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.
By ADAM ZAGORIAR.J. Barrett has long dreamed of slipping on a Duke uniform.
Next week he will finally get the opportunity when Duke begins a four-game tour of Barrett’s native Canada on Wednesday in Toronto. The team leaves on Monday, and Barrett expects many family and friends to watch the games in person.
“It’s very surreal [to be putting on a Duke jersey],” the 6-foot-7 Barrett said Friday on a conference call. “I’ve always wanted to wear one so now that I’m on the team and I’m going to be playing on Wednesday, I can’t wait.”
Yes, the R.J. Barrett Era is set to begin at Duke, even if that “Era” will probably only last about nine months. Barrett is the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, where he could become the third Canadian since 2013 to become the No. 1 overall pick.
“The kid’s a winner and wants to be special…very intelligent,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s way ahead of his years as far as maturity. Very, very mature player.”
Barrett is the headliner of the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, a class that includes Zion Williamson, a 6-7, 285-pound athletic freak whom Coach K called “graceful,” Cam Reddish, Tre Jones and Joey Baker. While the influx of so many talented freshmen could be an issue for team chemistry, Coach K said the freshmen are getting along great so far.
“They’re very secure guys and all they’re interested in is having fun playing and winning,” he said. “Those are good things, very good things.”
For his part, Barrett enters Duke having spent part of his summer training with the Canadian Senior National Team and part training with NBA trainer Drew Hanlen.
The Canadian Team was coached by Jay Triano of the Charlotte Hornets and featured current and former NBA players Anthony Bennett, Khem Birch, Chris Boucher, Dillon Brooks and Kelly Olynyk.
“It definitely has helped me a lot, being able to play for an NBA coach with NBA players,” Barrett said. “They taught me a lot about the game and it defintiely helped me coming into Duke.”
Before that, Barrett was in Los Angeles working mainly on his shot with Hanlen, the NBA skills coach and consultant. Jayson Tatum and Joel Embiid also worked out with Hanlen.
“I spent a lot of time working on my shooting because that was probably my biggest weakness last year,” said Barrett of a season in which he led Montverde (FL) Academy to a 35-0 record and the GEICO High School National Championship, and won the Naismith and Wooden Player of the Year Awards.
If there is one concern among NBA scouts about Barrett, it is his shot, something he’s addressing in his game.
“He’s really good and should be one of the top three picks, especially if he knocks down jumpers” one NBA scout said Friday. ”
Barrett, whose Godfather is Canadian great and two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, is the latest Canadian star to come to the U.S. for prep school and then college. Andrew Wiggins, who spent one year at Kansas, was the last great Canadian player and became the No. 1 pick in 2014. Before him, Anthony Bennett was the No. 1 pick in 2013 but is now widely regarded as one of the biggest busts ever.
“There will probably be some similarities as far as what they expect,” Kansas coach Bill Selfsaid this summer. “R.J. has a ton of hype going to college, a ton. But Andrew was maybe even a different level even just the hype. I could be wrong but R.J. may be getting a lot more hype if Andrew didn’t come before him. But they’re both terrific players.
“I think R.J. has more of an assassin-type mentality at that stage, but there wasn’t a better young person to coach than Andrew Wiggins. He was a 10….Andrew’s a special kid but he’s a special person also.”
Coach K said he’s already been impressed by Barrett’s maturity and poise.
“He had such a winning mentality and it translated to the guys playing with him,” he said. “Obviously, he’s talented and can play all over the court but I loved his strong face, how he led his team. He just looked older and in command. And the little bit I’ve had a chance to work with him, I’ve learned that to be very true. The kid’s a winner and an outstanding player. He’s engaged every second with you.”
Yes, the R.J. Barrett Era is about to begin. Enjoy it while it lasts. It won’t last long.
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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.