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Barnes to lead Raptors into post-Siakam era as face of franchise

Scottie Barnes Toronto Raptors Scottie Barnes - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The Raptors always felt pretty sure about Scottie Barnes, even when they weren’t completely sure.

Some clear red flags popped up after the talented youngster followed a near flawless Rookie of the Year campaign with an underwhelming second season.

Internally, there were questions about his off-season training. Was he working hard or smart enough? There were some questions about his conditioning coming into training camp ahead of that 2022-23 season, and then some more about his effort and focus as the year went on. Was he giving it his all every night – and not just for some of the game, but for all or most of it?

The organization chalked it up to the typical growing pains that most young players experience at some point or another early in their NBA careers. There’s a learning curve to this brutally tough league (and business), and development isn’t always linear. They understood that and weren’t too deterred by his sophomore slump – they declined to include him in trade offers for Damian Lillard this past summer, just like he was off limits in talks for Kevin Durant the summer before that.

They saw his star potential, and perhaps superstar potential; that’s why they selected him fourth overall in 2021, shocking people who expected them to take projected top-four pick Jalen Suggs in that spot. With a little lottery luck, the Tampa Tank put them in a position to add a franchise-altering talent through the draft, and they believed Barnes would be the guy to carry them into the next era.

But as long as Pascal Siakam was around they had a hedge. If Barnes didn’t develop as quickly or as fully as they hoped, they had the option to stay the course. They could always continue trying to maximize Siakam’s prime years, while allowing their prized prospect to grow at his own pace and in the shadow of a multi-time all-star and All-NBA player before the inevitable changing of the guard.

Barnes’ third-year ascension, coupled with Siakam’s pending free agency and lofty contract demands sped up that timeline. After more than a year’s worth of speculation, Siakam was finally traded on Wednesday. Toronto sent its leading scorer and the last remaining piece of its 2019 championship core to Indiana for a package featuring three future first-round picks, ultimately and officially clearing the way for the 22-year-old Barnes to take his place as the undeniable face of the franchise.

“I wish I could have predicted this jump, maybe, better,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said during an emotional, hour-long press conference on Thursday. “I’ve always believed in him. You guys know I believed in him in the draft. We believed in him, as a team. And this jump has been a good learning experience for me because I feel there are many things that you can put around him.”

Moving on from Siakam had to be difficult for Ujiri; you could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice on Thursday. Ujiri drafted the forward and had a front row seat for one of the best and most unlikely success stories in recent memory. But from a basketball perspective, Barnes’ emergence made the decision easier and, arguably, necessary.

Through the first half of the season, Barnes is one of six players averaging at least 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists. The others – Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Domantas Sabonis and Luka Doncic – are all perennial all-stars and MVP candidates. He’s the only player in the NBA with at least 50 steals and 50 blocks. While the three-point shooting has tailed off a bit recently, his improved jumper may be the most impressive thing about his season to date – he’s hit 37 per cent of his attempts from beyond the arc, up from 28 per cent a year ago.

By design, Barnes has been given more opportunities to handle the ball and make plays under first-year head coach Darko Rajakovic. The new play style, which transitioned away from the isolation-heavy offence of past seasons and towards a more free-flowing system, forced Siakam to adapt his role and often defer to Barnes.

“He was open to it and he allowed it to happen,” Barnes said of his now former teammate, who remained a consummate professional up until the very end of his Raptors tenure. “Him being here for a while and doing the things that he’s done, it’s hard for players to do that but he was open to it and allowed it.”

The writing was on the wall. Fred VanVleet saw it and so did Siakam. Ideally, the passing of the torch would have been more seamless and felt less forced.

 “I think we already knew that,” said Barnes, asked about inheriting the reins in the wake of Siakam’s departure. “We already discussed that and it was already out there.”

There was a mutual respect between the two players, even a fondness, but it did make for a bit of an awkward dynamic. Siakam had the track record, the history with the team and the city, and was making more money than anybody else in the room, which are generally the prerequisites for being considered a franchise player in the NBA. But he knew where he stood, even if – until recently – nobody wanted to say it aloud. The future belonged to Barnes; it was just a question of how soon it would come.

