No.1: Scottie Barnes
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It was 2021, and the Toronto Raptors were in a heap of trouble. The team had finished the season with a dismal record of 27-45, missing the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. The afterglow of their 2019 NBA championship was fading; it had been two years since megastar Kawhi Leonard went Hollywood, signing a contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. And though nobody knew it yet, Kyle Lowry, the team’s tireless leader, would soon decamp for the Miami Heat. Fortunately, in the NBA, mediocrity is rewarded during the draft. In each year’s player draft, the worst-performing teams pick first, a system designed to encourage parity in the league.
The Raptors ended up with the fourth pick—a chance to snap up a game-changing talent. There were plenty of excellent options, including Jalen Suggs, a super-smooth point guard who had just led his college team to the national final. But instead of selecting Suggs, the Raptors surprised everyone by picking a six-foot-eight, 225-pound point forward from Florida State and signing him to a four-year, $33-million contract. His name: Scottie Barnes. According to Raptors president Masai Ujiri, Barnes’s pre-draft interview proved that he was simply obsessed with winning. “It’s crazy when you interview a guy and he mentions ‘winning’ or ‘win’ 34 times,” Ujiri has said. “This is what we wanted to bring to Toronto.”
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Masai and Scottie in 2022
Barnes grew up in West Palm Beach, Florida. His mother, Kathalyn Wilkins, raised her four children by herself. As a kid, Barnes played recreational basketball at a Salvation Army gym against much older men, some in their 40s and 50s. He learned by watching their footwork, positioning, shooting and passing. Those games also helped develop Barnes’s competitive edge. In pickup, the winning team gets to stay on the court, and without referees, things can get testy. Players argue. Fights break out. “But that’s what makes you tough,” Barnes has said.
The kid seemed to have it all: height, rebounding and scoring skills, a high basketball IQ. When a local youth coach named John Simpson saw Barnes holding his own against adults, he was gobsmacked. He believed Barnes was destined for greatness. Barnes soon moved in with Simpson and his family, and he played his final year of high school ball at Montverde Academy, a prominent prep program in Florida where many of the best young hoopers in the country go to hone their craft (its alumni include NBA stars like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons). By then, he was a fixture of the USA youth program, bringing home three gold medals in international competition. When it came time to pick a college, Barnes stayed close to home and attended Florida State. At 18, he already had the makings of a defensive dynamo, with the size, speed and tenacity to guard any player on the court. Barnes once said that applying defensive pressure was his favourite thing to do—a revealing answer, in part because most young basketball prodigies are preoccupied with scoring points and uploading highlights to Instagram. Barnes had the makings of a great team player, someone who could help the Raptors rebound.
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After joining the team, he became an instant fan favourite, playing with irrepressible joy, flashing that goofy, gap-toothed smile and joking with teammates. He dominated games early in the 2021-22 season, standing out for his relentless energy. He’d snatch rebounds and hurtle down the court in long bounding strides, stretching his body up to the basket and gliding effortlessly to the hoop. He was a quick, versatile defender, often tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player, like superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant. After one game, Durant marvelled at Barnes’s talent: “A lot of young guys in the league have that competitive fire, but he has something a little extra.”
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Scottie has also found success off the basketball court since the Raptors drafted him
Barnes was a workhorse, averaging 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Most importantly, he helped the Raptors return to their winning ways, finishing the season with a record of 48-34—good enough for a playoff spot. The Raptors were back. Barnes was voted NBA Rookie of the Year, the third Raptor in history to receive the award, alongside legends Damon Stoudamire and Vince Carter. Lucrative sponsorships followed, from Subway, Axe body spray and Google phones. He even appeared alongside Jeff Goldblum in ads for the latest Jurassic World film. Barnes was officially the boyish face of the franchise, whose future today looks bright. They’ve gone through a lull in 2023, but Barnes has kept things consistent. Through the first half of his second season, he was averaging 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists, maintaining the totals from his rookie campaign. At just 21 years old, if Barnes continues to develop his game and evolve as a leader, he could end up being one of the best players in Raptors history.
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This article appears in print in the April 2023 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.