When the Toronto Raptors selected forward Scottie Barnes with the fourth pick in the 2021 NBA draft, some people in the basketball world were shocked. Jalen Suggs, considered one of the must-see prospects, was still on the board.
A regular season later, the Raptors seem prophetic. Barnes, 20, is one of the top contenders for the Rookie of the Year Award. He has drawn comparisons to Vince Carter and Damon Stoudamire, the two Raptors who have been named rookie of the year.
“I had never actually been to Toronto,” Barnes told The New York Times recently. “I never thought of being in Toronto. It was just never a thought on my mind. It’s not as different as I thought it would be. The only thing that’s different is the weather, because I’m from Florida.”
At his best, the 6-foot-9 Barnes is a versatile dynamo with a game similar to, but much less refined than, that of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. This season, Barnes started all 74 games he played, averaging 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game on 49.2 percent shooting. In the blink of an eye, he can speed the ball up the court like a near point guard. In another, he attacks the rim for thunderous dunks. Raptors coach Nick Nurse has often had Barnes defend top players, including Kevin Durant and Luka Doncic.
Now, he’s key to Toronto’s championship hopes. He fits the mold of the players who helped the Raptors win the franchise’s first title, in 2019, general manager Bobby Webster said.
“These really versatile, long forwards who can do a lot are hard to come by,” he said. “And if they get it right, they can be really valuable and productive players.”
The question mark for Barnes is his long range shot. He shot just 30.1 percent of his 3-pointers during the regular season, and even that was an improvement over his only year at Florida State University, where he shot 27.5 percent from the line of three.
Barnes, who grew up in West Palm Beach, Florida, helped the Raptors claim the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and a matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. During Game 1 on Saturday, Barnes was tasked with trying to contain James Harden, but he left the game with an ankle injury and was out for Game 2 on Monday. Toronto missed out on Barnes’ defense and energy, losing in a 112-97 blowout to fall to 0-2 in the series. Game 3 is Wednesday and it’s unclear if Barnes will be able to play.
In an interview with The Times before the playoffs, Barnes discussed the strong start to his career, his confidence level and his campaign for the Rookie of the Year Award.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
At the time, it was considered quite surprising that the Raptors chose him No. 4 in the draft. What went through your head when your name was announced?
Even during the whole pre-draft process, I really went in with no expectations. Really, not paying attention. I really wasn’t worrying about things I couldn’t control. So I really went there and I went wherever I went. So when they called my name, I was very excited, very happy. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, so I didn’t really have any expectations. So I was just a big burst of emotion.
What do you remember from your pre-draft conversations with Raptors president Masai Ujiri?
He is a great person to win. Just winning, winning, winning. So, I am also a great person to win. So actually, it was as if we both had a common mind.
What has been the hardest thing about jumping into the NBA so far?
Either traveling so much or just adjusting to, like, the umpires and really how they call the game.
When you have free time, what do you like to do?
Just relax in the crib and play video games.
What are you playing now?
Play NBA 2K. Obligations. Fortnite.
When you play 2K, do you play as the Raptors?
I don’t really play in teams. I usually play in create a player mode.
What was your favorite moment from the regular season?
So one of our favorite games played this year was probably with the Brooklyn Nets. K.D. [Kevin Durant] and james [Harden]. I think it was at her house, but we lost. But it was an interesting game. There was a lot of trash talk involved. So it made it more fun. There were trash comments, and we responded with trash comments, and it was amazing. It was going down to the cable, going back and forth, back and forth. But I would say it was a great game.
Do you talk trash on the floor?
Sometimes. Not so much, but only sometimes I will. But I won’t say much here.
LeBron James said he was looking at you play in seventh grade. Did you know that until he said that recently?
I don’t remember him saying it. He sounds great, but I know he saw me in the 10th or 9th grade when I was playing for Zaire, Dwyane Wade’s son. He and Dwyane Wade were on the court watching our games. I hit a game winner and slapped him and D-Wade. I was excited and went to the sideline and shot D-Wade and Bron’s hand after the game because I just rang a buzzer. But seeing those guys say those things about me shows that people see that potential in me of what I can do.
Were you one of the popular kids in school? As you were?
I was always an outgoing guy. I’m not saying he was that popular, but, you know, he had that core, that little swagger.. I was very talkative, a child with a lot of energy. So I’d say he had a fair amount of friends. I was always like one of those funny kids in class.
There are a lot of comparisons between your impact as a rookie and that of Vince Carter and Damon Stoudamire. Have you ever talked to Vince Carter?
I actually did. I saw him at one of our games this year and reached out to him. I said, “What’s up?” We really couldn’t have that much conversation. I actually saw Damon Stoudamire in the mall in Boston and we chatted for a bit. She walked over to him. He recognized it. And I started talking to him.
What kind of impact do you hope to leave on the league?
In this league, I would say that I want, of course, to win the rookie of the year award this year. Being on the All-Defensive team, several times. Be a Future MVP Be a Finals MVP Be a multiple time NBA Finals Champion. Of course, being an All-Star multiple times. Really, leave that legacy. that I was just a great all-around player.
Is there something that makes you be the rookie of the year above the other candidates?
Really doing so many different kinds of things, and being that versatile player that’s making a big impact on our team, really winning basketball games.