During the third quarter of a meaningless preseason game between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers on October 4, Scottie Barnes was hyped. The Sixers had just picked up their second delay of game penalty of the evening, sending the Raptors to the line for a free throw. Despite already leading by 22 points, Barnes could be seen clapping his big hands and 7-foot-3 wingspan together as he let out a scream heard in the rafters of Scotiabank Arena.
Raptors’ fans who have gotten to observe Barnes since the team drafted him No. 4 overall in the 2021 NBA draft have gotten to know that that’s just who he is: an incredibly entertaining, hyper-focused, high-motor, maniacally-competitive 20-year-old who puts winning above all else. Individually, Barnes is averaging 16.6 points and 8.7 rebounds on 52.4 percent shooting through 9 games—leading all rookies in each category—putting himself in historically elite company.
But when it comes to his competitive edge, Barnes stands alone. He possesses a unique desire to do anything it takes to help his team win and the confidence to get it done regardless of his youth and inexperience.
“The passion for the game, winning: when you look at the levels he’s played at for USA Basketball—whether it’s U16, U18—he’s won at every level,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said about Barnes, who has three FIBA gold medals and two high school state championships to his name. “It’s crazy: You interview a guy like that and he mentions ‘winning’ or ‘win’ 34 times in one interview. All he talks about is winning. And this is what we wanted to bring [to Toronto].”
So, where does Barnes’ competitiveness come from? Growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida, Barnes had two brothers (and a sister)—one older and one younger—and they challenged each other everywhere they went.
“I was always real competitive,” Barnes tells Complex Canada. “Growing up I had two brothers, and we just always wanted to be better than each other. We always just tried to compete and do things against each other.”
"As a kid I just wanted to beat other people. No matter what it was in." - Scottie Barnes
Barnes said they used to race friends at recess and on school trips, seeing who was the fastest kid of the bunch. Then, in the first or second grade, Barnes saw his big brother play basketball, and it changed everything for him.
“I just wanted to be better than him,” Barnes said. “Even when we went to school, go to the playground during recess, there used to be other good kids that played ball… As a kid I just wanted to beat other people. No matter what it was in.
“So, it started when I was really young.”
Of course, being that competitive can get you in trouble at times. We all have that friend that takes card games too seriously or tries too hard in pickup ball, and from early on in his life, Scottie Barnes was that person.
“In street ball a couple times, you know, I was just talking trash and other people got mad. And then stuff happens,” Barnes says with a smirk on his face as he hangs from a net in the Raptors’ practice facility, likely referencing the runs he and his brother would frequent at Salvation Army. “But that’s what makes you tough in life.”
Now, that competitiveness comes out when Barnes plays NBA 2K or Madden NFL against his friends; it stands out at the carnival when he plays childhood games against his teammates; and most importantly for the Raptors, it stands out on the basketball court, where Barnes has made a name for himself early in his career not necessarily by being the most polished player on the floor, but by being the most competitive and tough, doing all the little things it takes to win basketball games; things that only someone as smart and passionate as Barnes would think of doing.
“I mean, it’s what separates him and I think it’s what allows him to have such an impact so quickly,” Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of Barnes’ competitiveness. “You could feel it when we had our pre-draft interview with him in Chicago, and the conversation that we had with him, you could feel it when he walked in the room that he was a difference-maker. He just had that type of energy and passion about him.”
“I don’t think I had that much energy, man. I just think that is how he plays. It’s fun to watch." - Pascal Siakam
“He loves to play. I think that he likes to play both ends. He likes to get on the glass and take it to the rim. There are all kinds of competitive components to his game,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of Barnes. “I think that’s it, really. He just has a passion for playing and making winning plays. He’s super unselfish. He’ll do anything he can to make a winning play at either end, and obviously that usually carries over to other guys.”
Like many players on the 2021-22 Raptors, Barnes plays with a high level of effort, running up and down the floor with his long strides and hiked-up shorts. He blocks shots and snatches steals on one end and throws down ravenous dunks on the other. He never gives up on the play, with 13.1 percent of his offence coming on put-backs as he grabs 7.6 percent of the team’s total offensive rebounds, using his overpowering size, strength, hops, and timing to dominate in the paint, where he is shooting 71.0 percent at the rim. Even when he’s on the bench, Barnes is constantly on his feet cheering on his teammates.
