TORONTO — Kyle Lowry knows what a Raptors star looks like.
He wore these shoes in Toronto for almost a decade. He knows the city. He is very familiar with the market and the fan community. So he knows what it takes to be successful as the face of the franchise and he can see many of the qualities required in Scottie Barnes.
“I think he’s really hungry. I find his energy contagious. I think his attitude is contagious in a good way,” said Lowry, the legendary former Raptors point guard who was preparing to face his old team at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday.
“He’s a great kid, he wants to play, he wants to get better, and he’s still finding himself. I think he’s more of a point guard than people know and think. But he will just keep getting better, offensively and defensively.”
Admittedly, Lowry is unlikely to base his fervent support of Barnes on what he’s seen from the precocious sophomore in recent weeks. For the first time in his young career, the struggling 21-year-old is facing the kind of adversity befitting any rising star in the league.
Lowry knows what it’s like too. He’s had to work his way through a dip or two over the years, sometimes compounded by the bright lights of the postseason, while also managing the scrutiny that comes with the territory. It’s part of the gig.
So of course he can see through the ups and downs.
“He’s had a long career [ahead of him]’ Lowry said. “It will take time, but the sky is the limit for this kid.”
Lately, Barnes has been playing much closer to his floor than that lofty, boundless ceiling. While he and the team have downplayed the effects of his lingering ankle injury – which he picked up in a pre-camp workout and has since tweaked a few times – there’s a reasonable possibility he played injured. That would be the simplest explanation.
Provided he’s healthy enough to dress and play, however, the Raptors need more of him, especially when several rotation players aren’t in the lineup. They finally pulled it off in Wednesday’s game, a 112-104 win over Lowry and the Miami Heat.
Barnes started hot. After Lowry opened scoring with a pull-up three-pointer in transition, a familiar sight in this building, Barnes put the Raptors on the board with a step-back jumper.
He hit four of his first five shots, each from over 17 feet away. Although you would have preferred to see him paint, something Nick Nurse would like him to do more of, he didn’t settle. As Jimmy Butler went down on the screens, Barnes took what the defense gave him and it was nice to see him kick the ball with confidence.
“It feels really good when there are some shots coming,” said Barnes, who has shot 35 percent from the field in his last seven games, including 5-to-27 from three-point range. “It gives you more energy and more juice.”
From there he made a concerted effort to attack the rim. Four of his five buckets in the second half came in the paint. Early in the third quarter, Barnes took Heat forward Caleb Martin out of the dribble, posting him and hooking a shot over the smaller defender. Early in the fourth he rode downhill for a layup. Later, Fred VanVleet found him cutting to the basket.
OG Anunoby led with 32 points in a brilliant two-way display and VanVleet scored 23 on his return from an illness that kept him out for a couple of games earlier this week. But with two starters – Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. – out, Barnes’ 19 points, six rebounds and six assists were badly needed. It was the best he’s played in weeks.
Barnes’ recent slump in shooting coincided with a period when, for whatever reason, he didn’t look as energetic on defense and settled for too many outside jumpers. In general, as his effort and intensity decreases, so does his impact, whether his punches fall or not.
Last season, Barnes had a bad quarter or half here and there, but he almost always rallied and saved the night by finishing the game strong. During his outstanding rookie-of-the-year campaign, he’s never had to go through a lengthy stretch like this. But with his early success comes expectations, and with expectations comes pressure. It’s all part of the learning process. Development is not always linear. There’s always been bumps in the road and if Barnes didn’t understand that before, he’ll accept it now.
“I feel like my rookie year went pretty smoothly,” Barnes said. “You can see that I’m in the middle of a lull in rotation – I notice that, I recognize that. But I’m just trying to stay confident, push through, keep trying, be aggressive, trust your work, trust your craft. I have a feeling this will see me through.”
When Lowry joined Miami in free agency in the summer of 2021, it paved the way for Barnes – who had been selected with the fourth overall pick a few weeks earlier – to play a bigger role from the start and accelerate his growth. Still, it’s hard not to think about how much Lowry’s leadership could have helped Barnes, especially at a stage like this.
But with experienced teammates and a highly respected coaching staff, it’s not as if he’s lacking in support. On the team’s most recent road trip, VanVleet and Siakam texted Barnes from home, encouraging him to stay aggressive.
“The guys [are] It gives me confidence when I’m out there on the ground,” Barnes said. “I feel like that’s a big deal. I really took that to heart.”
“All of this is part of the growth process,” 16-year-old veterinarian Thaddeus Young said over the weekend. “As long as he understands that and doesn’t drag himself down, he’ll be great. And Scottie is a very confident person so I’m not too worried about him putting himself down.”
The organization is committed to its young star and will not be discouraged or deterred by a small – and not unexpected – delay in its sophomore year.
“Everyone goes through this,” VanVleet said after Wednesday’s game. “There are ups, there are downs. There are good games, there are bad games. He finds his way. I just have to keep working and keep playing. Nobody here worries about him. We know what a great player he will be. There is no young player I would trade him for and there are no limits for him. Whether that’s tomorrow or in a few years, we’ll see.”
“Obviously he can play better, we all know that, but in terms of trying to draw a conclusion about him as a player, I think [that’s] pretty ridiculous.”
Still keeping a close eye on his former team and old teammates, Lowry is tuning in to as many Raptors games as possible. In recent years, he’s seen Siakam regain All-NBA form, VanVleet become an All-Star, and Anunoby blossom into one of the league’s better defenders — all of which he saw coming.
“My boys are still on this team and I support my boys,” said Lowry, who finished with 19 points on his return. “I just enjoy watching them mature and become better individual basketball players and men.”
While their tenures did not overlap, Lowry is also proud to see Barnes continue to grow and make his mark on a franchise he will always be synonymous with. One day, Lowry gets to see Barnes pushing him, DeMar DeRozan, and other Raptors greats to the top of the team’s all-time leaderboards.
The blueprint is there, Lowry helped write it, but Barnes has to find his own way.
“I think he’s going to create his own footsteps and that’s the most important thing for a guy like him,” said Lowry. “For someone like me who’s been there for so long and seen it, I’m just glad that they can make their own path, create their own legacy, create their own everything.”