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.
Duke’s R.J. Barrett to face Kentucky’s John Calipari for first time since World Cup semifinal win
By ADAM ZAGORIA
The last time John Calipari coached against a team featuring R.J. Barrett, it didn’t go so well for Calipari’s team.
Playing for Canada on July 8, 2017, the 6-foot-7 Barrett went off for 38 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists in Canada’s 99-87 win over Calipari and the USA in the World Cup semifinals in Cairo, Egypt. Canada went on to win the gold medal over Italy, its first ever at that level.
Now more than a year later, Barrett and his Duke teammates will take on Kentucky in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night in Indianapolis. The game between No. 2 Kentucky and No. 4 Duke is the second half of a doubleheader also featuring No. 1 Kansas against No. 10 Michigan State (ESPN).
“[Barrett] was really good,” Calipari said on Sunday of the World Cup semifinal. “He made jumpers, and ones and second shots. He was good. He was good. And they deserved to beat us. Roy [Rana] as coach did a heck of a job. But he played. And I imagine he’s going to be that excited [to play Kentucky] as he was to play the USA and win that game. He’ll be that excited to play us. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Barrett, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, chose Duke over Kentucky and Oregon last November.
Duke also features 6-7 forward Zion Williamson, who also considered Kentucky along with other schools before shocking the recruiting world by selecting Duke in January.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski raved about Barrett’s maturity before he ever played a game there. And that was before Barrett averaged nearly 30 points per game during three exhibitions in Canada.
“The kid’s a winner and wants to be special…very intelligent,” Coach K said in August. “He’s way ahead of his years as far as maturity. Very, very mature player.”
Kentucky sophomore forward P.J. Washington and freshman guard Immanuel Quickley were on the U.S. team that lost to Canada in the World Cup semifinals and know all about Barrett’s game.
“I know Zion, R.J., Cam [Reddish],” Washington said Sunday of Duke’s top freshmen. “I know Tre [Jones] a little bit, but I’ve been watching them growing up playing on the AAU circuit so I’ pretty cool with most of them. They’re great players. They’ve been having a great preseason so far and I’m just excited to see what we can do against those guys. They’re under a great coach with Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] and we’re under a great coach as well, so we just have to go in and see who fights the most.”
Some 70 NBA personnel are expected for the games, which will feature five of the Top 10 projected NBA Draft picks, per ESPN.com. Three of those five are Barrett, Williamson and Reddish, along with Kentucky freshman wing Keldon Johnson.
Washington, for one, said he’s excited to open the season against a powerhouse like Barrett, as opposed to a cupcake.
“I’d rather play a great team like [Duke],” he said. “I’m a competitor. I love playing against good teams and it’s always fun when you’re playing against somebody like that, who you know can give you a game, so you go out there and play your best.”
While Duke is relying more on a younger team revolving around freshmen like Barrett, Williamson and Reddish, Kentucky has a bit of an older team with grad transfer Reid Travis and sophomores like Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards.
“If you win it’s huge,” Calipari said. “If you lose you just put it in the rearview mirror, learn from it and go on to the next game.”
No matter how his team does against Barrett this time around, Calipari is more concerned with getting his team prepared for later in the season.
“We don’t want to be playing in November like it’s January or February,” he said. “We don’t want to be that team. We want to just continue the gradual climb in what we’re doing.”
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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.