Discover more from The Antisocial Basketballer
Plus a Utah Jazz rebuild and mailbag.
Scottie Barnes-torming through the league.
6-foot-7, bouncy, athletic, long, elite defenders with ball handling ability and burgeoning three point jumpshots don’t grow on trees in the NBA.
Unless, of course, you’re the Toronto Raptors.
Pascal Siakam, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, Dalano Banton and OG Anunoby, all over 6-foot-9, all with wingspans that represent more pterodactylane creatures rather than humanoids, all with the ability to score and defend with equal aplomb.
But the jewel of the crown is rookie Scottie Barnes.
When the Raptors handed Adam Silver the card with the Florida State forward’s name on it, the internet was alight with murmurings and speculation. The Raptors had shaken the draft order, the preconceived top four of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs had been breached, the Raptors had swung for yet another athletic freak.
Except Scottie Barnes is so much more than someone who just runs and jumps.
A five star recruit from the famed Montverde Academy in Florida, Barnes flashed his all-around game for the Seminoles with averages of 10.3 points, 4 rebounds and 4.1 assists in just under 25 minutes of game time. He didn’t even start the majority of the season, only starting in 7 games and as a result, winning the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, as well as Freshman of the Year.
But what makes Barnes so talented? Why did Toronto take him fourth over an established collegiate point guard and leader in Gonzaga’s Suggs.
Leading up to the draft, the whispers began circulating that teams may begin viewing Scottie Barnes as a legit point forward, rather than a forward who can be a secondary creator at times. That was then magnified with his landing spot of Toronto, with coach Nick Nurse known for his affinity to take positionless basketball to the absolute limit.
Barnes is able to use his length and athleticism to get to wherever he wants on the court. 59.6% of his attempts come within 10 feet of the rim, hitting 67.9% of his shots at the rim and 50% from between 3-10 feet.
What’s most impressive though, about Scottie’s game, is his maturity. So often you see young players come in and press, trying to do to much as they struggle to find their role in the NBA. Scottie plays under control and makes plays seasoned veterans can struggle with. To borrow the old adage, the game has slowed down for him.
What’s that? IT’S FILM TIME.
Note: The only way to get videos into Substack right now is embedding via Vimeo, so if something doesn’t quite work I apologise, and please let me know.
Let’s have a look a clip one, a good example of Scottie’s passing ability for a forward of his age.
It’s hard to explain just how hard this pass is to make given how easy Scottie makes it look. A cross court, cricket-like throw with one hand, straight into the shooting pocket for a semi-open Siakam. Because the pass is so fast and accurate, Siakam can rise up straight away. Gary Trent Jr has Davon Reed occupied on the cut but even so, Reed isn’t exactly sagging off. The bullet pass leads Pascal straight into the shot.
Or how about when he stretches out and uses his length?
The Pacers are terrible and it’s a bad example of stopping the ball, but once Barnes recognises the crease in the defence he takes full advantage. Barnes takes two long strides and he’s in the paint, forcing the defence to collapse. All it takes is a gorgeous hook pass to the weakside corner where Armoni Brooks is standing there ready.
You don’t often see this level of patience and poise from a rookie, let alone a rookie playing somewhat out of position, at times, as a true point guard. He clearly has the talent for the role but it isn’t something he’s had major exposure to in his formative years previously.
How many rookies would have tunnel vision in that scenario and steamroll through the defence in the lane, either forcing a terrible, contested shot inside or being called for an offensive foul. Barnes has a maturity unmatched by the majority of kids who come into the league his age.
The athletic traits are all there, but his ability to read defences and play at his own pace is what sets him apart.
A Rebuild in Utah?
For a team as successful in the regular season as the Utah Jazz have been over the last few years, there’s a constant whirlwind of storylines and drama around two of the team’s more pivotal players, in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
Utah has been one of the more narrative-driven teams in the league in recent years and not all of it is positive. Ignoring how the general public views and values Gobert and Mitchell, there have been legitimate questions raised recently about the fit long term of the two stars and what the ceiling of this Utah team really is.
Utah has prided themselves on being an elite defensive team, but that’s begun to lose its shine, starting in the playoffs last season, when Rudy Gobert was effectively “hidden” on Terance Mann while the Los Angeles Clippers ran roughshod over a stretched out Utah lineup.
The problem, to me anyway, is that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Utah’s defensive struggles have come from this season, because both Gobert and Mitchell have missed a not statistically insignificant amount of games each, and at different portions in the season.
The Jazz are firmly okay by defensive rating, coming in at 11th in the league at 110.4, but that’s a far cry from the norm. Every year since 2016-17, with the exception of 2019-20, the Jazz have been a top three defence measured by defensive rating.
Rebounding is an important part of defence, statistically, and the Jazz have also been near the top of the charts in defensive rebounding percentage. But their mark has remained the same this season, and yet their defensive rating has gone down? Do we have any theories?
