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Whether it is in front of a packed gym during an Atlanta tournament or a random weekday home game, R.J. Barrett’s routine is the same. As the announcer introduces him to the crowd, Barrett finds a Montverde teammate for a pregame handshake that ends with Barrett pretending to tighten a tie. If you squint hard enough, it is easy to imagine Barrett doing the exact same thing on the night of the 2019 NBA Draft as he prepares to shake commissioner Adam Silver’s hand.
In some ways, Barrett is a normal teenager, passionate about bacon cheeseburgers who enjoys playing NBA 2K with his friends, and makes the occasional trip to Buffalo Wild Wings. Being the No. 1 ranked player in the country also makes you very much different than his peers. In the last ten years, the top ranked high school player has been a first round NBA draft pick after playing just one year of college ball in all but one instance. Seven players have become lottery picks, showing there is a strong track record of NBA success for players of Barrett’s caliber.
Barrett is modest when asked to describe his game for someone who has not had the opportunity to watch him play.
“Aggressive. I attack and make plays,” Barrett notes. “I can really play anywhere on the court.”
Another way to describe Barrett is polished. Before every game starts, he goes over to shake each referee’s hand. Barrett is constantly communicating to teammates, on one occasion he puts his arm around his teammates during the national anthem, and the entire team follows suit by the end of the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When you learn that Barrett’s father, Rowan Barrett, is a former professional basketball player, it makes sense that his son appears wise beyond his years. His mother, Kesha, was a star on the St. John’s track team. Barrett’s godfather is Steve Nash, who he speaks to regularly for advice. Barrett appears different from his peers because he is, and has taken advantage of the opportunities he has been afforded.
“He’s [Steve Nash] a very cool, humble guy,” Barrett explains. “Two-time NBA MVP, so for him to take the time out of his day to give me advice on anything is pretty good.”
Like Nash, Barrett takes pride in being Canadian, and has a chance to be the third Canadian player this decade to be selected with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft when he is first eligible to declare in 2019. At the 2017 FIBA U19 World Cup, Barrett led the Canadian team to its first gold medal in international basketball competition.
Barrett is polite and respectful one-on-one, but these adjectives do his game a disservice. To quote Barrett’s favorite rapper Lil Uzi, he’s got a “colorful aura…neon guts.” Barrett is the ultimate showman and an entertainer on the court. During one tournament game, Barrett pulled off a Eurostep to get to the hoop, then celebrated with a little Russell Westbrook dance. On another occasion, he hit the Michael Jordan shrug after a made basket.
“I love playing in front of people,” Barrett beams as he speaks. “I love putting on a show for people. It’s what makes basketball really fun. All the hard work I’ve been putting in over the summers and [through the] years. I get to showcase my ability.”
Barrett could have chosen to showcase his talent anywhere in the country, but the Cameron Crazies will get a front row seat as he heads to Duke after graduating from Montverde.
Barrett Committed to Duke Over Kentucky & Oregon
Barrett and his family have been intentional about putting together a plan that allows him to maximize his talent. Barrett moved from Canada to attend Montverde Academy, a Central Florida high school program that has produced a bevy of top NBA players including Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and D’Angelo Russell.
Montverde head coach Kevin Boyle explains Barrett’s thoroughness during the college recruiting process.
His father is involved in Canada basketball. His dad did a lot of research on schools. If you meet his father, [you notice] he is very intelligent and analytical. When they got to the colleges [Rowan Barrett] wanted each college to show, in great detail, how they were going to use R.J. What sets they were going to use. How much they were going to use him at the point. How much they were going to play him at the off-guard. Other players [on the team], and their skill level. What is their level like playing with someone who is better than them? Breaking things down from the nutrition to the sleep. Everything. That’s what he does for Canada basketball, and he has been doing it for a long time.
Barrett narrowed down his list of colleges to a final three: Duke, Oregon and Kentucky. He admits it was close between the three schools, but explains Durham felt the most like home.
“When I got to Duke, I saw a lot of similarities to what we have here [at Montverde],” Barrett explains. “It felt more like home, because I felt like I could play well anywhere I went. So, it was more things off the court [why Barrett chose Duke].”
Barrett’s commitment makes for an interesting tale for Duke. This summer, Duke was on the receiving end of great news within weeks of each other thanks to the reclassification of Barrett along with Marvin Bagley. Barrett announced he was re-classifying from the 2019 class to 2018 allowing him to be part of the team this upcoming fall. Two weeks later, Duke found out they would be getting Bagley earlier than anticipated as Bagley joined the 2017 class rather than waiting another year. The reclassification process allows both players to enter college sooner, but it also gives them the option to enter the NBA one year earlier if they choose to do so.
Boyle explains in practical terms why we saw the top players reclassify this summer, allowing them to start their professional careers a year sooner.
For R.J. or Bagley, if you know, most likely, you’re going to be No. 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 in the draft you’re looking at a lot of money. From a business component, if somebody was talking to a parent who is a business person. They would say, by staying in high school, it’s taking you a year longer to start making that money. God forbid, there is a tragic accident. Yes, you could have insurance, but often the insurance is not going to cover [everything]. Sometimes, they are just ready. R.J. is the best player in the country this year. That means, he would have been the best player again next year. Does he need to do that for two years? If he was immature, maybe. A lot of times, there’s people that are gifted in music, gifted in the arts that are able to make money at a younger age because they are talented and they have good parents. Nobody really makes a stink about that, but for some reason in basketball people seem to think they should have an opinion on somebody else remaining in school.
