Barnes is a finalist for the Rookie of the Year Award. But he has bigger aspirations than that, starting with winning a championship this year.
When the Toronto Raptors selected forward Scottie Barnes with the fourth pick of the 2021 N.B.A. draft, some people in the basketball world raised their eyebrows. Jalen Suggs, considered one of the can’t-miss prospects, was still on the board.
One regular season later, the Raptors look prescient. The 20-year-old Barnes is a top contender for the Rookie of the Year Award. He’s evoked comparisons to Vince Carter and Damon Stoudamire, the two Raptors who have been named rookie of the year.
“I had actually never been to Toronto,” Barnes told The New York Times recently. “I never even thought of being in Toronto. It was just never a thought in my mind. It’s not as different as I thought it would be. The only thing that is different is just that 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 of the games he played in, averaging 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game on 49.2 percent shooting. In one blink, he can speed the ball up court as a quasi-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 a key to Toronto’s hopes to win the championship. 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 kind of versatile, long forwards that can do a bunch are just hard to come by,” he said. “And if they hit, they can be really valuable and productive players.”
The question mark for Barnes is his long-range shooting. He hit just 30.1 percent of his 3-pointers during the regular season, and even that was an improvement on his lone year at Florida State University, where he shot 27.5 percent from 3.
Barnes, who grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla., 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 given the task of trying to contain James Harden, but he left the game with an ankle injury and was out for Game 2 on Monday. Toronto missed Barnes’s defense and energy, and lost in a 112-97 blowout to fall to 0-2 in the series. Game 3 is Wednesday, and it’s not clear 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.
It was considered pretty surprising at the time that the Raptors picked you at No. 4 in the draft. What ran through your head when your name was announced?
Even throughout the whole predraft process, I really just went in with no expectation. Really, paying no mind. I really was just not worrying about things that I couldn’t control. So I really just went there and just was me wherever I went. So going into that when they said my name, I was just really excited, really happy. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, so I didn’t really have any expectation. So I was just a huge burst of excitement.
What do you remember about your predraft conversations with Raptors president Masai Ujiri?
He is a big person on winning. Just winning, winning, winning. So, me, I’m a big person on winning, too. So, really, it was just like, we just both really had a mutual mind.
What’s been the hardest thing about jumping to the N.B.A. so far?
Either traveling as much or just adjusting to, like, the refs and really how they call the game.
When you have free time, what do you like to do?
Just chill at the crib and play video games.
What are you playing right now?
Play NBA 2K. Call of Duty. Fortnite.
When you play 2K, do you play as the Raptors?
I don’t really play as teams. I usually play a create-a-player mode.
What was your favorite moment of 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 their house, but we lost. But it was an interesting game. There was a lot of trash talk being involved. So it made it more fun. There was trash talking, and we were trash-talking back, and it was awesome. It was going down to the wire, going back and forth, back and forth. But I would say it was a great game.
Do you trash-talk on the floor?
Sometimes. Not as much, but only sometimes I will. But I won’t say so much out here.
LeBron James said he watched you play in seventh grade. Did you know that until he said that recently?
I don’t remember him saying it. It sounds great, but I know he watched me in 10th or ninth grade year when I played with Zaire — Dwyane Wade’s son. Him and Dwyane Wade were courtside watching our games. I hit a game-winner and I clapped him and D-Wade up. I was hype and I went to the sideline and sniped D-Wade and Bron’s hand after the game because I just hit a buzzer-beater. But to see those guys just say those things about me, it shows that people see that potential in me of what I can do.
Were you one of the popular kids in school? What were you like?
I was always an outgoing kid. Not saying I was so popular, but, you know, I had that core, that little swagger. I was very talkative, a kid with a lot of energy. So I would say I had a good 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 Vince Carter’s and Damon Stoudamire’s. Have you ever spoken to Vince Carter at all?
I actually did. I saw him at one of our games this year and I went up to him. I said, “What’s up?” We really couldn’t have that much conversation. I actually saw Damon Stoudamire at the mall in Boston, and we chatted it up for a little while. Went up to him. Recognized him. And I just started talking to him.
What kind of impact are you hoping to leave in the league?
In this league, I would say I want to, of course, win rookie of the year this year. Be on the All-Defensive team, multiple times. Be a future M.V.P. Be a finals M.V.P. Be a finals N.B.A. champion multiple times. Of course, be a multiple-time All-Star. Really, just leave that legacy. that I was just a great all-around player.
Is there something that makes you rookie of the year over the other candidates?
Really just doing so many different types of things, and being that versatile player that’s just having a big impact on our team really winning basketball games.