WASHINGTON – The legend of Duke freshman RJ Barrett began years ago and gained momentum in a country far, far away.
The top college basketball recruit for the 2018 class honed his skills in Mississauga, Ontario. Part of the rise of Canadian players that watched Vince Carter soar for the Toronto Raptors and British Columbia’s Steve Nash become a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, Barrett flashed his cut-above game in middle school.
That’s when fellow Canadian Nickeil Walker-Alexander first became aware of the player who would go on to set the Duke freshman single-season record for points, with a chance for more.
Walker-Alexander, Virginia Tech’s leading scorer, recalled attending a tournament in Ontario to watch his young cousin. One of the other kids stood out. The one who along with Duke teammate Zion Williamson garnered NBA Draft buzz all season, and has fans hoping their team receives lottery luck.
“The same, but just not as developed,” Walker-Alexander said of Barrett’s prior work one day before the fourth-seeded Hokies and the top-seeded Blue Devils meet Friday in a Sweet 16 matchup at Capital One Arena.
“Pretty dominant for his age,” Walker-Alexander continued. “Scoring and affecting the game. Way more athletic than kids then. I think he was dunking.”
Barrett, a savvy 6-foot-7 wing threat with natural scoring skills and winning traits, improved exponentially from there by the time others outside of North America took notice.
At the 2017 FIBA U19 World Championship in Egypt, Canada stunned a Team USA squad coached by Kentucky’s John Calipari. The game’s best player was a 17-year-old Barrett, who had 38 points and 13 rebounds despite being two years younger than most on the court.
The scoring surges haven’t stopped. Neither has Barrett’s knack for producing in the most significant moments.
His putback off a Williamson missed free throw in the final seconds of Duke’s 77-76 win over Central Florida Sunday saved the Blue Devils from being on the wrong end of one of college basketball’s greatest upsets.
“Just confidence,” Barrett said Thursday of maintaining poise in the pressure-packed spot. “At the end of the game, you're not thinking about anything else but winning. And that's why we're able to make those game-winning plays.”
The scoring, smarts and steadiness are among the reasons why Barrett is a likely top-3 selection in June’s draft.
Williamson generates the most attention for his otherworldly athleticism, but Barrett leads Duke with 22.8 points per game while ranking second in rebounds (7.7) and assists (4.1).
The Wizards, who currently have a 23.1 percent chance of landing a top-4 selection in June’s draft, could certainly use more playmaking beyond two-time All-Star Bradley Beal. Though Barrett projects as a two-guard, his size and passing game would allow the coaching staff to play him with Beal.
Barrett and another freshman, Cam Reddish, provide the Blue Devils with offensive pop from the wing.
“They can score and they are really good players, so it’s not enough to say my hand was up,” Walker-Alexander said of defending Barrett and Reddish based on their battles in ACC play this season. “You’ve got to make it uncomfortable.”
Watch Barrett and Williamson remain calm late in close games, or smile with ease on the podium with dozens of reporters and cameras focused on them. Uncomfortable doesn’t seem like a vibe familiar to either player.
“[Zion and RJ are] not in uncharted territory here. They’re very mature,” Duke assistant Nate James told NBC Sports Washington. “They understand the camera is always on them. They’ve been thrown in pressure situations almost since they became ‘Zion’ and ‘RJ,’ They’ve adapted to the spotlight. … Everything that you possibly think off that could get these guys off their game was thrown at them, and they’ve responded. It’s the new normal for them.”
Barrett’s game is not without concerns. He enters Friday shooting a mere 31.3 percent on 3-point attempts and 66.2 percent from the free throw line. Defensive struggles were evident chasing around UCF’s Aubrey Dawkins, who scored 32 points against Duke.
At one point, Barrett and Williamson were contenders for No. 1 pick status. Now Williamson has soared to the top, and Murray State point guard Ja Morant passed Barrett in the eyes of some evaluators.
There’s just no denying Barrett’s know-how or desire to dominate.
“His aggression on both ends of the floor. His will to win,” Reddish said of Barrett’s impact beyond the numbers. “Whether it’s a shooting competition or a game or practice, he loves to win.”
Two future first-round picks, including Maryland’s Kevin Huerter along with Reddish, were on that 2017 Team USA squad most assumed would triumph. The U.S. won the gold medal in 2013 and 2015.
“The reality was, one kid really went crazy, and then the rest of their kids did what they did, so hats off to them,” Calipari said after the loss.
That kid started showing his wares years ago north of the border and across the globe. NBA teams are banking on him thriving for years to come. Duke hopes such future talk doesn’t become Barrett's main focus for a few more days.
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