Zagoria: R.J. Barrett could be among the best Canadian ballers ever

R.J. Barrett
Photo courtesy of NBAE/Getty Images

R.J. Barrett won the MVP award at the Basketball Without Borders Global Camp this past weekend in New Orleans.

But the 6-foot-6 sophomore wing from Mississauga, Ontario and Montverde (FL) Academy had a frown on his face as he posed for pictures with the award because his team had just lost its final game of the event moments before, and his opponents were still celebrating as the awards ceremony began.

“I’m not trying to compare him to Kobe [Bryant] or Larry Bird or anybody like that, but Michael [Jordan] wouldn’t have been happy losing in the finals and then getting the MVP trophy so he’s still upset about that,” Dwayne Washington, Barrett’s coach with the UPlay Canada AAU team, told FanRagSports.com.

Washington spent the weekend interacting with NBA scouts and decision-makers who were wowed by Barrett’s performance on the court, but the coach had to explain why his player was disturbed during the awards ceremony.

“They were very unsure about why he was very upset about not being happy with the MVP,” Washington said of the NBA folks. “He was happy with it but he has just lost a game like five minutes before so he’s a competitor; he doesn’t care about trophies and all those things. He wants to win. He’s focused in on the task so for him to just celebrate after he lost, is not really who he is.”

On the court, Barrett — one of seven Canadians invited to the prestigious camp held on All-Star Weekend — put on a performance that impressed talent evaluators and NBA decision-makers alike.

“I don’t usually say this lightly, but R.J. Barrett [is] showing superstar level talent here at BWB,” tweeted Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com. “On another level athletically, creating shots.”

Washington spoke to several NBA general managers who came away impressed, too.

“The NBA people, they really loved his length,” Washington said. “They didn’t know how well he shot it, especially in the mid-range off the dribble. They liked the fact that after the first day he really competed on both ends. They like the fact that he drove and made plays. So that was the consistent feedback, that he was getting in the lane, getting by the other elite guys in the world and making plays as opposed to just being an athlete.

“They did all the talking and it was the same thing. He’s much better than we thought, especially in the mid-range off the pullup. Excellent passer. He gets in the lane, creates plays. They liked the fact that he competed.”

R.J., 16, is the son of Rowan Barrett, the former St. John’s star who is now the Assistant General Manager of Canada Basketball. The younger Barrett has already trained with the Canadian Senior National Team and played one-on-one with Andrew Wiggins, the former No. 1 pick who recently put up back-to-back 40-point games for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The younger Barrett is aware of the comparisons with Wiggins, but downplays them.

“I wouldn’t really call it a comparison other than the fact that I’m doing really well right now,” the soft-spoken Barrett said last April after going for 22 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists en route to MVP honors in the Jordan Brand International Game at Barclays Center.

“He’s R.J. Barrett, he’s not Andrew Wiggins,” Roy Rana, the Canadian youth National team coach, said at the Jordan Classic. “It’s like Kevin Pangos wasn’t Steve Nash. We often make those mistakes about trying to compare players at a young age. I think we’re doing a better job in Canada just letting them breathe and be who they are.”

Still, it’s widely understood among those in Canadian basketball that Barrett is on track to follow Wiggins, Jamal Murray, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk and former No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett (who turned into a bust) into the NBA, and eventually onto the Canadian Olympic team that they hope will compete for medals in 2020 or ’24.

“He’s still 16 so he’s got a lot of time to attain more skills and become more efficient and as he gets older everything will come into line and you can really see where he’s headed,” said Michael Meeks, who runs player development for Canada Basketball.

“I think he has a lot of potential, even athletically every three months it’s like he adds another level to his athleticism. And his dad was a tremendous athlete, so he will have that top-level NBA athleticism.”

Kevin Boyle, who has coached NBA lottery picks Ben Simmons, Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, now coaches Barrett at Montverde Academy, the national prep powerhouse that won three straight DICK’S Sporting Goods High School Nationals Tournaments during Simmons’ tenure there.

He says Barrett is on the same trajectory as those players, and that Barrett is among the best high school players nationally at the moment — along with Washington-bound 6-10 senior forward Michael Porter Jr. of Seattle (WA) Nathan Hale and uncommitted 6-10 junior Marvin Bagley of Chatsworth (CA) Sierra Canyon.

“Yeah, he’s in that class,” Boyle said. “I’ve had some of the better NBA players and at that same stage he’s at that same level. He has that same chance to be a really good pro.”

Still, Boyle preaches to Barrett that he must continue to work on developing all aspects of his game.

“One of the things we do with him now is we try to look at the better players in the NBA, how are they scoring in the NBA?” Boyle said. “Is it in transition, is it off of posting, is it off of a ball screen, with the ball, is it somebody screening for you to get a jump shot without the ball? And are you keeping the ratios the same.”

Boyle said he sees comparisons between Barrett and Houston Rockets star James Harden.

“James Harden comes to mind and it’s not just because he’s a lefty,” Boyle said. “He’s like 6-5. I think that’s the guy that he can be like.”

Still, Barrett is only 16 and is enjoying being a kid.

Having a father who played college ball and in the Olympics (in 2000, the same year R.J. was born) and who now runs Canada Basketball is only a plus for the younger Barrett’s development.

“I think [it helps] tremendously,” Meeks said. “Rowan understands the ins and outs of the environment. He knows what it is to be a professional. We played together in the Olympics and he knows what it is to be an elite level athlete. He knows what kind of dedication it takes to hone skills and how distractions can get in the way of that. So he’s really focused on making sure R.J. is focused on the right things and is in an environment that’s going to give him what he needs.”

Rowan is also handling R.J.’s recruitment and when reporters ask the younger Barrett about it, he generally says, “I don’t know anything [about recruiting]. They talk to my dad.”

Rowan recently broke down his son’s recruitment during an appearance on The 4 Quarters Podcast.

“It’s clear that there are a few schools in Kansas, Kentucky, Arizona, Texas, Michigan, USC, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Villanova, there have been a number of schools,” Rowan Barrett said of his son. “They key for us right now is letting him continue to focus on getting better as a player and that’s been a real focus for us. Every three months we want to be seeing marked improvement with him, as well as in the classroom, really getting ahead of his coursework. He’s hit the honor roll now and really getting ahead of that and giving himself all the options for what he wants to be able to do academically.

“We believe after this spring and summer we’ll open it up and start to look seriously at some of these schools and start to make some determinations about shortening the list and starting to make visits and doing that.”

Said Boyle: “He’s going to be able to go wherever he wants. I think Rowan’s very smart…We’re also looking at the conference that’s good for him. What’s the best style for him to excel and what conference might play that way with the majority of teams in that conference?”

Asked if anybody was leading in that regard, Boyle added: “You got the two big dogs in Kentucky and Duke but you got these other schools that they like as well so I think at this point he’s open but I think it will start heating up soon.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Barrett’s recruitment come down to Kentucky and Duke. But his story won’t end there.

Down the road, he’s got a chance to be among the greatest Canadian ballers of all time.


Adam Zagoria is a basketball insider who has run ZAGSBLOG.com since 2006. He is a college basketball contributor for the FanRag Sports Network. He is also the co-host of The Four Quarters Podcast via VSporto.com, which is available via iTunes. Zagoria is also a contributor to The New York Times. He currently lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.

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