitting an astounding 42.1 percent of his 3s while almost doubling his attempts from the previous two years. He’s been scorching from midrange as well, hitting 69.2 percent of his long midrangers compared to 36.4 percent over his first two years, per Cleaning The Glass.
Those scalding numbers of course bring up the issue of how real his shooting improvement is. Much of his scoring improvement has come from making those shots, along with taking and making way more above-the-break 3s.
Barnes has only taken 38 3s this season. It’s quite possible to get some great luck in such a small sample, but there are some reasons why that uptick could be sustainable. It looks like he’s changed his form, holding it higher for a quicker release, as pointed out by Raptors Republic’s Samson Folk. And he has looked more confident and willing to let them fly. He had zero hesitation in drilling a pull-up 3 to bring Sunday’s game against the Spurs into overtime, which was a shot that is tough to imagine him taking last season.
If Barnes does make teams respect his jump shot, then he becomes a completely different player. Previously, teams would sag way off of him and wait for him in the paint. Now, there’s no easy way to guard him. He has the strength to put players under the basket with his bully ball style, as he did against Jeremy Sochan on Sunday.
Placing a bigger player on him won’t work anymore either. He can blow by those guys, like he did against Victor Wembanyama on Sunday.
Barnes also looks much more energized and active. He’s been terrific as always on the offensive glass, creating offense for himself and others off misses. Now, he’s putting it all together, finding ways to score or draw advantages for teammates.
Barnes looked lost defensively at times last season, playing all over the floor under Nick Nurse’s hectic system. Nurse had Barnes guarding out on the perimeter as a point-of-attack defender much more frequently than Darko Rajakovic has used him. He looked slow and ineffective in that role. In guarding bigger players, he looks like a dynamic All-Defensive candidate.
Per Cleaning the Glass, Barnes has almost completely stopped being matched up against guards this season. He’s mostly guarding forwards, with the occasional center thrown in from time to time.
Barnes has held up well as a center in those Raptors small ball lineups. There haven’t been a ton of minutes where Rajakovic has deployed him in that manner, but they’ve been some of the most effective units that the team has used.
Barnes has also become a much better weakside rim protector and has been fantastic when recovering out to the perimeter to block jump shots. He’s been great at pressuring the ball to force turnovers on passes and playing those passing lanes to pick off even more steals.
All of that has led to him averaging a stellar 2.1 blocks and 1.1 steals per game. That defensive improvement seems more sustainable than his uptick in shooting, and it’s a testament to Rajakovic fitting him in a much better role than he had previously.