BRAMPTON, Ont. — He’s been one of the most sought-after basketball talents his age for years, fielding interest from countless schools.
In the end, R.J. Barrett went with what felt most like home.
The 17-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., will play NCAA basketball next season at Duke, announcing his much-anticipated decision Friday night at a posh affair at a golf club just outside Toronto.
"I feel like I could have gone anywhere and done well at basketball, so it was really stuff off the court," said Barrett, who’d narrowed down his choices to three: Duke, Kentucky, and the University of Oregon.
Barrett is regarded as the world’s best player his age, and last summer earned MVP honours in leading Canada to an historic gold medal at the FIBA Under-19 World Cup, despite being one of the tournament’s youngest players.
He didn’t ultimately settle on a school, he said, until the beginning of this week. He’d talked at length with dad Rowan, who played basketball for Canada at the 2000 Olympics, and mom Kesha, a track athlete in college.
He reached out to his godfather Steve Nash, who told him "Go where I want, where my heart desires," Barrett said. "He’s one of the most humble human beings I’ve ever met. He’s a two-time MVP. He doesn’t have to take his time to talk to me or give me advice, but he does and I really appreciate it."
From a basketball standpoint, Barrett could have fit in seamlessly and shone at any one of the three powerhouse schools.
"But it came down to the smaller things," Rowan Barrett said. "For R.J., he felt (Duke) most similarly represented the school he’s currently in, so he felt a comfort level. There’s children from 70 different countries at his school currently now, and it’s much the same at Duke. So right away he felt a kinship there."
Dozens of relatives, friends and members of Toronto’s basketball community cheered as Barrett announced his decision, and then held up the white and blue Blue Devils jersey. He joked with younger brother Nathan. His mom dabbed away tears.
"Clearly there’s emotion there," Rowan Barrett said. "I was excited, happy… Let’s go! What’s next? Let’s get working!"
The six-foot-six wing will graduate from Montverde Academy in Florida this spring, and looks forward to flying back Sunday to focus on his high school squad, and its quest for a national title.
Barrett plans to go the one-and-done route, and play just one season at Duke. He’s a projected top pick in the 2019 NBA draft, and would join Anthony Bennett (2013) and Andrew Wiggins (2014) as Canadians selected first overall.
His enviable versatility has coaches calling him "positionless."
"R.J. can impact the game in many, many ways," Rowan said. "He doesn’t have one particular thought when he comes into a game, he’s more watching what the team is doing and watching where the weakness is, trying to impact the game that way.
"As far as his trajectory, and what he can do, nobody knows that," he added. "We can’t control it, no-one can control that kind of thing. Nothing is promised, nothing is given. The only thing we can control is how we work at it, and what kind of person he’s growing into being."
The Blue Devils went 28-9 last season en route to winning the ACC Tournament. They defeated Troy in the first round of March Madness before being ousted by South Carolina in the second.
Barrett is particularly keen to face North Carolina at the Duke’s home court — Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"My teammate from last year Leaky (Rechon) Black is going to North Carolina next year," Barrett said through a huge grin. "So we’ve been texting back and forth, it’s going to be a huge battle."
Barrett earned MVP honours at the World Cup in Cairo, scoring 38 points in the Canadians’ upset over the United States in the semifinals.
He also earned MVP honours in the Basketball Without Borders game last February in New Orleans, and was the fourth youngest player in the history of the Nike Hoop Summit, which pits a world high school select team against the best high schoolers in the U.S.