Barrett heading to Durham one year sooner is a good thing for Duke, and potentially a great thing for the NBA.
The Future Face of the NBA? There’s Plenty of Reasons Why Barrett Can Be Just That
“It makes him a marketers dream,” Boyle explains. “He’s very intelligent. He’s got a good smile, good personality, yet he’s very level-headed and mature. He’s not going to get caught embarrassing someone who’s sponsoring him…If he hits his peak, he’s going to really hit it high, because he has the personality, the charm, appearance and maturity to be a great role model for the NBA.”
Montverde is a close drive to Orlando, but it is easy to drive past the area hundreds of times without knowing about the school’s world-class athletics. One thing has always remained true about basketball: all you need is a ball and a basket to thrive. While it may not be in a thriving metropolis, Montverde has much more than a ball and a basket with multiple basketball gyms and a training center designed by the same person who created the plans for the Houston Rockets weight room.
Boyle sees NBA potential all over Barrett, and he would know given how many NBA players have gotten their start at Montverde. In addition to Simmons, Embiid and Russell, Boyle also coached Kyrie Irving at St. Patrick’s, a thriving New Jersey high school program, before accepting his current role at Montverde. Boyle sees Barrett has the perfect combination of playing ability and character to allow him to excel on and off the hardwood.
“He’s got a great NBA body, about 6’7″ and he’s starting to fill out,” Boyle rattles off Barrett’s positive traits. “In today’s [NBA] game, the way they referee very close, he’s a hard guy not to foul the way they referee today. He’s one of those guys, for me, when he emerges as a good NBA player, he’s going to end up getting to the line eight, nine, 10 or 11 times a game like James Harden does.”
Having watched three of Barrett’s first four games to start Montverde’s season, it is easy to see why Barrett could have gone to any school in the country. He’s a slasher who can get to the basket at will, has freakish athletic ability and shows a willingness to play defense. As Barrett and Boyle will both tell you, there is room for improvement, but he already has enough tools to play at a higher level than most of his competition when he heads to Duke.
Boyle sees some similarities to James Harden in Barrett’s game.
“I like Harden for him a little bit,” Boyle notes as he ponders an NBA comparison. “Harden was not a great shooter coming out of school, but [he was] good. Not a great handle, even now [Harden] sometimes has too many turnovers. But he’s good enough that he plays the point. His assist to turnover ratio, his steal ratio, when you go to positive/negative is strong enough…Overall, it’s been a good experience and [Harden] would be a guy to look at [in comparison to Barrett].”
The Harden comparison is far from perfect, but the biggest similarity is both players’ ability to attack the basket. Barrett possesses more athleticism than Harden, giving him an above-the-rim component to his game the Rockets superstar does not possess.
Barrett understands the attention to detail needed to continue his upward trajectory.
“I’m always a leader in any situation I’m going into,” Barrett says. “I’ve been the leader here for the past couple years, and these are just the little things we do to show its a brotherhood. Make everything about them, not as much as you…It’s the little things I try to do to bring us closer together.”
Is all the praise Barrett has received premature? We are not too far removed from high schoolers being the top NBA prospects in the country. If players did not need to be a year removed from high school graduation to enter the NBA draft, Barrett would be mentioned in the same category as Bagley, Luka Doncic and the other top lottery prospects.
Under the current system, Barrett will head to Duke, and has the opportunity to enter the draft after his freshman year. Ultimately, it will be up to Barrett as to how much of his ceiling he can reach. This game has a way of leveling the playing field, sometimes humbling those with immense talent. However, there are a number of reasons to think Boyle is correct in his assessment that Barrett will be the face of the NBA in a few years.
When your father is the Assistant GM for the Canadian national team, and Nash is your godfather, you are likely going to be ahead of other players your age as long as you have the talent. It is hard to imagine going to the NBA with a better combination of tutelage than Montverde and Duke. Montverde has produced more NBA players in the last decade than most college programs. The academy plays a national schedule. The team was headed to China for a tournament when I was in town.
The schedule helps prepare Barrett and his teammates for the rigors of a college basketball season. Like Duke, Montverde is no stranger to national television, and the school offers a live stream of every home game. After playing under Mike Krzyzewski, there will be few, if any, other top 2019 prospects that will enter the league as NBA-ready as Barrett. The odds are overwhelmingly in Barrett’s favor based on both his pedigree and historical data.
We end our time together talking about NBA 2K, and who his starting five is when creating a team on the popular video game.
“You got to put M.J. in there,” Barrett thinks about the question. “LeBron. Put KD…That’s tough. I can put Westbrook in there, and Paul George.
You learn a lot about a person from the way they approach 2K. Fittingly, Barrett, who is known for uniting his teammates, brings Durant and Westbrook back together on his fictional team. Barrett struggled to think of a complete starting lineup, but in a couple years there’s no doubt the Duke commit will be able to insert himself onto the team.