Draft Watch: Thinking outside the box with Barnes and Kuminga for the Toronto Raptors

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The popular opinion on the 2021 NBA Draft is that the top four prospects are the top tier of this class. Most mock drafts have the Toronto Raptors selecting one of Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs, or Evan Mobley at the number four spot — based on whoever is available when it’s their turn to pick. There’s apparently a slight dip in talent after that, with Jonathan Kuminga and Scottie Barnes as the next tier.

But what if the Raptors have a different opinion? After all, Toronto has a bit of a track record of going against convention (or mock draft predictions) and doing their own thing. Even in free agency or trade acquisitions, they project players differently. Although the Raptors haven’t batted 1.000 with all their player personnel moves, the ones that have panned out have pushed other teams to study what the Raptors are doing with their scouting and development.

Between 2004-2018, the top four picks of the NBA Draft have produced at least one franchise cornerstone player. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the lottery is useless — Steph Curry, Dame Lillard, and Devin Booker are some big names picked after the top four. Kuminga and Barnes are the two names that make sense should the Raptors zig when everyone expects them to zag. There’s also the possibility of the Raptors trading back, so it makes sense to keep an eye on these two prospects.

As it stands, I’m leaning towards Barnes over Kuminga for Toronto. We’ve had the first-hand experience of a player once thought of as “merely” a strong, long, athletic forward without a polished offensive game coming out of San Diego State. That player drew comparisons to Luc Mbah a Moute, Trevor Ariza, Shawn Marion, and Gerald Wallace. The San Antonio Spurs fixed his shot while he tightened up his offensive bag, and once he did, he became one of the best players in the league. Could there be another Kawhi waiting for Toronto at no. 4?

Jonathan Kuminga

  • Age: 18
  • Height: 6’6” w/o shoes
  • Wingspan: 7’
  • Team: G League Ignite
  • G League Stats: 12.3 PTS (43.7% FG%), 36.2% 3P%, 4.9 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.7 BLK, 1.5 TO

Why Jonathan?

Jonathan Kuminga is a pure upside pick right now, but unlike someone like Aleksej Pokusevski, he’s got a much more NBA-ready body than most “upside” prospects. A team picking Kuminga is banking on his potential to be a go-to scorer — someone that can score from anywhere, however which way. For that, he’s shown flashes of a perimeter shot and has a budding midrange game. Kuminga also seems like he can develop a game that revolves around the nail with several counters — whether it’s to go for a jumper, get into an open space for a pull-up, or get into the basket with either hand. (Not to make another Kawhi comparison, but we know that’s a good skill set to have.)

Kuminga makes things look easy in transition when he gets the chance to press the turbo button while attacking in space. He’s already strong enough to bully smaller defenders in the post or by just running through them on his drives to the basket.

On top of the offensive abilities, Kuminga projects as an above-average defender and has shown flashes of being able to hold his own defensively against stronger players and get up and block/change shots as a help defender. As we always note: this is an important skill-base for every Raptor.

Areas of Concern

Kuminga is only 18 years old, and his combination of age, physique, athleticism, and flashes of more offensive potential should make every scout drool, right?

Right — but I do have some reservations. For one, Kuminga’s blow-by ability seems to be average at best. He doesn’t have that quick first step nor the handles to give him that separation. Lastly, Kuminga rarely explodes on his finishes around the basket unless he’s got a good runway or head of steam going downhill.

Often, Kuminga relies on bullying and spinning around smaller defenders to get his buckets. Plenty of his contested/semi-contested shots felt too below-the-rim for my liking, despite the ability to finish with his off-hand. If not for a much better-looking perimeter shot, I’m tempted to say that we might be looking at Stanley Johnson 2.0, as Stanley came to the league with a similar physical profile, high upside, and problem areas.

Decision-making is something that I’m also concerned about with Kuminga’s game. Yes, he’s still quite young, but he’s been known to make as many questionable plays (i.e. shot selection, pass/shoot split decisions, defense) as his stellar ones. It’s tough to decide though at this point whether it’s Kuminga’s nature or if he’s just too raw and still trying to figure things out.

It felt like Kuminga used the G League to leverage what he can/can’t do against B-listers, then chose to shut it down, which I don’t have a problem with. For some though, that’s a red flag. I think it’s a business decision to work on his weaknesses rather than finish his G League campaign. As the potential fourth pick, Kuminga’s floor is unknown compared to Jalen Suggs and even Scottie Barnes, and that’s the scary part.

Raptors Fit

The Raptors lack a natural wing scorer, and Kuminga projects as one. It might not happen immediately, but his ceiling teases a player who can grow into that alpha scorer role a la Kawhi or Paul George. At this young age, Kuminga is already doing things that Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby just started doing a couple of years ago, so there’s a promise of getting a much more polished game down the road. Perhaps the Raptors really see something in Kuminga, as Masai Ujiri attended his public workout. They also recently brought him to Tampa to work him out personally.