Well, it’s here. Is Barnes ready for that responsibility and all that it entails?

“I don’t know if he is ready for that responsibility but we have to put him in [that] position,” Ujiri said. “We have to put him in position to at least grow and start to see dividends of the work he is putting in, to become that kind of player. And I think we have seen it.”

“That’s the hardest thing is to find that exact type of player that has that basketball IQ, that has that size, that develops his shooting, has the charisma, has the character to become that player.”

Barnes checks off all those boxes, as well as a few others, but becoming the guy on a team at this level is never an easy transition – not for any player, let alone a 22 year old in his third season as a professional.

There’s nowhere to hide. He won’t have Siakam to take the pressure off him offensively, where he’ll be the focus of the opposition’s scouting report each night, and he won’t have OG Anunoby to take pressure off him on defence, where he’ll regularly be tasked with guarding the other team’s best player, regardless of position.

Siakam was never the most vocal player in the locker room but he understood what it meant to represent the organization, whether that was through his charitable efforts in the community, the example he set with his work ethic, or standing up in front of the media and taking accountability after a bad loss. Those are the less glamorous parts of the job but they are part of the job, and now, that falls on Barnes.

“There’s going to be ups and downs,” Rajakovic said. “There’s going to be good moments. There’s going to be bad moments. There’s going to be moments [where] we are looking at him and thinking that he's a prodigy, and there's going to be nights like, 'What are you doing?' All of that is OK. All of that is a part of learning and getting better.”

While the Raptors started off the post-Siakam era with an impressive wire-to-wire win over Miami on Wednesday, Barnes’ night felt a bit too familiar – a slow start and passive through stretches before kicking it into high gear in the fourth quarter. It’s something we saw too often last season, showing that he’s capable of taking over games when he’s fully locked in but waiting too long to do it. That’s been less of a concern this season, as Barnes’ improved conditioning has allowed him to play harder for longer stretches.

Thursday’s outing was far more complete. As a team, Toronto wasn’t nearly as sharp against the Bulls, but Barnes carried them early – he had eight points during a first quarter that saw the club miss all nine of its three-point attempts – and then nearly led the comeback efforts with another strong fourth quarter. Barnes scored 16 of his game-high 31 points over the final 14 minutes, as the Raptors erased a 14-point deficit. However, he committed a couple turnovers inside of the final two minutes, including dribbling the ball off his foot with 40 seconds left, sealing the win for Chicago.

“The goal is to help Scottie improve and get better every single day, every single night as a leader, as a franchise player and to build a roster around him that's going to help him to grow,” Rajakovic said.

Therein lies the challenge for Ujiri and the Raptors’ front office. The plan was to retool the roster around Barnes, bringing in players that would fit his timeline and complement his unique skill set. The Anunoby deal – which brought back Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett, a pair of dynamic players in their early-to-mid 20s – was a promising step in that regard. But with the return for Siakam centred on draft capital, this is looking more like a rebuild than a retool.

“It’s going to take time,” Ujiri said. “I don’t know [whether] to call this a rebuild or a reset, but a normal rebuild with other teams takes 5-6 years. Do we have the patience for that? Do we have the patience for 3-5 years of building? Someway, somehow we’re going to [need] to have patience. I am patient, maybe to a fault. I was patient with that team last year because I believe in them, I believed in those players and what they brought. But now we have to look to the future.”

The hope was to remain competitive during Barnes’ formative years as an NBA player, get him valuable reps in high leverage games, and then be ready to contend by the time he hits his prime. At this point, that feels like wishful thinking. This Raptors team is 10 games under .500 just past the midway point of the season, and they’ve had Siakam (an all-star) and Anunoby (an all-league defender) for most it.

The word flexibility came up once or twice – or 20 times – in Ujiri’s Thursday afternoon press conference. This is a front office that has always valued flexibility and this might be the most they’ve had. Not having to pay Siakam and Anunoby max or near max money over the summer helps, as does their suddenly restocked collection of picks.

Whether they’re successful in using their newfound flexibility to build the right team around Barnes and how the Raptors’ rising star takes to his mantle as the face of the franchise should ultimately determine how long and painful the rebuild will be.