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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – The good news, regardless of how you felt about the Raptors’ surprising fourth-overall pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, was that the man sitting next to Bobby Webster as he called it into the league office undoubtedly had a voice in the decision-making process.

Given the player they went off the board to select, one would surmise that his voice was as prominent as ever.

Opting for Florida State forward Scottie Barnes over Gonzaga star Jalen Suggs, who was widely projected to go fourth, may have raised some eyebrows. It was a calculated risk, to be sure, but it was the type of risk that Masai Ujiri loves to take, and with the type of player that he loves to take those risks on.

So, if there was any doubt about the Raptors president and his involvement in team affairs as he navigates contractual limbo, consider Barnes – a long and athletic, high upside, albeit raw, multi-position defender. Sound familiar?

Ujiri has been in hot pursuit of prospects like this since taking the gig atop Toronto’s front office. He was hired in May of 2013. One month later, he tried to acquire a lottery pick in the hopes of landing his target: an intriguing young forward who would turn into two-time MVP, reigning Finals MVP and NBA champion Giannis Antetokounmpo, selected 15th-overall by Milwaukee that year.

He and his front office have spent much of the past eight years chasing the next Antetokounmpo (or in the case of their 2021 free agency aspirations, prior to his extension with the Bucks, chasing the actual Antetokounmpo). It’s yielded hits (Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby) and misses (Bruno Caboclo), but Ujiri’s vision hasn’t wavered.

His view of the modern NBA – in lockstep with Webster, the rest of the front office, and head coach Nick Nurse – is position-less basketball predicated on speed, skill and maximum versatility, primarily on the defensive end. Enter Barnes.

“As we all see and as we all know, the position-less-ness of the NBA now, I don’t think you can have too many of these big, two-way wings,” Webster said following the draft, in which the Raptors also selected Toronto-born guard Dalano Banton, by way of Nebraska, and Louisville point guard David Johnson with the 46th and 47th picks. “So I think from a positional standpoint we don’t really see it as any overlap. We see it as, let’s have all five guys [on the court] look like him and OG and Pascal.”

It’s not hard to see what drew the Raptors to the talented forward. Barnes, who turns 20 on Saturday, has all the tools to be great. He has an NBA-ready body, complete with an enormous 7-foot-2 wingspan. He’s arguably the best defender in this draft class, already, and sees the floor uncommonly well for a player his age and his size. He played point guard in college and can guard or switch onto all five positions.

The knock on him, and the biggest reason why he wasn’t considered to be in this draft’s top tier, is his shooting. He only attempted 40 three-pointers as a freshman with the Seminoles, hitting just 11 of them, and went 62 per cent from the free throw line. But that didn’t deter the Raptors, who are confident in their player development system, and with good reason. Their philosophy is: you can teach shooting, but you can’t teach some of the intangibles that Barnes has.

Equally as important, he’s also got the confidence, ambition and mentality that he’ll need in order to make the requisite tweaks to his game and ultimately justify Toronto’s faith in him.

“If they feel like they need to fix something in [my shot], I’m willing to work with them to try to fix whatever it needs,” Barnes said moments after hearing his name called from the green room in Brooklyn. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to try to be the best player I can be, be great, be at the top of the league, be able to come in day and day out knowing that I’m the best player on the floor. I’m trying to achieve greatness.”

The Raptors scouted Barnes for years, going back to his high school days in Florida, where he won a couple state titles, and with USA Basketball’s junior clubs, where he teamed up with other top prospects from this class to win three World Cup gold medals. However, they got to know him during his visit to Tampa earlier this month. It was more than just a draft workout. It was a chance for player and team to really connect.

“He kind of has a magnetic personality,” said Nurse. “He kind of has a high-energy type of personality even when he’s just sitting around talking… He is a great communicator and he has a passion for being Scottie, being Scottie Barnes.”

“That’s just me being myself,” Barnes said. “I’m always pretty excited to see other people succeed. I like seeing other people be happy. That’s just who I am. I’m a natural leader. I’m a guy who encourages other guys to be better. I like seeing people be great at what they love doing. That’s just who I am, the natural guy that I am. I’m a caring guy, a loving guy. No matter what, I just want to spread love and positivity.”

After the top-three picks went as expected, with Cade Cunningham going to Detroit first-overall, Houston selecting Jalen Green second and Houston taking Evan Mobley third, many figured the Raptors would stick to the script and go with Suggs. For months, this draft was said to feature four elite prospects at the very top, so when Toronto moved up in the lottery, it was supposed to be a straightforward decision: take whichever player falls to you.

But that’s never been how Ujiri, Webster and assistant general manager Dan Tolzman conduct their business on draft night. They don’t follow conventional prospect rankings or try to win the press conference. They do the work, scout and evaluate the players themselves, form their own opinions and create their own projections. The guy they take is the one that they believe will ultimately become the best player.

They’ve taken risks before, but this time it’s different. The opportunity cost of playing it safe is a lot lower when they’re selecting in the latter half of the first round, which was the case when they found Siakam (27th overall in 2016) and Anunoby (23rd in 2017), or struck out on Caboclo (20th in 2013). If it works out, great. If not, it’s a lot easier to live with and recover from the backlash.

In this case, that risk is significant. Passing on Suggs is a bold move. Outside of Cunningham, the 20-year-old point guard may have been the safest pick in the draft. He’s got a well-rounded game that should transition well to the NBA. He’s a fierce competitor and a proven winner. He’s promised to make any team that doesn’t select him regret it, and he’s not the type of guy you’d generally want to bet against.

But Ujiri and company feel that Barnes will be the better player down the line. It probably won’t happen out of the gate. They’ll ease him in, even if the idea of unleashing him alongside Siakam and Anunoby – with all of their length, switch-ability and skill – is tantalizing. Maybe it takes two years for him to blossom, or three, or four. That’s how long we may have to wait to know whether the risk was worth taking.

Until then, and unless we hear otherwise, Ujiri is still around, and with a track record that has far more hits than misses, he and the Raptors have earned the benefit of the doubt. There’s a reason why they rolled the dice. Now let’s see if it pays off.​