If Kuminga’s shooting and passing game improve, there’s no reason why the Raptors can’t run a Fred VanVleet-Kuminga-Anunoby-Siakam-and a centre lineup. The high end here is Kuminga taking the mantle as the Raptors’ #1 option, allowing Siakam and Anunoby to slide back as the #2-4 options on the floor. Kuminga’s selection would also probably put me in the “Bring Kyle Lowry back” camp as he would benefit from being trained by Lowry during his formative years.

A few posts are circulating on social media about how the last nine finals MVPs have been wings. Looking at this current post-season action, it’s true that wing scorers can be unstoppable at times. Kuminga is the best wing after Cade Cunningham and could potentially be the better scorer in the future. Should the Raptors take a chance on him, I can see why (even if I don’t necessarily agree) and have complete faith that the organization will raise Kuminga’s floor.

Scottie Barnes

  • Age: 19
  • Height: 6’7” w/o shoes
  • Wingspan: 7’2.75”
  • School: Florida State (Freshman)
  • College Stats : 10.3 PTS (50.3% FG%), 27.5% 3P%, 4 REB, 4.1 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 2.5 TO

Why Scottie?

A tall point-forward defensive monster who can already do more than what Ben Simmons does offensively with the ball in his hands? Oh, and he comes at a fraction of Simmons’ salary? Sign me up!

Defensively, Scottie Barnes is a nightmare matchup, especially on the perimeter. He likes to guard the point of attack, and he’s a problem for smaller point guards. The Seminoles tinkered with defensive sets that showed off Barnes’ strengths on that end. He looks capable of switching between all five positions and not be disadvantaged defensively, which is obviously an excellent base to have as a prospect.

Offensively, Barnes is a nightmare in transition — he can quickly get down the floor as a finisher, or he can kickstart the transition play. He’s always looking ahead, and he won’t be scared to give up the ball early to assist or hit a teammate in a more advantageous position.

Based on Barnes’ freshman campaign, he’s shown good reads as an on-ball decision-maker who can sometimes make high-level passes on the move. His height advantage as the pick-and-roll initiator allows him to see through the defense to either hit an open teammate or attack the basket against smaller defenders.

I think Barnes has a tremendous combination of size, athleticism, strength, basketball IQ, and competitiveness on the court. The only thing a team like Toronto would need to do is harness his very raw offensive game. If they can do that with Barnes, we’re looking at breaking his ceiling a few floors higher.

Areas of Concern

When it comes to Barnes, the most significant risk is if he doesn’t develop a reliable offensive game. While he could be a good role player as a defender and facilitator, there are limitations there — and that may not be the type of player the Raptors want with the number four pick. Everything else for Barnes on the offensive end, like perimeter shooting, in-between game, and handles, is still a considerable work in progress. Overall, his half-court offense will have to be a big project in the next 2-3 years.

Another question here is what is Barnes’ real position. There’s a big difference between a floor general and someone that can play the point guard spot in a pinch. Barnes ‘ impact could take a nosedive if he doesn’t have the ball, and he’s not at least a neutral player in the half-court. That’s the dilemma the Philadelphia 76ers have with Ben Simmons right now. Another example is Michael Carter-Williams. He’s a late lottery pick who stuffed the stat sheet every night en route to a Rookie of the Year award, but he’s now not quite a useful player in the league because of his offensive limitations.

For the Raptors, it would be a setback to their plans of maintaining competitiveness. It seems reasonable to expect them to pick a player who could become a potential no. 1 or 2 scoring option on the team. If Barnes doesn’t make that leap, that’s a bad look for the Raptors if one of Suggs/Green/Mobley turns out to be a legit scoring option — as seems to be the case now.

Raptors Fit

As is, Barnes could still be part of the Raptors’ rotation. I’d be curious to see him in the starting lineup, imagining a VanVleet-OG-Barnes-Siakam-plus centre lineup. Heck, having all three of Barnes/Siakam/Anunoby should make Chris Boucher in the middle feasible. Defensively, this lineup would terrorize most teams. They’ll have the point of attack slowed down, switchability, length, athleticism, and the ability to get into transition ASAP. These NBA Finals have shown us how devastating it is for the opposing team’s defensive ability to slow down the point of attack.

Offensively, it’ll be easier for the Raptors to use Barnes as the facilitator, and with his ability to create plays, the team’s offense could be less ISO-heavy/predictable. A spread-out floor with the ball in his hands would be a nightmare to opposing teams, especially if he improves his handles and finishing moves. His drive-and-kick game is getting better too, which would be something coach Nick Nurse would like to leverage. Barnes as the ball-handler would be ideal for VanVleet, as he’s best to play off-the-ball and snipe from the perimeter rather than put his head down and go against the trees in the paint.

Drafting Barnes would mean the Raptors are banking on him being able to do a whole lot more. If he develops an above-average offensive game, especially a decent perimeter shot, he’ll be a big problem in the league. Perhaps Barnes can be the engine of Toronto’s offense as a tall point-forward. In the playoffs, we’ve seen it’s a massive advantage for a team to have unconventional lineups. Having Barnes develop as a mismatch playmaker waiting to happen should relieve Vanvleet/Siakam/Anunoby from carrying the offensive load and unlock Nurse’s more out-of-the-box approach in his lineups and play variations.