Well, one could make the argument that Utah’s bench hasn’t been as good defensively as years gone past, and the defensive balance down the roster has been sacrificed for more scoring. Sure, Hassan Whiteside is one of the better backup centers in the league, but chasing blocks and rebounds aren’t the hallmark of positive defensive contributions. Surrounding him, the Utah bench gives significant minutes to guys like Jordan Clarkson, Eric Paschall and Rudy Gay, none of whom are plus defenders.
Or maybe the perimeter defence is actually where the standards have dropped this season. Anecdotally, even the strong perimeter defenders like Royce O’Neale and Mike Conley have had down years on that side of the ball. Poor exterior defence obviously forces more pressure inside, a real chicken vs. egg conundrum.
So back to the original leadoff. A rebuild? In this economy?
Utah strikes me as a team who would go for a soft rebuild first, a retool, by trading one of its two banner stars for a star of equal stature. It may just be that the NBA is trending away from the style of defence that makes Rudy Gobert uniquely impactful, because very rarely do you see nowadays a defensive anchor with his raw size.
This Utah team feels like it’s heading for it’s peak and I’m not sure that includes anything more than another heartbreaking second round exit or two. They’ve already taken a swing on a young guy in Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Donovan Mitchell is still only 25, but an otherwise ageing roster might be headed for remodelling very soon.
I got some questions on Twitter that might look old with the timestamps, but I think they’re still valid so let’s go.
In short, yes, South East Melbourne have bottled it, after a red hot start to the season.
At the time of writing, the Phoenix sit at 12-12, wallowing in sixth in the NBL, 1.5 games behind expansion franchise the Tasmania JackJumpers. I’m sure that’s not a spot that a team featuring star power like Mitch Creek, Zhou Qi, Xavier Munford and Ryan Broekhoff envisioned they’d be in at this point in the season.
Barring a miracle, SEM won’t be featuring in the postseason. Languishing a full 3 games behind Perth with 4 games left in the season, it’s been a brutally disappointing season for Simon Mitchell’s men, and there will be some serious questions asked.
Firstly, I think Mitchell has to be on the hotseat going into the offseason. This roster had genuine title aspirations in the preseason and the short of it is they’ve failed to deliver. Xavier Munford has missed time through injury and so has Ryan Broekhoff, but this team has been plagued by issues that go far beyond on court health.
All throughout the year, the team has struggled to figure out just how to maximise Zhou Qi in the flow of their offense, and as the season has worn on, teams have figured out how to attack him on defence. This was perhaps exemplified best by Xavier Cooks, who, while he is a rarity in the NBL with his athleticism and size, was able to attack Zhou off the dribble and make him guard outside.
SEM have been played off the floor by small ball, constantly closing with Brandon Ashley in lieu of Zhou. Fundamentally, this roster needs a bit of a shake up, and questions about the style of play they want to run will have to be addressed. If they are to bring Zhou back, he’ll need pieces that fit around him.
But that’s the issue, is Zhou that guy you fit a team around? Mitch Creek was a legitimate MVP candidate before the falloff, and he’s still that guy too.
In short, it’s been a bitterly disappointing season for SEM, but I don’t think they’ve ever truly looked comfortable as to what style of team they actually are.
I’ll be honest, this is the first I’m hearing of a non-compete clause being in effect in Sydney for the NBL. The West Sydney Razorbacks left the league in 2008, when I was barely starting high school, so I’m not totally across the details (and we don’t count that weird year as the Sydney Spirit), but a non-compete clause to me sounds rather silly.
Basketball is maybe the fastest growing sport in Australia and a second Sydney team only makes sense. Obviously if there is a clause then this is entirely moot.
But to answer the question, yes I do think Sydney could have two teams in the NBL, but no more. I think the NBL at its current peak will probably settle around 12 teams, maybe 14 at a stretch. The question is obviously money, but with the quality of imports coming over, the improved coverage and success off the back of guys like LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey, the league has generated genuine casual fan interest.
To break into a mini expansion answer here, if we assume the league expands into an eventual 14 team format (which if it does happen is many years away), I think the teams are fairly easy to place.
I think you could safely have a 12 team competition with a second Sydney team and a returning Townsville Crocodiles franchise. The basketball community in North Queensland is very passionate and they absolutely get around the Townsville Fire in the WNBL, they deserve their team back.
As for the other two teams, it becomes murkier. You probably don’t want to saturate a major city too much, so Sydney and Melbourne are out, and I’m not sure Brisbane has the juice for a second team. I’m also not sold on the Gold Coast Blaze coming back, for obvious Gold Coast related reasons.
If we do have a 14 team league, I think I’d give those last two spots to Canberra and Newcastle. I realise it’s not as strong a sell job as Townsville and a second Sydney team, but both cities have NBL history and are major enough sporting markets, I think it could work.
Then again, as we’ve seen in the A-League and we’re going to see next year in the NRL, expansion for the sake of expansion almost always ends in heartbreak, and over-stretching your limited resources too soon to chase fan engagement and growth that isn’t sustainable or organic only hurts your long term product.
Tasmania has been a very successful expansion this season, I’d hope the NBL doesn’t chase another immediate high of more teams unless the timing is right, so maybe we do settle at a 10 team competition after all.