RJ Barrett is a precocious basketball talent who has shown – having just turned 21 – that his NBA future is very bright.
But for Canadian basketball, he’s more than a six-foot-seven wing who can defend his position, rebound well, play unselfishly and score from the perimeter and at the rim.
He’s a living, breathing symbol. For a basketball federation trying to somehow figure out how to get from ‘here,’ (outside the world’s elite, looking in) to there (a program that consistently contends for medals on the global stage) Barrett is proof of what’s possible.
As a 17-year-old he led Canada to the 2017 U19 World championship, the first basketball gold medal for Canada at a global competition. He lifted a Canadian team missing several top prospects to the gold medal game by putting up 38 points, 13 rebounds and five assists against Team USA in the semi-final and then 18 and 12 against Italy in the final on his way to taking home MVP honours.
It’s a moment that still resonates, even for a player whose resumé is stuffed with achievements most can only dream about.
“That’s one of the most, probably is the most special basketball moment of my life. I always cherish that,” said Barrett after wrapping up his second day of practice with the national team who are training at the Toronto Raptors facility in Tampa. “No one can ever take that away from me and no one can ever take that away from my country. I say that with great pride. It’s also why I’m here. It’s also why I’m here right now [with the national team]. I’m trying to bring that feeling back to Canada, bring a medal back home.”
Winning cures everything, is the oft-repeated adage in sports, and as cliché as it might be, it’s mostly true.
Winning or succeeding justifies an approach and reinforces belief; losing or failing inevitably prompts questions and doubts.
As much as any single opponent, that is the obstacle the Canadian men’s team faces as they settle into their preparation for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria June 29th-July 4th, and why Barrett’s experiences playing for Canada are so important.
For the senior team — as you may have heard — recent successes on the world stage at the senior level are few and far between. It is a program that has been to the Olympics once in 33 years and their seventh-place showing in Sydney in 2000 was so memorable in part because it was so unexpected.
Canada is unquestionably a better basketball nation than it has ever been. In 2000 Canada had two NBA players on the roster – Steve Nash and Todd MacCulloch. In Victoria – even after several key players have withdrawn due to injuries or contract situations – head coach Nick Nurse could have an eight-man rotation of NBA players with others with NBA experience on the bench.
The missing ingredient for Canadian basketball is success. Almost everything the program needs to reach its considerable potential could be furthered in great measure by achieving a goal.
That’s as much as what is at stake in Victoria as the spot in the Olympics. Since the ‘golden era’ of Canadian basketball – where Canadians have arrived in the NBA in waves — has been ushered in there have been more low points than highs: Missing out on qualifying for the 2014 World Cup by a whisker; missing out on the 2016 Olympics twice – at the Tournament of the Americas in 2015 and in the finals of the OQT tournament in the Philippines in 2016; having one NBA player after another pull themselves from the roster in advance of what turned out to be a 21st-place finish at the World Cup in 2019.
Success is galvanizing. The quest for the national team is not only to get to the Olympics, but to begin a virtuous cycle where success begets success.
“[Winning] matters for sure,” said Nurse who will be coaching Canada for the second time. “I think ultimately, what’s the reward, what is the big reward? Playing in the Olympics I think has got to be right up there on that list or inning an Olympic medal is the dream ….
“So, getting close to that and trying to achieve that I think will certainly [help the program]. I think winning, everybody always loves a winner, and everybody always loves to be around winning organizations and I think that would also help us being successful.”
Barrett is part of a second wave of NBA talent following in the footsteps of Cory Joseph and Dwight Powell who now classify as both NBA veterans and national team old heads. And while Joseph and Powell have been chasing success internationally with mostly frustration to show for it, the younger crowd has medals.
Barrett doesn’t have to wonder what standing on a podium and hearing the Canadian anthem play is like, he just has to remember it.
“Just winning a world championship is pretty unique and pretty special, especially in basketball for our country,” says Roy Rana, of the Sacramento Kings, the former national team head coach who is currently an assistant with the German national team as they go through their OQT tournament. “But for RJ to do it and be the MVP of the tournament and in some ways carry us on his back in the biggest games, it was huge for his development … the lights have been on and he’s found a way to deliver winning performances on the biggest stage so that bodes really well for Canada for many years to come. … there’s no lack of confidence with anybody who is putting on a Canadian jersey now,”
It’s a bit much to expect Barrett to lead the national team as a 21-year-old since having won a gold medal when he was 17, but it’s plausible that he will be a foundation piece for the program for two more Olympic cycles and he’s clearly in his element, having played with or against almost everyone in camp.
“This is really my first time being around him,” says Nurse. “It’s been interesting for me because … he picks everything up just like that [and] he’s got a kind of infectious energy that he practices with, which, I would never know that. … it’s interesting to watch his energy, to watch the smiles, to watch him talking and getting his teammates going. I’m not talking about in a super rah-rah way, because that’s not really who he is, but he’s been really active and energetic and focused and concentrated and smart.”
And he’s optimistic.
“Everybody that steps on the court for us is a really good basketball player,” Barrett said. “I think this is the perfect time. I think everything shaping up well together. Our older guys are in their primes right now, they’re extremely well-versed in the game of basketball, they really know what they’re doing, they know how to work, they want to compete, they want to win.
“And our younger guys we also have some experience. I have a couple years in the league, Nickeil [Walker-Alexander] has been in the league, we have some experience there as well. And I think when you put that together along with the staff that we have, I think we’ll be good.”
Canada needs to win the six-team OQT to advance to Tokyo. The challenges will come from Greece, Czech Republic and Turkey, primarily.
Barrett likes Canada chances, and why not? His experiences in his country’s colours have been nothing but positive. He’s expecting more of the same.