R.J. Barrett is an enigma. There’s no question he’s talented. The No. 1 high school prospect in the country – yes, ahead of Zion Williamson – averaged an ACC-best 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 38 games. He was a first-team All-American for a 32-6 Duke team, has off-the-charts athleticism and length at the shooting guard position that has NBA scouts gushing.
But his freshman season with the Blue Devils still felt underwhelming. Beyond the raw numbers – helped in part because of the load he was asked to carry – was a ball-dominant, inefficient scorer who oftentimes struggled within the flow of a game and became too isolation-heavy. He struggled from beyond the arc, was turnover-prone (he had four or more turnovers in 17 games) and likely benefitted some from playing with the country’s best player. It’s what makes him such a mystery as he heads into the pre-draft process needing to answer serious questions about how his game will translate at the next level.
We’ll begin with the good. Barrett displayed a knack for attacking the basket with an excellent first step and a strong left-handed dribble. He took a whopping 173 non-transition shots at the rim, getting there either off a dribble drive or cut to the basket. Barrett has also shown an ability to read offenses and distribute, fitting passes in small windows that lead to dunks or kickouts for open 3-pointers. Keep this in mind later in the scouting report, but Barrett has excellent court vision when he’s not shot-happy.
Barrett’s frame will allow him to compete from Day 1. He’s a true 6-foot-7 and is already pretty filled out – he’s listed at 202 pounds – allowing him to battle inside and defend multiple positions. He’s always been a high-motor player and has potential on the defensive end of the floor. It’s a real positive to his game, though it went overlooked because of how much was asked of him as an offensive player/scorer in Durham. He’s also lightning-quick in transition, which should help him early in his NBA career. Because…
Goodness, Barrett was inefficient. Injuries to Tre Jones and Williamson put Barrett front and center for good portions of the season, but his numbers are ugly. Barrett shot just 45.4 percent from the field, made fewer than 31 percent of his 3-point attempts and was below 67 percent from the charity stripe on nearly 6 attempts per game. This came on 18.5 field goal attempts per game, and too often Barrett tried to take over instead of using the talent around him. It may have been amplified because one of those talents was Williamson, but Barrett’s mentality got him into trouble. He showed little improvement over the course of the season.
Because of this, there are real concerns about Barrett playing off the ball at the next level. Duke ran its offense through Williamson at times, and Jones improved at the point as the year went on, but Barrett was at his best with the ball in his hands. He’s an above-average cutter and showed some ability in pick-and-roll action from the wing, but his lack of a reliable outside jumper – he shot just 33.7 percent on all jump shots – limited him to simply overpowering defenders simply because he was more athletic. That won’t be the case at the next level. Barrett is at his best in a high-usage role, but in the NBA he simply isn’t efficient enough to play it. Something’s gotta give.
His game is tailored to being high-usage, but that’s a tough ask in the NBA. And it’s an incredibly tough ask for a Bulls team that already struggled a year ago to get Lauri Markkanen the touches he needed consistently. Of the projected top-5 picks, Barrett probably makes the least sense in terms of fit. Now, there’s still a very good argument to be made that Barrett is the second most talented basketball player in the class, and drafting best player available has never, ever been a bad idea. But they’ll need to rework Barrett’s game, or at least his mentality. At this point in Barrett’s career he wouldn’t be able to play many minutes alongside Zach LaVine, who’s proven to be effective with the ball in his hands.
The best-case scenario for taking Barrett would be re-working his game in a reserve role in each of the next two seasons. Improving his jump shot, his decision making and activity off the ball seems like a lot for a team that made a proactive deal at last year’s trade deadline. Plus, a second unit arguably needs to be more effective than the first unit because they have fewer isolation scorers. The ball needs to keep moving on a second unit that can't create for itself. That's not Barrett right now.
That’s not to say the Bulls need an immediate contributor or even a starter with their first round pick this June, but they need someone that fits. Fitting a round Barrett peg into a square Bulls hole doesn’t seem ideal.
Still, if the Bulls think his shortcomings are fixable – he’s 18 years old, lest we forget – then there’s little argument against taking him. He’s still a top-3 talent in the class and has potential despite a freshman season that had some hidden ugliness to it. But he's got a long way to go. We don't often think of players who put up huge numbers in college as projects, but it's what Barrett would be if he winds up in Chicago.