Scottie Barnes is an elite prospect. His blend of playmaking, size, athleticism, defensive impact and IQ are pretty rare. He pops off the screen in any game he's in and should end up being a lottery talent, if not a top-ten guy in the 2021 NBA Draft.
None of that is controversial to say. But in watching Barnes play, it's still not clear exactly what he is. The skills are unique in the way they come together. At 6'9" and 227 pounds, he's probably got a 6'11" wingspan at the least. Those unique physical traits match the size and dimensions of OG Anunoby or Jayson Tatum. The Seminoles list Barnes as a guard on their website and, frankly, use him as a point guard in their lineups. He creates through ball screens, defends opposing guards (it's a switching scheme, so the point is rendered moot as soon as a screen arrives) and has a pretty high usage. He is their primary creator when on the floor.
Unlike other big primary creators, Barnes isn't known for his overall fluidity and speed. He doesn't have the Ben Simmons speed or ball handle. He isn't as dynamic in mid-air as Magic Johnson. He doesn't look like an NBA-style creator who can deftly navigate through traffic and manipulate defenses. But, somehow, he has possessions with great polish, strong passing and IQ exhibited that makes it hard to take the ball out of his hands.
Offensively, the question is what else his role would be. He's a 4-15 from deep through six games, a really rough 10-24 from the free throw line and doesn't have a great deal of self-creation to his game. When he scores, its through bullying guys to the rim or in the open floor.
There's so much about what Barnes lacks that usually prevents me from falling in love with a guy. The shooting and self-creation being foremost, as I tend not to trust guys to earn a creating role in the NBA if they can't score themselves. But the defense is really, really good, and a strong assist-to-turnover ratio despite the lack of scoring suggest Barnes really could be the exception to my own rule.
Here's my thing on lead guards: you better be able to shoot in the pros at at least above a 33% clip off the dribble. There were 61 players who took over 100 dribble jumpers off the pick-and-roll in the NBA last year. Only three were below 33% on their jumpers: Spencer Dinwiddie, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins. Barnes is 0-6 to start his career at Florida State.
He looks pensive, unsure of when to shoot them and trying too hard to scan to make plays for others instead of himself. He's stiff and needing to stop his momentum to get his base beneath him -- and even that hasn't brought success:
The lack of an ability to hit jumpers off the bounce is a concern. Name any great frontcourt or wing creator in the NBA. Every one with the exception of Ben Simmons creates their own shot off the bounce in late-clock situations. I worry about any team drafting Barnes to have the ball in his hands late-clock and getting possessions like the one against Georgia Tech in the edit above: he goes slow, probing to look for a pass and then has to chuck up a low-percentage shot with one on the clock.
Teams will go under pick-and-rolls he's handling in and treat him like Shaun Livingston if this continues. Without getting his man on his hip, Barnes won't force corner help defenders to collapse. If they don't collapse, the great reads Barnes makes out of ball screens will be gone.
So what might Barnes be able to do that would make up for this other than improve his jumper?
When he attacks with pace, he gets to the rim and he finishes above or through contact. He's like a combination of a bulldozer and a crane. His first step is long when he's decisive and can get past his guy into open paint. He'll bully his way through contact and clear takeoff room for a jump, the finish high at the rim or off the backboard. His athleticism is really overwhelming as a scorer in these situations:
If he can get the ball on the move or be a secondary creator who attacks closeouts, he'll be a stud. He's too good of a finisher and freak athlete not to hit 55% of his attempts at the rim at the next level. The touch is there to combine with the athleticism and he never plays too fast. Control is always there for Barnes.
In speedy pick-and-rolls, he'll carve defenses up as a passer. He's proven he can dissect ball screen defense very well, reads the low man defender and hits spot-up shooters in the shooting pocket on time. He has done it against different coverages, is secure with the ball and at his size sees over the top of defenses to deliver these as strikes.
This is just through six games, a fairly impressive string of passes out of the PNR:
Barnes is a super creative player in transition who uses his fluid athleticism to catch bodies in transition. It's an elite skill that's compounded by his ability to defend, which allows him to be in transition more often. It may not seem like transition finishing is an elite skill, but for Barnes it's what he hangs his hat on. On the baseline, he'll have an OG Anunoby-type of role -- defending multiple positions, causing havoc and finishing plays at the rim. That role would, hopefully, allow him to focus full-time on spot-up shooting and mechanics, an area where catch-and-shoot he is somewhat workable.
