Scottie Barnes showing he could be one of the greatest Raptors ever

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Bigger, stronger, mobile and agile.

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You can see these traits, among others, every time Scottie Barnes steps onto the court.

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Zoom in even closer, and you’ll find a much more refined jump shot, with Barnes heaving shots in rhythm and maintaining a balance the third-year player has clearly added to his game.

The unfettered joy Barnes embraced when he entered the league disappeared last season, but it has resurfaced and, with it, a more determined approach.

Fans in Dallas will get an up-close look at Barnes on Wednesday night when the Raptors continue their road swing with a date against the Mavs.

One of the NBA’s best early-season stories has been how Barnes has elevated his game to a level few had envisioned.

Granted, it’s early, and opponents will make the necessary adjustments, but all signs are pointing up. In the absence of a rim protector, teams are virtually left defenceless when Barnes is making straight-line dribbles to the rack.

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When matched up against smaller opponents on the block, Barnes will back them down by using his size and strength in a way Shaquille O’Neal would terrorize teams, often finishing the sequence with an emphatic dunk.

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Barnes’ three-point shooting provides him with the clear advantage of forcing a defender to respect his range. If they close out too quickly, Barnes has the ability to take his man off the dribble and either create for himself or for a teammate.

Double-teaming on the catch when Barnes has his back to the basket will become more common, as will sending an extra defender when he puts the ball on the floor.

The question is, can Barnes sustain it? Moving forward, the key for him involves adapting to the defensive schemes and systems that are sure to follow.

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The key for the Raptors is to continue to feature Barnes and help construct a roster around him.

In the half-court, his handle could be tighter, while his free-throw shooting can always be better. Heading into Wednesday’s tip, Barnes has turned the ball over a combined 23 times in seven games.

Overall, though, he’s doing just about everything befitting a franchise player. Unless he gets completely carried away in the hype, there’s no reason to suggest Barnes won’t be anointed the Raptors’ cornerstone.

In the history of the franchise, there have been real, albeit few, players given that elite status.

The outlier remains Kawhi Leonard, whose one and only season in Toronto led to the franchise’s one and only championship.

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Damon Stoudamire occupied the mantle almost by default during the expansion years. Had he stayed in Toronto, Mighty Mouse — who regretted leaving — would have left a much greater legacy.

Vince Carter inspired a generation, lifted the Raptors from the doldrums of a tire fire, but his legacy remains stained in the wake of the events and the words he expressed when he left for New Jersey.

Chris Bosh was ill-equipped to assume the role, but he never took a night off and left everything out on the floor. It wasn’t his fault that Bosh’s skillset made him less effective at crunch time when a basket was required. The pieces around him weren’t exactly high-end, either.

The Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan days brought the Raptors to the cusp of a championship appearance, but some guy in Cleveland named LeBron James had other ideas.

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No one is saying the current Raptors are title-worthy — they are far from it — but it must be said that Barnes has the potential to be counted among the greatest players in Raptors history.

Leonard was unique because he could defend the likes of a James or a Kevin Durant, while at the same time draining shots to win a game. He could run an offence as the primary ball handler, but he was also adept when asked to play off the ball.

No player will match Carter’s athleticism, but at the same time, there’s no Raptor who can match Barnes’ combination of skill and size.

As good as Leonard was, he wasn’t built to guard centres like Barnes can. Smaller, quicker guards can take advantage of the rising star, but he has nonetheless shown an ability to stay in front of defenders.

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Toronto’s eighth game of an 82-game season begins in Big D. Very little was expected of the Raptors — perhaps very little will ultimately be accomplished.

But Barnes, for his part, has helped make the Raptors relevant because people want to see him play and how he adapts to what teams will throw at him.

Club chairman and head honcho Masai Ujiri’s job is to surround Barnes with players who can shoot and make perimeter shots, which will space the floor. He also has to somehow find players who can create off the bounce, allowing Barnes to operate in more one-on-one matchups.

Toronto’s current roster is very limited and it’s almost a certainty that the best way to make Barnes even better is by trading for that elusive piece. Still, the calendar and the vagaries of the salary cap make dealing in early November virtually impossible.

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Barnes has been a revelation. The fire that has fuelled him this early in the season must be maintained.

When adversity strikes, Barnes has to push through and show no outward signs of defeat and frustration.

The NBA is a cruel league that will test the very best. Barnes has passed with flying colours, but it’s still early.

So far, he has not come across as someone who will rest on his laurels.

For a rookie head coach who didn’t inherit much of a roster, Darko Rajakovic potentially has a legitimate franchise player in Barnes, whose ceiling might be higher than any player the Raptors have ever had.

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