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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Thursday / May 24.
  • Celtics’ rookie Jayson Tatum says Duke’s R.J. Barrett will be basketball’s next big thing

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    By ADAM ZAGORIA

    R.J. Barrett may be rooting for his hometown Toronto Raptors in these NBA playoffs, but his biggest fan appears to be a rookie with the Boston Celtics.

    It was Boston rookie Jayson Tatum who presented the 6-foot-7 Barrett with the Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year trophy back in March — and it is Tatum who believes Barrett is destined for (more) greatness down the road.

    “He’s a great player, a great athlete,” Tatum, who is averaging 24.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists as the Celtics have taken a 3-0 lead on the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the NBA playoffs, said in a recent phone interview. “He’s a lot taller than I thought he was. He definitely has a bright future.”

    The Duke-bound Barrett is the projected No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, per ESPN and other outlets. He could become the third Canadian after Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins to go No. 1 overall.

    He “can do a lot of things well on the court but I think he’s more athletic than I was at that age,” said Tatum, the No. 3 pick in 2017 after a one-and-done year at Duke. “He’s probably stronger than me. I think my advantage was I was a little bit taller and my ability to score the ball was my strong suit.”

    For the record, Barrett says of the NBA playoffs, “I think the Rockets are going to take it, but I want either the Raptors or Cleveland” in the East.

    Although he said he’s rooting for the hometown Raptors, Barrett models his game after the man who has single-handedly ripped that team’s heart out during these playoffs, including his game-winner off-the-window in Game 3 on Saturday.

    “My favorite player growing up was LeBron James,” Barrett said. “I love the way he plays. He shares the ball, he can score, he’s dominant. I love the way he plays.”

    James and the Cavs, like Tatum and the Celtics, will go for the sweep in Game 4 on Monday night.

    Assuming both teams advance, Tatum, the former Duke standout, will face off against James, Barrett’s hero who never went to college, in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving, another Duke product, had hoped to face off against his old teammate James in the playoffs, but is done for the season after a knee procedure.

    Meantime, Barrett looks to be the next Duke one-and-done in a line that has recently included Irving, Tatum and Brandon Ingram of the L.A. Lakers, among others, and this year will include Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr.

    This year, Barrett led coach Kevin Boyle’s Montverde (FL) Academy team to a perfect 35-0 record and the Geico High School Nationals championship.

    Along the way, he won the Wooten, Naismith, Gatorade, USA Today and MaxPreps Player of the Year, and captured Most Valuable Player honors at more than half a dozen events from China to Hawaii to South Carolina, including at the prestigious Geico Nationals. It goes without saying that he is the consensus No. 1-ranked player in the Class of 2018.

    After getting his driver’s license and finishing up at Montverde, Barrett will be at Duke with the No. 1 recruiting class that also includes Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones, and, most recently, Joey Baker.

    Barrett, Reddish and Williamson are now projected to go 1, 3 and 7, respectively, in the 2019 NBA Draft, per ESPN, but Barrett believes they will coexist and thrive at Duke. The group stays in regular touch on Snapchat group chat, and Barrett said they had been working on a nickname for their foursome before Baker reclassified to 2018. Now they may have to move on from names like “The Four Pillars” and get something akin to the “The Fab Five.”

    “We talk every day about many different things, not always about basketball,” Barrett said. “I think the ways our games are set up, we’re going to play well and feed off each other.”

    Barrett said it’s Coach K’s “job” to figure out how the pieces will work, but “none of us need the ball. We’re unselfish so it isn’t going to be hard.”

    For his part, Tatum said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has the one-and-done thing figured out and has no doubt he’ll make it work with Barrett and the other stars.

    “There is a structure [at Duke] and it gives you an opportunity to play and he lets you have freedom,” Tatum said. “And he teaches you how to play the game the right way and great players know how to play with other great players.”

    Photo: Gatorade

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.