We'll cover his defense a little later to justify the Anunoby comparison. But I'll say this: if being a great defender, finisher at the rim, high-IQ off-ball player who is adequate as a spot-up shooter is Barnes' floor, sign me up in the late-lottery.
What we're dissecting for his half-court offense is trying to figure out where his ceiling is. How can we anticipate his ceiling if we can't figure out how to utilize him?
If the struggles to shoot off the bounce continue, how much does that mitigate his pick-and-roll upside? Does it enough to change his role on a team?
It also calls for investigation into his off-ball offensive prowess. Barnes has an awareness of when to attack off the catch quickly, ripping the ball far in front of his stride and tapping into those long strides, bulldozer-crane combo of finishes and once he gets his head of steam, there's no stopping him.
The shooting is workable from a standstill perspective. His mechanics have glimpses of fluidity and quickness when he has rhythm off the catch. I keep going back to this one attempt for upside that he will have a mediocre outside shot. We'll be watching his mechanics really closely the rest of the way.
He doesn't play off-ball enough in his role at Florida State to investigate what type of cutter he would be in the slashing non-shooter role in case the jumper doesn't work out. I expect that to continue: he's getting the job done for FSU with the ball in his hands.
The biggest strength of Barnes' offensive arsenal: when he gets out in transition. His athleticism and ability to play in the open floor is apparent, and when he can both handle or run the wing and have an impact he's at his best. It doesn't matter if he's a true lead guard or more of a mismatch wing in the open floor:
Of course, the best way to get out in transition is to rebound or get stops. Barnes can do both; he's a sturdy rebounder at 6'9", especially if he guards the perimeter and has a size advantage. He's a tremendous on-ball defender who contests shots in one-on-one situations; good closeouts and contests could lead to leakouts or put him in a positing to run the wing.
I have very few worries about the defensive upside and impact for Barnes. He'll be a well above-average defender. The question is: where do you put him on defense. Does he guard the ball or the wing? His ability to do both makes it easy: it'll be dependent on who he's surrounded by and, ultimately, the offensive role he deserves. That defensive versatility buys him time to figure out the true position/ role on the other end; it's why there's little downside to taking Barnes and experimenting with the offense even if the clear path to "on-ball vs. off-ball creator" answers is not apparent by draft night.
Put him on smaller guys and Barnes can cause terror one-on-one, a unique trait that really could make him a big point guard:
If there is one area to nitpick pretty closely, it's the fight Barnes puts up when he gets disadvantaged to a driving guard. Instead of fighting to win angles and get back in front, he throws his arms up and uses his massive size and length advantage to try and overwhelm pass-out opportunities and alter shots from behind.
Against guards who are elite at the hostage dribble (which is, like, every starter in the NBA), I can see him getting into some trouble if this is the habit he continues:
I know it's nitpicky and fairly easily corrected, but Barnes overall doesn't have a great stance. FSU's Patrick Williams was better at getting his butt low and sliding his feet than Barnes is; he capitalizes on great strides laterally to cut off people who drive around him, not necessarily getting low. That means that when he's unsuccessful, he's a little too upright to reclaim the advantage.
At Florida State within their on-and-off-ball switching scheme, running guys off the line and forcing them to drive isn't the end of the world. They funnel to the next closest defender and sometimes X-out when a helper is in good position. That won't fly as much at the NBA level. It's a minor detail, but one that might give me pause for wanting Barnes to be a full-time defender against the 1.
So what are the final takeaways from all this for a unique player like Barnes in what is only a six-game sample size?
Barnes doesn't really have a position. Some try to compare him to Draymond, but he's far more explosive an athlete and not quite as transcendent a playmaker. Dray has fantastic hips and sits down in a stance; he's 6'6" and plays both bigger and smaller than he is. Barnes just plays like a super big wing who can defend some point guards. The hip movements make the Green comparisons a little ambitious, though the passing, IQ and finishing combinations are something to behold.
At the end of the day, I'm still not sure who or what Barnes is other than a good, impactful basketball. He can be used in different ways and experimented with until the right combination is made. Since he'll be an impactful multi-positional defender anyway, there are so many offensive archetypes he can be asked to try on and still deserve minutes. The ceiling for if he finds one that clicks is super high, akin to the Patrick Williams ceiling the Chicago Bulls saw when they picked fourth this year.
Barnes is in the 8-to-14 range for me, knowing full well that the absence of shooting and my lack of trust in his pull-up mechanics give him a little bit of a cap in a draft where there are some great creators (Suggs, Cade), scorers (Kuminga) and bigs (Mobley, Jalen Johnson, Garuba) who all have similarly tantalizing upside.