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.
Over the next month we'll be recapping each of the Bulls' individual 2018-19 regular seasons.
Midseason expectations: Otto Porter Jr. arrived in Chicago the same night the Bulls posted a 126.3 offensive rating in a 125-120 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. Maybe that was foreshadowing for how the offense would look two days later when Porter made his Bulls debut. That was the expectation, at least, that Porter would infuse life into a stagnant Bulls offense, space the floor and give the Bulls some versatility on the defensive end. Given the Bulls were 12-42 when Porter arrived, the expectation was that he’d gain some chemistry with Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen heading into the 2019-2020 season when he’d have an entire offseason to figure out a defined role.
What went right: How about 49 percent from beyond the arc? Again, it was a small sample size, but Porter connected on 39 of his 80 3-point attempts in 15 games with the Bulls. Perhaps a change of scenery and leaving that nightmare of a John Wall-less Wizards offense, was exactly what he needed. Past his lights-out shooting, Porter showed a knack for distributing that he rarely showed in Washington.
Consider that Porter had 40 assists in 15 games with the Bulls, half of the 80 assists he had with the Wizards in 41 games. He had a career-high eight assists for the Bulls in a March game against the Pistons, three more than his high in Washington last season. Porter is never going to initiate offense but playing well in pick-and-roll action and keeping the ball moving around the perimeter only adds to his value.
What went wrong: Pegged as two-way player when he arrived in Chicago, Porter didn’t do all that much on the defensive end. The Bulls were 1.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Porter sat than when he played. It’s a small sample size, and the Bulls defense was a mess regardless of who was or wasn’t on the floor, but it’s hard to pick out any real significant defensive plays that Porter made in his 15 games.
The Stat: 111.5
We’ll disclaim here that it was just a 17-game sample size, but that’s still more than 20 percent of the season. In the 17 games between Porter’s acquisition and when he was shut down for the remainder of the season, the Bulls’ 111.5 offensive rating was ninth best in the NBA, better than teams such as the Warriors, Hawks, Sixers and Nuggets.
What’s more, their turnover percentage (13.3%, 13th), effective field goal percentage (53.0%, 11th) and offensive rebound percentage (26.1%, 15th) were all top half of the league. It was their best stretch of the season, and it was no coincidence that it came while Porter was in the lineup and healthy. Small-ish sample size? Yes. Still promising? Yes.
2019-20 Expectations: A lot. No, the Bulls didn’t give Porter that massive contract. But it’s going to stick with him as long as the Bulls are paying him. Expectations are clear: Continue to be an elite 3-point shooter and move the ball – whether it be around the perimeter or in pick-and-roll action – once the defense shifts.
Speaking of defense, Porter will be tasked with changing the narrative in Chicago. The Bulls need to improve their defense if they’re going to have any change of competing for a playoff spot and much of that responsibility will fall on Porter. He’ll routinely be guarding the opponent’s best wing and will need to hide Zach LaVine at times. It’s a tall order, but it comes with the territory while making $27 million per year.