25-under-25: Scottie Barnes is not afraid of your comparisons

25-under-25, Toronto Raptors

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Scottie Barnes is entering his second year with the Toronto Raptors but you can already find traces of NBA legends in his versatile game.

Start with the frame. 7-foot-3 wingspan. 6-foot-9 tall. 230 pounds. Low post strength and a stride that bursts like Usain Bolt. A constant commitment on defense. The possible comparisons and career trajectories start to bubble over in the cauldron, and there is something of the Alpha and the Omega to how good one can imagine Scottie Barnes becoming.

Let’s try this one more time: Life moves pretty fast for Scottie Barnes, and if you blink, you just might miss him. But he is present and accounted for and not reclining on his laurels. The production is more than prank calls. He’s not crowning himself sausage royalty. He’s more than happy to be in Toronto. He doesn’t care about what’s happening in Detroit or Chicago or wherever. He would take O.G. Anunoby before anyone else.

Here’s the first line from an article Barnes penned to Toronto Raptor fans before the start of his rookie season: “I’m still waiting for it all to feel real, man. It’s crazy. It’s like that first semester of school when everything’s going by so fast.” That thought occurred to him approximately 12 months ago and in those 12 months, the pace for measuring Barnes only quickened. With each passing month, he seemingly transformed a level. Then another and another. He finished his rookie year at an 11.

And yet the reigning Rookie of the Year isn’t all sinew and lightning. His dunks, while powerful, are gliding affairs, as if he grabbed an umbrella handle in the lane and took flight on a cross-ocean jet stream that leaves him time zones from where he started. His full-court dashes require a great deal of control and efficiency. The madness arrives when defenders are silly enough to play the fool. No worries, though, Barnes stands up and checks on everyone cradled in the moment. He is, after all, almost always present in the frame.

Scottie Barnes is already gliding in the shadows of NBA legends

That enduring smoothness is what marks Barnes’ game with a little bit of everyone who’s crossed the globe before him. He’s on an award tour with the rock in his hand, each swooping basket moving him further from clout-chasing and closer to whatever is beyond respectability. The lank and silk of his posture samples ever so slightly from Kevin Durant, but he masks it with some of Blake Griffin’s raw daring. A glimpse of either is there, but neither is an exact fit.

Barnes lacks Durant’s shooting touch, and he likely will never find it, but like Griffin, he is a surprisingly gifted passer, only he’s seeing the court better at an earlier age, placing him in the shadows of LeBron James and Magic Johnson. The point here is not to say he is what they once were, but no one expected quite this Barnes on offense at such an early date. He’s not running late. In fact, he’s arriving early, and as a result, the draft day buzz is still alive and kicking.

Barnes’ offensive game still feels somewhat like cosmic debris stumbling and swirling into what will one day make for a life-sustaining planet, and the effort to pin down the 21-year-old only runs the casual bystander ragged. The principle doesn’t narrow to a conclusion beyond discovering Scottie Barnes to be an exception to the rule.

With his back to the basket, one might recall any number of players whose finesse and creativity eventually permitted a stretching toward the perimeter: Antawn Jamison anyone? Or an offshoot of Lamar Odom? Two players whose careers became less exhilarating the more playoff aspirations ironed out the idiosyncratic post-ups and unconscious handles.

Eventually, every player becomes less of a quirk and more of a type, but Barnes still has all that resume-building work to do. Right now he’s just a name, like Scottie after a growth spurt and before a three-peat, and perhaps the versatility shares some cursory understanding of Pippen’s do-everything game. And perhaps we should stop there before clouding the crystal ball with too much past and future talk. The dots need constellating and almost any cluster will do. This is as close to the ground floor as any of us are going to get. If apotheosis isn’t in the cards, then the joy and passion Barnes exudes make one willing to hedge.

Besides, his real strength shines on defense, and both Draymond Green and Bobby Jones can be found in the footnotes. These subtle, unconscious nods to older players are also what signify Barnes as a Super Saiyan waiting in the wings. The foundation is Shawn Marion, but the blueprint sketches call for a Kawhi Leonard. But maybe that’s a coincidence of place: what’s present drawing greater significance from what’s clearly absent.

Something that rings true about Barnes are his own words. Read that introduction to Toronto fans he wrote for The Players’ Tribune a year ago and one finds him full of kindness and appreciation for the opportunity at hand. But the colloquial language of youth also undercuts that gracious spirit with just enough bite. He writes about a game his father took him to in Miami where Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant faced off, and in doing so, Barnes places his ambitions in plain sight. Athletes of a certain talent level are allowed to be so honest, for their talents are why the cliches ring true.

Take a scrap of paper. Write a positive basketball attribute on the paper and fold the paper in half. Place the folded paper in a hat with all the other named attributes. The hat belongs to Scottie Barnes, and Scottie Barnes sure can fill up a stat sheet.

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