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Milwaukee Bucks' Bobby Portis drives past Toronto Raptors' Scottie Barnes during the first half in Toronto, on Dec. 2, 2021.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

By most measures, Scottie Barnes is more than a quarter of the way through a standout rookie campaign..

And though his 13-point, six-rebound performance in the Toronto Raptors’ 97-93 win over the NBA-champion Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday wasn’t his best outing statistically, it was enough to help his team snap a three-game losing streak, picking up a third home win of the season. Equally noteworthy, Barnes was on the court for a team-high 38 minutes 45 seconds, a sign of the growing confidence that his head coach has in him, as the Raptors’ halted Milwaukee’s eight-game winning run.

Certainly, the confidence shown by Barnes pre-game, shortly after the Raptors discovered that Milwaukee would be resting its star centre Giannis Antetokounmpo, resonated with his head coach. With the two-time MVP now a non-factor, the Raptors’ defensive point of emphasis quickly pivoted to forward Khris Middleton, the Bucks’ second-leading scorer.

“Once we found out that Giannis was not playing, we were deciding on what our game plan on Middleton would be and Scotty kind of stepped up and said, ‘I’m going to guard him, I’m going to guard him hard, so let’s start with that,’ ” Nick Nurse said. “So we did, and I thought he did a good job on him, made him work.”

Even though Middleton got 22 points, he was 8 of 20 from the field as the Raptors kept the opposition below the century-point mark for the second straight game. Fred VanVleet, who led the Raptors with 29 points on 9 of 17 shooting, complimented his teammates for their commitment on the defensive end, even if there are still occasional breakdowns.

“Holding teams under 100, that’s hard to do in this league and something that we continue to work on,” he said. “I think that the coaches have been great, and the fact that we’re looking at the film every day and there’s not much hiding and pampering going on, like, it’s a pretty honest and truthful film session, and that’s the only way you can get better.”

The victory capped a day in which the fourth overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft just missed out on Eastern Conference rookie-of-the-month honours for October/November, losing to Cleveland Cavaliers centre Evan Mobley, who was taken one spot in front of him in July’s draft.

His on-court performance through the opening 20 games of his first professional season has been eye-opening, and the former Florida State forward is already keeping good company. Entering Thursday’s game against Milwaukee, Barnes led all rookies in points (15.4), rebounds (8.2) and minutes a game (35.4).

His 19 points in Tuesday’s 98-91 loss to Memphis also pushed him past the 300-point mark, making him just the third Raptors rookie to reach that milestone in their first 20 games, joining Damon Stoudamire (317) and Vince Carter (312).

With the Bucks in town Thursday for a rematch of the 2019 Eastern Conference final – won by the Raptors on their way to the title – it also led some to draw comparisons with a young Giannis Antetokounmpo. Others might consider drawing comparisons between a raw NBA rookie and a five-time all-star who is also the reigning NBA Finals MVP to be something of a stretch.

Toronto head coach Nick Nurse was game enough to least entertain the notion before the opening tip.

“There’s some similarities there,” Nurse said. “Scottie brings the ball kinda like Giannis did when he came into the league and things like that. Giannis was just so much more of a get out of my way, until you stop me I’m going and Scottie’s got more of a head-up [approach].”

However, one other similarity is that both possess crossover appeal, with skillsets that can be an asset in multiple positions. The 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo, who was rested for Thursday’s game and didn’t see a minute of court time, has famously been described as a point guard in a centre’s body. More than a quarter into his first NBA season, the 6-foot-8 Barnes has already been started at both small forward and power forward.

But the rookie can certainly handle the ball too, having been a finalist for the NCAA’s Bob Cousy Award, given to college basketball’s outstanding point guard, last year.

“Yeah, playing multiple positions, both handle it, bringing it up,” Nurse added. “Scottie is starting to shoot it a little better now but both primarily scoring in the paint or around the basket or 15 feet and in, those kind of things too.”

Barnes’s first year hasn’t been without its stumbles though – which includes taking a tumble as he ran out of the tunnel and onto the court before Thursday’s game.

VanVleet gives a lot of credit to his younger teammate for staying with the coach’s message, and continuing to try to listen, learn and get better.

“I think he just speaks to being accountable and being coachable,” VanVleet said. “And that’s part of this thing that we don’t really talk about a lot. I mean, we are very pampered, spoiled guys. We make a lot of money and everybody in our world is telling us how great we are. But sometimes, you got to have people to tell you the truth and you got to be able to accept that.”

Nurse described the contours of his game earlier this week as “peaks and valleys,” particularly when he was subbed out after just 84 seconds of Sunday’s loss to the Boston Celtics after committing two turnovers in just seven seconds.

The former NBA coach of the year says those lapses have been particularly apparent during the opening few games, and while they aren’t happening every night, those rookie inconsistencies are still occurring more than they should.

But the peaks make the valleys worth persevering with. Since been yanked embarrassingly early in Sunday’s game, Barnes has gone 10 of 20 from three-point range, giving a team that lives and dies from beyond the arc the kind of marksmanship it needed with two of its leading snipers, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr., out injured.

That was particularly apparent in recent losses, when the opposition could just load up on stars such as Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, daring the Raptors to beat them via another outlet.

Trent’s return for Thursday’s game was particularly timely then, given that Nurse had warned that his team would either have to play successful offence against the Bucks or face a transition defence that’s hard to stop to stand a chance of winning.

With Trent and his .373 three-point shooting acumen back in the fold, the Raptors returned to the “let ‘er fly” philosophy – Nurse’s words – against the Bucks, and unlike previous games, a high percentage of the shots actually fell.

After shooting an average of 37 three-pointers over the past three losses, but connecting on just 27 per cent of them, the Raptors fired off 40 Thursday night, but they fell at a 35-per-cent clip. Trent showed some understandable rust, going just 2-of-10 from beyond the arc, but VanVleet led the way with five three-pointers and a team-high 29 points as the Raptors improved to 3-8 at home, with four games remaining in their season-long seven-game homestand.

The Raptors next play host to the Washington Wizards on Sunday.

The Raptors will host the Washington Wizards on Sunday, and as Nurse lays it out, if Barnes wants to continue to progress, and help his team in the process, he should replicate the effort – and confidence – that he put forth on Thursday.

“That’s the mindset we need him to stay in because I think there is probably a guy for him to guard at the guard or the forward that is going to be a high points producer and a high-usage guy every night,” Nurse said. “That’s, I think, the way for him to go into the game because it’s something he could do to help us and help himself every night. Play hard defence.”