R.J. Barrett has the tools to be the new face of Canadian basketball

R.J. Barrett, 17, poses for a photograph outside his home. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The next chapter in the constantly evolving Canadian basketball story will take place Friday evening in a conference room at a golf club in Brampton, northwest of Toronto.

That is where R.J. Barrett – quite possibly the brightest prospect ever to call Canada home, and almost certainly the most polished – will announce which NCAA Division I powerhouse he will attend next fall.

The 18-year-old has been a blue-chip prospect since he started high school and hasn’t taken a backwards step since. He’s now on the fastest of fast tracks. He’s the top-ranked player in North America for his age and almost certainly the best in the world, making him the early favourite to be the first player taken in the 2019 NBA draft.

But there will be at least one year of college first and fittingly he has narrowed his choices to the cream of the crop in U.S. college basketball – Duke and Kentucky are perennial championship contenders and Oregon is viewed as a program on the rise, pushing its way into the national championship conversation in part due to a strong pipeline of Canadian talent.

The belief is that Barrett, who earned MVP honours while leading Canada to a U-19 World Championship this past summer highlighted by his 38-point domination against Team USA in the semifinal, will put whatever school he picks over the top.

“Wherever he decides to go for college, I’m betting that house on a national championship, I’m that confident. I’m all in,” says Tariq Sbiet, co-founder of recruiting website North Pole Hoops, where Barrett’s progress has been monitored since he was in eighth grade. “Oregon, Duke and Kentucky are all powerhouses and perennial contenders without R.J. and now you’re throwing the No. 1 player in the world into that. Whoever gets him becomes a heavy favourite. He just wins.”

R.J. Barrett, 17, slam dunks the ball during his U-19 basketball Canada team practice in Mississauga, Ont., on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nathan Denette/AP)

Barrett will reveal his choice of college Friday.
(Nathan Denette/CP)

Should Barrett deliver on all his promise, the six-foot-six wing is positioned to be a basketball star unlike any Canada has ever seen, even as the country has emerged as a source of more NBA talent than any other nation outside the U.S. in recent years.

His pedigree is impeccable: his father, Rowan Sr., starred for the Canadian national team at the 2000 Olympics where his backcourt partner was Steve Nash—the younger Barrett’s godfather and the man who bought him his first crib. His mother, Kesha, was a track star, his parents meeting while Rowan Sr. was playing at St. John’s University.

In that sense there are echoes of Andrew Wiggins’ backstory in Barrett’s trajectory. As the current flag bearer for the 12 Canadians in the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves star seemed destined for the big stage, thanks to his NBA-playing father, Mitch, and his Olympian sprinter mom, Marita, his potential obvious since he was dunking on all comers in eighth grade while growing up in Vaughan, north of Toronto. Wiggins’ first-overall selection in the 2014 NBA draft out of Kansas was almost preordained.

Wiggins’ experience was the opposite of Nash’s, who was unknown in high school, a mid-first-round pick after four years of college who didn’t reach his NBA peak until he was 30 and in his ninth season. Nash’s stardom was self-made and late arriving.

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But Wiggins is different than Barrett, too. While Nash was eager to carry the flag for Canadian basketball, Wiggins is famously reserved, preferring his play to do the talking.

When it was time for Wiggins to declare where he was going to college, he did it in the gym at his high school in small-town West Virginia in front of a small gathering of family and friends. There was one reporter allowed in. There was no build-up, no hype – at least from Wiggins’ end. Canadian basketball fans have always been welcome to attach their hopes and dreams to Wiggins’ potential, but his primary concerns are those in his immediate orbit.

As a result, Barrett is stepping into a void of sorts. Nash is long retired. Wiggins may be a budding superstar but is happy to play a secondary role away from the court. The rest of Canada’s (potentially) golden generation – Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk — are role players in the NBA, while Jamal Murray’s status is still developing.

Could Barrett pick up where Nash left off and be the face of Canadian basketball on and off the floor?

He’s ambitious enough.

“Pretty simple — go to college, go to the NBA, be a star,” were how he described his immediate goals after leading Canada to gold in the summer.

R.J Barrett, left to right, Danilo Djuricic and Amidou Bamba arrive at Toronto’s Pearson Airport with other members of Canada’s under-19 Basketball team after winning gold at the U19 FIBA World Cup. (Chris Young/CP)

His on-court qualifications are without doubt. He was the MVP of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp at the All-Star Game in April, standing out among a gathering of the best NBA prospects from outside the United States. He has played internationally for Canada above his age group since he was 15 and was one of the youngest players on the floor when he led Canada to gold in Egypt this past summer, the country’s first World Championship in any age group, by either gender. He led the prestigious EYBL – Nike’s premier summer showcase circuit – in scoring and is positioned to lead Montverde, his elite Florida private school, to a national title this year.

“He’s just continually checking off every box as he goes through his development,” says Roy Rana, who coached the U-19 team to gold and who has coached every Canadian NBA lottery pick since 2011 at some level. “He can play multiple positions, he can handle the ball, he’s got incredible court vision, he makes his teammates better and wins. He may be not as athletic as some that have come before, maybe not as lethal a scorer, but he’s probably got a little bit of everything combined, and I think that’s what makes him really, really special.”

But it’s off-court qualities and his mental make-up that are equally intriguing.

“He’s certainly been prepped. He’s certainly got the right character and the right personality. He’s got all the pieces that should help him be successful,” says Rana. “I’m sure he’ll face some adversity along the way and that will test him, but he’s ready to embrace the challenge and put it on the line and I think that’s what makes that star quality.”

Barrett’s recruitment process reflects his growing comfort in the spotlight and the awareness that finding a comfort zone is part of the job. He’s smart and well-spoken, confident without coming off as scripted. As the acknowledged top high school player in the U.S., the demands are considerable and a hint of what’s to come if he reaches his goals, but they’ve been handled with foresight and planning. He has his own blog — “RJ’s World” — on USA Today’s website, which has allowed him to control the message with regard to his recruiting.

He’s been just active enough on social media to have a presence, while avoiding being subjected to the kind of problems a famous 18-year-old can face. There have been smart feature stories done with key national platforms in the U.S., but when it was time for his big announcement, it was decided to be done at home, open to all local media and coordinated by Canada Basketball.

With a father in the industry – a long-time European professional, the elder Barrett is the general manager of Canada’s men’s national team program – and easy access to the likes of Nash or a growing group of peers already in the NBA for guidance, what used to be a thorny trail for Canadians trying to make it to the peak of the sport has become a well-lit road.

“The template [for aspiring Canadian NBA players] that exists has evolved,” says Sbiet, who has watched the Canadian elite basketball scene explode over the past 10 years he’s been running North Pole Hoops. “And now R.J. becomes the template.”