“I don’t think I had that much energy, man. I just think that is how he plays. It’s fun to watch,” Pascal Siakam said of Barnes, who has drawn comparisons to the former All-Star for their similarly high motors coming out of college. “Sometimes I’ll just sit there and wonder: Is that you every day? But it is. He does that but I don’t think I had that level. Maybe on the court I was, but I didn’t scream every play.”
“He plays extremely hard,” Bickerstaff says. “Like, you watch the games and he’s all over the place, he’s not just doing one thing. On both ends of the floor, he’s rebounding, he’s passing, he’s running, he’s challenging shots, he’s all over the floor trying to impact winning… that’s where those guys are extremely unique at their age.”
Other teams have taken notice of Barnes’ competitive edge and his ability to impact the game in numerous ways outside of scoring; things that are historically rare for rookies in the NBA. Canadian basketball legend and Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash called him “a very impressive rookie to be this effective early,” noting his presence and versatility on the defensive end; Nets forward Blake Griffin noted his “hard screens” and “intangibles;” and even Kevin Durant was impressed with the 20-year-old’s advanced style of play.
“What’s rare about Scottie Barnes is his IQ for the game, his length, his enthusiasm for the game. All of that stuff shines bright when you watch him play,” Durant said. “You can tell that he just wants to be there for his teammates and make winning basketball plays. I think a lot of young guys in the league have that competitive fire, but he has something a little extra as far as just seeing a game a little slower. And that’s rare. For a guy, how old is he? 19? 20? Sheesh.
“He knows how to play the right way and he’s only gonna get better.”
Barnes is a big part of the reason the Raptors—who own the league’s 11th best defence—can be so challenging to play against despite being one of the youngest and least experienced teams in the league. Whether it’s a scrimmage in the summer or a meaningless preseason game or a regular season game on Sunday afternoon, Barnes brings an inspiring amount of energy and effort to the court, which has helped him endear himself to his Raptors’ teammates, who clearly enjoy playing with him. As for his opponents, you either match it or go home a loser.
“On the court, you just think he’s crazy,” Golden State Warriors rookie Moses Moody told The Athletic. “My first time really playing against him, he did a close out, he was on the other team, I’m shooting a three. He had his hair going everywhere—that’s when he had his dreads and stuff. He’s coming out screaming. I missed the shot. It’s crazy. I was like, ‘What’s wrong with this dude?’”
Oftentimes, being so competitive can dominate the emotions of young players, making them want to do everything themselves instead of trusting the system and their teammates, or causing them to get too high or too low on themselves throughout a game or a season. But Barnes is different: he plays through it all and stays even-keeled because he understands what it takes to succeed in the greatest basketball league on earth.
There was a moment during the Raptors’ 115-83 win over the rival Boston Celtics on October 22nd when Barnes hit a 20-foot pull-up jumper over Al Horford and immediately looked over to the Celtics bench, mouthing what appeared to be “shut up!” to the group of them.
“They were just saying, ‘Back up. Make him shoot.’ And then I just hit one, put it up, ‘cause I’m not afraid to shoot, so if I’m wide open I’m gonna shoot it…. And I hit one, so I just said a little something,” Barnes says of the episode, noting that it’s rare for him to talk trash these days.
“I don’t really talk so much trash no more. I’m just playing the game trying to win, because at this level, you can’t really take a possession off or get carried away. You just gotta really focus and lock in.”
For someone so young, Barnes displays a lot of maturity, and that is what has allowed him to be one of the most consistent Raptors so far this season, positively affecting the game every time he steps on the court. On top of toning down the trash talk to stay focused, he tries to stay off social media on game days in order to not get “big-headed” or distracted.
After he nearly missed a tip-in at the buzzer in a 102-101 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers recently, Barnes looked upset with himself. So, I asked him, how do you get over a loss like that?
“It wasn’t really tough. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it don’t. We can just learn from each and every game,” Barnes said with the wisdom of a 10-year veteran. “But the good thing about this game and this league is you still got another game. Tomorrow is the next game.
“Just make it up tomorrow.”