That is to say, not particularly stalwart. The effort was almost always there, but he was getting blown by on the perimeter by shifty guards and pounded in the paint by larger bigs. There were plenty of times where he was just a step late, with his arms leaning outward a tad too much.
Again, that’s not unusual for an NBA rookie, even for hyped-up defensive prospects like Barnes. Learning to play the game at a much higher speed, against smarter teams and players who are stronger and faster than in any other league in the world, takes an adjustment period at the very least.
And while that period is still certainly underway for Barnes, the progress is tangible.
Against the Sacramento Kings on Monday night, he looked every bit the stifling defensive force he was trumpeted as. He was consistently in the right spots on nearly every play for the Raptors, staying vertical as opponents rose up against him, and flying around as a rover off-ball, shooting gaps and sizing up layup attempts before swatting them into oblivion.
“I think it’s really good to see Scottie string up a whole bunch of games like this just overall,” head coach Nick Nurse told reporters postgame. “There’s energy, there’s offense, there’s defense, there’s passing, there’s blocked shots. It’s good to just see him play really well in all facets of the game like that, and see him continue to grow.”
scottie barnes with 5 blocks in this win over the kings pic.twitter.com/mFgSnHX4QP
— William Lou (@william_lou) December 14, 2021
Indeed, he finished the game with five blocks, a career-high. Perhaps more than in any game in his young career with the Raptors, Barnes looked predatory on defense, prowling around the floor with his eyes wide, zoned in on the prize. Everything between the court’s four lines was occurring in his waters, and he had no problem delivering consistent, decisive reminders of that fact.
“With [Barnes’] versatility and when we can get a little but longer out there—y’know, we’re missing three kinda long guys that are all capable of helping us protect the rim,” Nurse said. “We should be able to be stingy out there at the rim. He had—they were great blocks. Three of the four were really outstanding bucket-saving, last-second blocks. He’s 6’10” and he’s long—it’s good to see him use it.”
It’s no secret that the best version of Scottie Barnes on defense will likely be unlocked by following the Pascal Siakam mold—allowing him to run about as a free safety off the ball, making use of his zippy ability to recover and his excellent instincts as a helper. Games like Monday’s are a testament to that notion, and a reminder of the value of providing players with developmental reps in positions where they are most likely to succeed.
“That’s kinda what we’re hoping is that Scottie [Barnes], Pascal [Siakam], OG [Anunoby] can be all three very similar type players,” the Raptors coach furthered. “Play both ends, guard, switch, work together. And be all decent scorers, too.”