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Barnes’ third-year development helps take sting out of Raptors’ lost season

Tyus Jones Scottie Barnes Washington Wizards Toronto Raptors Tyus Jones Scottie Barnes - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The low point of Scottie Barnes’ dazzling third season isn’t what you think it is.

It wasn’t the scrutiny he faced for leaving the court early during a bad mid-February loss to San Antonio, or the backlash he received for his less-than-convincing apology the day after. It didn’t come in any of the Raptors’ 57 losses – the most the team had suffered since 2011, when Barnes was in grade school.

It wasn’t the freak play that saw a teammate inadvertently kick his left hand on a shot contest at the rim, which broke a bone in his middle finger, ultimately requiring surgery and ending his breakout campaign after just 60 games.

Asked for the most challenging part of his 2023-24 season the day after it came to an end, Barnes cited the trades. There were four of them in a six-week span between the turn of the calendar and the February deadline that saw the team overhaul more than half its roster and move on from a couple of franchise cornerstones, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.

In a world void of human emotion, Barnes could have looked at those deals as a personal victory. After all, they were made with him and his development in mind. If not for his rapid ascension, the organization may not have felt comfortable veering away from its championship past and towards a future centred on the talented but still maturing 22-year-old.

It was a changing of the guard, a passing of the torch, the moment when he was unofficially anointed the face of the franchise, but he wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. Eventually, every player comes to the realization that the NBA isn’t just basketball; it’s a business and it can sometimes be an unforgiving one. For Barnes, that was one of those times.

“Those are the guys I came into the league with, that I played with,” he said on Monday. “It was hard to say bye to those guys.”

“I think that was the hardest [part of the season], getting through it, managing my emotions through it and growing from it.”

Toronto’s disappointing season came to a merciful conclusion with Sunday afternoon’s loss to Miami – its 19th over the final 21 games – but if you’re looking for a silver lining, you needn’t look too far. It’s been more than six weeks since Barnes played his last game – a March 1 loss to Golden State – but, prior to his injury, the Raptors’ rising star had been a revelation.

In the history of the league, there are only three players who have averaged more than 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists with at least one steal, one block and one made three-pointer per game: Larry Bird, LeBron James and Barnes. The other two players – a hall-of-famer and a future hall-of-famer with seven championships and seven MVP awards between them – did it at the ages of 34 and 37, respectively. Barnes is 22, a first-time all-star, and a player who’s only starting to scratch the surface of his potential.

“I played against Scottie when I was younger,” said one of his newer teammates, RJ Barrett. “But seeing it up close and personal every day, it’s amazing what he does. He does everything.”

“I think what fans can’t really see is just his personality and how good of a teammate he is, how much he cares about basketball and about winning. That stuff is good to see.”

What did Kelly Olynyk – who came to the Raptors at the deadline – learn about Barnes during their brief time playing together?

“I learned he has fragile hands,” the veteran big man joked.

“He’s an elite player in this league for a reason. He’s an all-star. He really has a pass-first mentality. He makes everybody better. He can shoot, pass, dribble with both hands, get to the rim, rebound. He does a lot on the floor, on both ends of the floor. And then he’s starting to become a vocal leader and continue to grow in that sense, even since I first got here. I’m just excited to see his development.”

Consider where he was at this time a year ago – lamenting an underwhelming follow-up to his impressive Rookie of the Year debut. If the biggest takeaway from his sub-par sophomore season was that he needed to work harder to be great, the lesson coming out of year three is that great is no longer good enough. For the Raptors to emerge from their rebuilding cocoon and blossom into a contender, they need him to be something more. The most encouraging thing to come out of Monday’s annual season-ending media availabilities was that Barnes seemed to understand that, or at least he’s starting to.

Most of Barnes’ third-year growing pains came after Siakam was sent to Indiana in January, as he went through a crash course on what it takes to lead an NBA team, on and off the court. To little surprise, there were ups and downs as he adjusted to increased attention from opposing defences, the media demands associated with being a franchise player, and his new and in some cases younger teammates looking to him for guidance and to set an example in every game, on every possession.

More concerning than cameras showing him walking to the locker room with a few seconds left in that Spurs game, more troublesome than his reluctance to acknowledge that it was a bad look, was the degree to which he swatted away questions about being the leader of this young franchise.

“There are a lot of leaders on this team,” he insisted at the time, which is technically correct but not exactly what you want to hear from the club’s best and most important player.

It’s unfortunate that Barnes’ injury didn’t allow for him to close out the season and get additional reps as team’s offensive focal point, while building chemistry with the newcomers, Barrett and Immanuel Quickley in particular. However, if sitting out the final 22 games gave him the opportunity to step back and see the game from a different perspective, he – and the organization – may end up being better for it.

Admittedly, watching the team go 3-19 in his absence without being able to contribute on the floor was frustrating for him, but he made the most of the experience. He used it to find other ways to support his teammates – he was often the most vocal player on the bench or in huddles – while studying the impact of his most venerable peer, Garrett Temple.

“Just being there every day sitting next to [Temple], picking his [brain], watching the way he handles things,” Barnes said of the 14-year vet, who – at the age of 37 – is regarded as one of the league’s most respected leaders and professionals. “For me, just sitting back and watching that, I just can’t wait to get back on the floor and play my heart out.”

“It’s helped me [get more comfortable] in the leadership role. I used to have to think about things to say [in the huddle or in the locker room], but it all comes so naturally [now]. Every timeout you see me cheering, hyping the guys up, telling these guys things what I see from my point of view, just being that vocal leader.”

Fortunately, Barnes won’t be restricted to the sidelines for much longer. He’s been ramping up his rehab for the past couple of weeks, dribbling and shooting with his surgically repaired left hand. All indications are that he may have been able to return for a game or two if the Raptors were playing for something at the end of the season. Instead, they opted to err on the side of caution and ensure that he won’t be limited at all this summer. Given how important the off-season will be for his continued development, that seems like the prudent decision.

That he’s likely to be offered and sign his maximum rookie scale contract extension – worth 30 per cent of the cap, or north of $250 million over five years – when he first becomes eligible in the fall will only heighten the expectations, and the pressure that comes with it. But if he can take another step forward going into next season, while also implementing his growth as a leader, we just might be looking at a player on the fast track to superstardom.