TORONTO — Before the Toronto Raptors season began, team president Masai Ujiri insisted that this version of the club would be unselfish.
Forward Scottie Barnes thinks that Ujiri's prediction has been borne out over the first 20 games of the season, as the Raptors have hit new highs for team assists. Barnes said that's because Toronto's locker room is filled with unselfish players.
"A lot of players that want to make that extra pass, play for your teammates," said Barnes. "You can just see down on the floor we got a lot of assists every single night, we're willing to pass the ball.
"We feel like we've got a lot of unselfish guys and we know we're going to have to play together in order to win."
The numbers back that up.
Toronto set a franchise record for most assists through the first 20 games of a season with 562, besting the mark of 515 set during the 2019-20 campaign. The Raptors 562 total assists are second only to the Denver Nuggets (632) for most in the NBA this season.
Despite his position, Barnes usually leads the second unit up the floor and is averaging 5.5 assists per game so far this campaign. He's one of just four players who has recorded over 300 points, 150 rebounds, 100 assists and 20 steals this season, joining superstars Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic and LeBron James.
"It's being able to go out there, no matter which group it is, just be able to go out there and lead, do whatever is needed out on the floor," said Barnes after practice at the OVO Athletic Centre. "No matter if I'm at the top of the key, setting pick and rolls, playing through the playmaking role, playing to the elbows, bringing the ball up, knocking down shots from the corner.
"It doesn't matter where I'm at, I'm just trying to fulfil that role."
The Raptors averaged 23.9 assists per game last season, 23rd in the league. They're fifth overall this year, averaging 28.1 assists per game to tie with the Golden State Warriors.
Head coach Darko Rajakovic, who took over the team in the off-season, said his offensive schemes have nothing to do with it.
"I give credit to the players and their willingness to move the ball and play for each other and trust each other," he said. "Even in the last game, we had 32 assists with six made threes. Can you imagine if we made a couple more, that number would probably be close to 40 assists.
"This is a group that’s a very resilient group, guys that like each other, they want to do well for themselves and for the team."
Starting point guard Dennis Schroder, who ranks seventh in total assists with 140, credits something else.
"This coaching staff. We’ve got a system, how we want to play, and we got a great group of guys, high-character guys, who follow the game plan and the system," said Scroder. "I think it's always great when everybody's touching it, everybody's moving it. I think it's unselfishness.
"It's not just stagnant, one-on-one basketball and I think that's what we are when we're at our best."
Schroder has been very effective his past three games, recording 30 assists with just two turnovers, joining Jose Calderon and Alvin Williams as just the third player in Raptors history to achieve this in a three-game span.
Toronto had a four-day break thanks to the NBA In-Season Tournament. The Raptors return to the court on Wednesday when they host the Miami Heat (11-9) at Scotiabank Arena. They'll then travel to Charlotte on Friday to play the Hornets (6-12).
Neither game was originally on the schedule, with the NBA holding the week open until the tournament's quarterfinal brackets had been sorted out.
Rajakovic said he watched the Indiana Pacers beat the Boston Celtics 122-112 in one of the tourney's quarterfinals on Monday night.
"I think overall it’s a good idea and I’m sure there are a lot of ideas that are being brainstormed right now in the NBA office for them to adjust for the future," he said.
"I hope this long name 'NBA In-Season Tournament' gets some official name, name it after a player, name it Kobe Bryant Trophy or something like that."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2023.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press