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2019 NBA Draft: RJ Barrett's coast-to-coast game went around the world before fueling Duke's title hopes

2019 NBA Draft: RJ Barrett's coast-to-coast game went around the world before fueling Duke's title hopes

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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Bradley Beal has strong All-Star case and a great chance for a final push

Bradley Beal has strong All-Star case and a great chance for a final push

Despite not making the 2019-20 All-Star Game as a starter, Bradley Beal still has a chance to get in as a reserve. He just may need a strong closing argument before the coaches' votes are in.

Beal has already put up impressive, All-Star caliber numbers. He is averaging 27.8 points, 6.4 assists, 4.5 rebounds and a steal per game. He's third in the East in scoring and 10th in assists.

His shooting percentages (45.2 FG%, 31.6 3PT%) are down from his career averages, but the volume is there. No player has averaged more than 27 points per game and not made the All-Star Game that season since Dominique Wilkins all the way back in 1984-85. That's 35 years.

Team success, though, does count and if Beal doesn't get in it will be widely blamed on the Wizards' record. They are currently 15-29 and 11th in the Eastern Conference.

Putting up points on bad teams can be seen as empty-calorie stats. Just ask Devin Booker, who averaged 26.6 points and didn't make the cut last season because his Phoenix Suns were a lottery team.

Beal, though, has the fact he's been an All-Star each of the past two years working for him. He has the pedigree that when people around the league think of him, they think 'All-Star.' He knows all too well what it's like not having that established reputation, as it probably cost him an All-Star nod back in 2016-17.

The competition, though, will be serious. With the five starters named, that leaves seven open spots in the Eastern Conference. And guys like Jayson Tatum of the Celtics and Jimmy Butler of the Heat are essentially locks. Kyle Lowry of the Raptors is also a safe bet.

The coaches will have to show some love to the big men as well which means Nikola Vucevic of the Magic, Bam Adebayo of the Heat and Domantas Sabonis of the Pacers are good candidates. Guards Ben Simmons of the Sixers and Jaylen Brown of the Celtics are also going to be in the mix and so will Khris Middleton of the Bucks.

Beal is likely to fall in a group of guards that won't be easy to choose from. It could be between him, Simmons, Brown, Zach LaVine of the Bulls and Malcolm Brogdon of the Pacers. Beal scores more than all of them, but most of those guys are on much better teams than he is, LaVine being the lone exception.

Here's a look at their numbers, for comparison:

B. Beal, WAS - 27.8 ppg, 6.4 apg, 4.5 rpg, 45.2 FG%, 31.6 3PT%
B. Simmons, PHI - 16 ppg, 8.5 apg, 7.8 rpg, 57.8 FG%, LOL
J. Brown, BOS - 20 ppg, 2.4 apg, 6.8 ppg, 49.1 FG%, 39.1 3PT%
Z. LaVine, CHI - 25 ppg, 3.8 apg, 4.7 rpg, 44.5 FG%, 39 3PT%
M. Brogdon, IND - 17.1 ppg, 7.3 ap,g, 4.3 rpg, 43.9 FG%, 34.3 3PT%

Beal, though, still has two games left to make his case before the All-Star reserves are announced on Thursday, and you could say the schedule has worked out in his favor.

On Sunday, he will see the Hawks, which means he will square off against Trae Young, one of the starting guards in the East. And on Tuesday, he will go head-to-head with Middleton and the Bucks. If Beal can come up with big games, he could outshine the guy who beat him out for a starting spot and then another who is now competing with him to be a reserve.

If his recent games are any indication, Beal is going to finish strong. He had 38 points and nine rebounds against the Heat on Wednesday night and then followed that with 36 points and eight assists against the Cavs on Thursday.

Beal has been on a roll lately and it's coming at a good time. Now he has to seal the deal.

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Beal makes his case in win over Cavs

Beal makes his case in win over Cavs

The Washington Wizards beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 124-112 on Thursday night. Here are five takeaways from what went down...

1. Just before tip-off, the NBA announced it's 2019-20 All-Star starters and not included in the Eastern Conference backcourt was Bradley Beal. Boston's Kemba Walker and Atlanta's Trae Young instead got the honors.

Whether Beal knew that fact when he took the floor or not, he put in a performance against the Cavs that should add to his case for being a reserve. The two-time All-Star followed up a 38-point gem against the Heat with 36 points against Cleveland just one night later. He also had eight assists and shot 15-for-22 (68.2%) from the field and 4-for-8 from three.

Beal now has the fourth-most 30-point games in the NBA since the start of last season with 40 of them. Only James Harden (86) Gianiis (54) and Damian Lillard (45) have more.

This 30-point game helped the Wizards bounce back from a loss the night before in Miami. Washington is now 15-29 on the season and 5-5 in their last 10 games.

2. In his previous six games since returning from a quad injury, Davis Bertans had put up some solid numbers and shown flashes. Against the Cavs, though, he did what we saw him to much more often a few months ago when he was healthy.

Bertans not only lit a spark off the bench, but he did so in microwave fashion. He had 14 of his 17 points in the first half, including three consecutive threes in the second quarter to force a timeout as the Wizards' lead grew to 14. That marked a big turnaround after Washington trailed by as many as 12 in the first quarter.

Bertans helped lead a monster effort from the Wizards' bench as a whole. They outscored the Cavs' second unit, 59-34. The Wizards are second in the NBA in bench scoring and that is despite all of the injuries they have dealt with in recent months. Now that they are nearly whole, the bench is becoming even stronger.

 

3. The Thomas Bryant situation is getting more interesting as each game passes. He has now been back six games and has been kept between roughly between 12 and 21 minutes a night. He played 17 minutes against the Cavs and contributed nine points and three rebounds.

Bryant is a big man coming off a foot injury, so the Wizards have incentive to play it safe and maintain a minutes restriction. But it has now been nearly two weeks since he came back.

Is it as simple as a minutes limit or is Ian Mahinmi's improved play having a domino effect on Bryant? The more Bryant plays limited minutes, the more that could become evident, if this is indeed performance based. 

Mahinmi, by the way, had seven points, seven rebounds and played strong defense, helping the Wizards to hold Tristan Thompson to six points and three rebounds.

4. Much like last week when the Wizards saw the Pistons and Andre Drummond, watching this game was reminder that Kevin Love is reportedly available in trades. That begs the natural question of where he would fit, if he gets dealt soon, like before the Feb. 6 deadline.

Some might argue the Wizards as an option, given their best players are guards and Love would technically complement them well. Given his age and contract, however, it would probably be too much of a risk for the Wizards.

The Blazers seem like they could use him and the Raptors could also be interesting. He would also fit well with the Rockets, though they probably don't have enough trade assets to get him.

What about the Timberwolves? They have disappointed this year and need to find Karl-Anthony Towns some help. Love wouldn't be joining a contender, as he probably hopes to, but it could be an interesting story if he goes back to the team he started with. And him and Towns would be a tough duo to stop given how well they rebound and stretch the floor.

Speaking of Love, he had the viral moment of the night when he pretended to resuscitate Beal. 

5. Backup center Anzejs Pasecniks was back in the mix after missing two games due to a left ankle injury. And not only was he available, he actually got some burn.

Pasecniks played 15 minutes and scored four points to go along with three rebounds. So, even with Bryant and Bertans back from injury, and Johnathan Williams III still getting minutes, Pasecniks maintains a role in the rotation.

That could change once other players come back. Moe Wagner, in particular, will probably take minutes away from him at the backup center spot. But Pasecniks still hanging around in the rotation is a testament to him and the way he has played. No one predicted he would play this much of a factor this season.

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