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Raptors miss opportunity to send important message to young leader Barnes


TORONTO – The Raptors didn’t trade their veteran stars and clear the way for Scottie Barnes to become the indisputable face of the franchise because they thought he was ready for it.
That wouldn’t be a fair expectation for a 22-year-old that is still in the process of figuring out what it means to be a leader on and off the court.
They did it because they needed to start getting him ready for that responsibility and everything it entails. It takes time, and there was bound to be some growing pains and hard lessons learned along the way.
A few of those lessons came in a tough loss on Monday night.
Barnes and the Raptors were on the wrong end of an awe-inspiring performance from the San Antonio Spurs' Victor Wembanyama. The long-limbed rookie sensation showed why he’s a generational superstar in the making with a 27-point triple-double, which included 10 blocks (three on Barnes), while the last-place, 11-win Spurs led by as many as 31 points on the way to a dominant wire-to-wire victory.
Outside of the ending to a double-overtime loss in Oklahoma City earlier this month, this was as disengaged as Barnes has looked during his otherwise excellent third NBA season. Guarded by San Antonio’s best defender, sophomore Jeremy Sochan, Barnes went scoreless in the first half, when he committed four of his five turnovers. While he did finish with nine assists and nine rebounds, he scored just seven points – one more than his season-low and four fewer than the Spurs scored off of his turnovers.
His frustration was evident throughout the game. The overall body language wasn’t good. On at least a couple occasions he threw a bad pass, hung his head in disappointment and didn’t get back on defence. Then, with four seconds remaining in the game, the team broadcast showed Barnes leaving the court by himself and getting a head start for the locker room.
To keep things in perspective, this isn’t some egregious sin or anything like that, but it did raise eyebrows inside and outside of the organization. Think of it as an unwritten rule in team sports – you win as a unit and you lose as a unit. Leaving the bench early isn’t a good look for any player, let alone a young team leader.
It’s significant enough that the Raptors felt they needed to take action with a very similar situation a few years back. It was early in the 2020-21 season, when the Raptors were playing in Tampa Bay due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, when Pascal Siakam fouled out of a game against Philadelphia and went straight to the locker room with 26 seconds left. Collectively, team president Masai Ujiri and former head coach Nick Nurse decided to hold him out of the following game against New York.
Siakam, 26 at the time, didn’t take kindly to his benching but it certainly got his attention. Technically it wasn’t a suspension, which would have cost him his pay for the missed game, but it did send a message and set a precedent.
“Just a certain way we want to do things,” Nurse said afterwards. “And everybody’s got to be part of that. It’s as simple as that.”
On Tuesday, first-year head coach Darko Rajakovic indicated that Barnes would not face disciplinary action, which didn’t exactly catch folks around the club by surprise.
“No way,” said one league source familiar with the team dynamic, who was asked about the likelihood of Barnes missing a game as a result of Monday’s incident. “Not a chance.”
The idea that there was a fundamental divide between Toronto’s now former veteran players and Barnes had been overblown. It’s not that there was animosity between them, but there was the feeling that the team’s prized former fourth-overall pick and Rookie of the Year was being treated differently than the other core players, who had to earn their stripes coming in. If anything sowed discord in the locker room over the past couple seasons, it was that. And certainly this won’t help in dispelling the perception that Barnes is being coddled by an organization that has often struggled to keep star players happy during its nearly three decade-long history.
They could’ve at least gotten their stories straight on Tuesday.
Rajakovic chalked Barnes’ early exit up to a lack of awareness, saying that he confused San Antonio’s late-game shot clock violation with the final buzzer.
Barnes’ take on what happened?
“There were like two or three seconds [remaining] and I just left the game,” he explained.
Rajakovic said he met with Barnes before practice and that they spoke about the need to show more awareness in those moments and manage his emotions over the course of the game.
Barnes on that meeting: “We didn’t have no conversation about it… We talked about the game but that was really the primary thing.”
Rajakovic said Barnes was regretful and taking accountability, though that wasn’t exactly reflected in his uncomfortable and barely audible five-minute media availability.
“I guess it was a bad look,” he said after the third follow-up question. “If it affected [my teammates] in any way, it was a mistake by me.”
There’s little doubt that Barnes would have been on the receiving end of some strong words, both from Rajakovic and Ujiri in the aftermath of Monday’s game. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this was a missed opportunity for the organization to send a real message, just like they did with Siakam three years earlier.

You want to be “the guy”? Well, this is what that looks like. It’s all part of the gig: being at the top of the other team’s scouting report and facing the opposition’s best defender every night, taking accountability and fulfilling media obligations after bad games, and through it all, setting a good example and being a good leader.
He’s done that for most of the season, earning him a deserved spot in next week’s All-Star Game, his first of what should be many career selections to come. He did it as recently as Saturday, when he recorded his fourth career triple-double and third of the year in a loss to Cleveland and then earned rave reviews from his coaches and teammates for his leadership. Whenever Barnes came out of the game, he would stand by the bench and direct the defence. It’s as vocal as he’s been on the sidelines.
“I think everybody in the arena could hear him calling [out] coverages and helping teammates,” Rajakovic had said. “He’s doing a really good job in the huddles and especially with new guys trying to talk to them and explain what they need to do, how they need to be positioned, all that kinds of stuff. I think he has those leadership skills and I think they’re right where they need to be for a 22-year-old. I think it’s just going to continue to get better, as well.”
Just four years ago, Barnes was coming off the bench at Florida State. Even during his remarkable rookie season with the Raptors, Nurse and the coaches weren’t calling plays for him; he was the third or fourth option on the floor, at best. Up until recently, he had Siakam to defer to offensively, OG Anunoby to take the toughest defensive assignment, and Fred VanVleet to shield him from having to do media more than once in a blue moon.
This is a new position for him, one that players his age don’t often find themselves in, and it’s going to require a certain amount of patience as he grows into the role.
But no matter how unassuming Barnes is by nature, no matter how selfless he can be as a player or how many times he rightly points out that there’s more than just one leader in the room, this is his team, now and for the foreseeable future. That means there’s nowhere to hide. There are no nights off.

He’s not going to play well every game, and that’s fine, especially at this stage in his career. He can’t always control whether shots go in or out but he can control things like effort, focus and the way in which he carries himself.
“He is learning what kind of effect he has on [the] team and teammates and everybody,” Rajakovic said. “He's going through this for the first time in his life, being the face of a franchise, and he's emotional, but he also needs to learn how to channel those emotions.”
“This is another great learning opportunity for him. That doesn't mean it's never going to happen again, but I believe that there's going to be less and less and much better handling [of] those situations going forward.”