The 2021 NBA Draft was one of the most hyped out and highly regarded drafts we have seen in this century. Many scouts executives in the NBA community considered the top of that draft as among the best we have seen since 2003. With Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, and Evan Mobley at the top of that class, it was almost like having a #1 pick, even if you had the third pick. Looking back, Cade Cunningham is looking like the oversized jumbo playmaker we expected in the second half of the season, Jalen Green has become much more efficient and dynamic since the All-Star Break, and Evan Mobley has been the third best player on a legitimate playoff team in the bulked up Easter Conference. Those three are starting to live up to the hype, but what if I told you there were actually four #1 picks in this draft, and the fourth guy will actually be the best of the rest?
The Toronto Raptors selecting Scottie Barnes over Jalen Suggs with the fourth pick stirred a lot of heads in the basketball world. Looking back It wasn’t only the right decision, it was the best decision imaginable, and the Raptors could have another decade+ of relevance in the Eastern Conference because of it. Let’s see why Scottie Barnes could very well become the best player from that draft:
Rapid Offensive Development:
When Scottie Barnes got drafted, he was widely regarded as a high-level “Glue guy” who can defend, pass, and provide general versatility as with his physical tools. In his first year, it appears that projected was somewhat disrespectful. He is already the fourth leading scoring rookie despite being the fifth option behind Pascal Siakam, Fred Vanvleet, Gary Trent, Jr. and OG Anunoby, with a USG% of only 19.1%. His ability to score in transition has immediately translated, but also his half court shot making. When first looking at shooting splits, it makes sense why Barnes had legitimate questions as a shot maker, he only shot 27.5% from three and 62.1% from the line. Already as a rookie, he has improved his three point shooting to 30.4% from three and 72.7% from the line. While those splits don’t appear substantial, the improvement from three on a further line while increasing his free throw percentage by over 10%, that growth is rapid. Not to mention, he is averaging 17.7 PPG on a hot Raptors team since the All-Star Break.
Beyond the numbers, Barnes is simply a more comfortable shot maker, particularly in the half court. In college, Barnes showed real limitations as a scorer when he was asked to create his own offense outside of the flow of the game. This year, we have seen legitimate progress. He has shown more comfort getting his own shot from the first two levels. His straight line drives remain as special as they always have been. He has become incredibly reliable on a floater throughout the season with touch softer than feather. That floater has been an incredible improvisation for him when he hasn’t been able to get all the way to the hoop. He has added a turnaround fadeaway from the 8-14 feet range we did not see in college. On top of those two go-to-moves, he has shown flashes being able to pull-up and step back on from the mid range and even from three. If Scottie Barnes can become a respectable shooter with improved comfort getting his shot off on the step backs and fadeaway, that could make him a 25 PPG scorer in this league to add with his already dynamic game in transition. It is also worth mentioning, Barnes is in an elite situation in Toronto for his development, where he will have a great chance to maximize that raw talent.
In general, what should be idealized in a franchise player is two-way versatility. Scottie Barnes came into the league considered a swiss army knife. He has unbelievable physical tools as he is 6’9″ with a 7’3″ wingspan, he has the body of an eight year vet, he is quick enough to stay on guards, and long enough to hold his own against most big men. Combining his energy and physical tools makes him an already promising defender with a chance to be an absolute dominant defensive weapon who can switch on at least four positions and force turnovers with his flashes attacking passing lanes and rim protection.
Those physical tools I mentioned earlier also makes him a stud in transition already. To top off that slashing and athleticism, Barnes has a very good feel as a passer. At Florida State, he was used like a point guard with the way he was able to facilitate that offense. He led all of Florida State in assists in his freshman year despite being on the bench in 17 of his 24 collegiate games. His playmaking volume hasn’t taken off in the NBA yet as he is asked to mainly play off of Fred Vanvleet and Pascal Siakam, All-Star caliber players who are very good playmakers. Barnes has shown the ability to be an outstanding passer with how he can move the ball in transition and find open cutters. Don’t get it twisted, 3.5 APG is not bad at all for a rookie with a usage over just over 19%. His threat as an elite athlete who can really pass (With more untapped potential In that department) with improving half court shot creating and dynamic scoring in transition, Barnes projects to be a very complete offensive player.
Sometimes fans and analysts around the NBA put too much weight into the archetype of players when measuring their potential effectiveness. For example, the narrative that you can’t build around big-men is complete and utter nonsense. But with the success of large two-way playmaking wings such as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson (technically a PG), LeBron James, Scottie Pippen, and a Paul George (to a lesser extent), having a wing who can produce on both ends of the floor while being capable of running your offense is a near cheat code. Not saying Scottie Barnes’ will be the next LeBron James, but being an athlete wing with the talent to defend multiple positions, get his own shot, and make plays for others gives him a chance to be that archetype everyone covets, which makes his skillset more valuable.
Comparing Scottie Barnes to Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, and Jalen Green:
It should not be taken lightly when I put it out there that I believe Scottie Barnes will be the best player from the 2021 draft because the star potential at the top of this draft is mind boggling. There other guys such as Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, and even Jalen Green could very well become the best from the class, but here is why Barnes sits at the top for me:
Cade Cunningham is the player I think has the best chance to take the throne as “the guy” form this class, outside of Banres. He is incredibly complete and desired as a complete 6’6″ jumbo-playmaker who can score from all three levels, disect a defense with his feel off the bounce, and his defensive upside due to of his size, strength, and IQ. He is also made up of everything you want as a franchise player: He is a level-headed leader who has that killer, which we saw in his recent absurd 29 point second half against Brooklyn. When comparing him to Barnes, yes Cade is ahead as a half court creator and playmaker, but Barnes is showing that rapid scoring development in the half court where he has a strong chance to close the gap enough for his superior physical tools, slashing ability, and defensive upside to outweigh the half court playmaking difference between Barnes and Cunningham.
Evan Mobley has been the best rookie this season, in my opinion. His defensive versatility and prowess makes him a worthy All-Defense candidate with the upside to become a DPOY candidate for years to come. The defense isn’t what gives Barnes the edge, what gives him the edge is the superior offensive upside Barnes has. That isn’t to say Mobley won’t be a star caliber offensive player… his touch, fluidity, and flashes off the dribble are incredibly intriguing, but Barnes’ upside as someone who can eventually run an offense, handle a high usage, and get his own shot consistently from the perimter gives him a better chance to become the top priority star.
Jalen Green is still the best scorer in the entire draft, in my eyes. Post All-Star Break, he is averaging 20.4 PPG on 47% Post All-Star Break. His upside as a slasher and space creator from the perimeter is absolutely unreal. What gives Barnes the edge over Green, for me, is the fact Barnes has been similarly productive as a scorer, and shows more chops as an all-around basketball player. Green is an underrated passer and could become a good defender in time with the right coaching and weight program, but what Barnes can be as a 6’9″ athlete with long arms, the ability to switch on four positions, while being able to function as a point guard offensively, gives him the opportunity to be the better all-around player. Plus, Toronto should be more trusted to maximize the development of its young talent compared to Houston.
The 2021 NBA Draft has a chance to be really, really, really special. With the way Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Jonathan Kuminga, Josh Giddey, Franz Wagner and others have played, there will be a handful of true stars from that class, and you can make an argument for a couple of them to eventually become the best of the class. But combining Barnes’ rapid growth as a shot maker, his playmaking, his defensive versatility, his physical tools, the environment he is in, I would bet my money on him becoming “the guy” from that loaded draft.