V ery little of RJ Barrett’s career has been a coincidence. You don’t become one of the winningest basketball players in American high-school history, the all-time leading freshman scorer in ACC history, the third-overall pick in the NBA Draft, and a starter for the most talented Canadian team ever assembled by mere chance. Instead, you plan for it.
Welcome to the world of Rowan Barrett Jr.
RJ, the older brother of Nathan and son of Rowan Barrett Sr. and Kesha Duhaney, was born in Toronto and grew up in France, where his father played professionally after failing to crack the NBA out of St. John’s University. From an early age, Barrett was in the gym with Rowan’s team, participating in shootarounds and playing on a club team where he wore the same number as his dad.
The family moved back to Canada in 2008, landing in Mississauga, Ont. as Rowan wrapped up a nearly two-decade playing career with the Canadian senior men’s basketball team. By the time Rowan moved into the national team’s executive suite as executive vice-president and assistant GM under his former teammate, and RJ’s godfather, Steve Nash in 2012, the 12-year-old RJ had already been chosen by Canada Basketball to participate in one of the first ever Junior Academy training sessions, a pilot program run in conjunction with Ontario Basketball to develop young players. He had quit organized soccer and track-and-field, committed to focusing exclusively on basketball, and told his parents he wanted to be a perennial NBA All-Star and a Hall of Famer. And that was that. The rest of his career to-date has been carefully calculated to achieve those very goals.
That’s not to say there weren’t smaller boxes to tick along the way, written out and discussed as a family. RJ had a dream board with his ideal schools before he was 10. He was taught to deal with obstacles before they arose, with his father talking trash to him at the free-throw line of otherwise empty gyms, and both parents grilling him in front of the TV in mock press conferences. The family wanted to help RJ achieve his goals, particularly Rowan, who came close but never made it to the NBA or medaled at a global basketball competition. So, they tracked down the highest level of competition throughout his young career, forcing him to mature against older players in tough environments instead of succumbing to the increasing pressures.
It helped that Rowan not only had experience playing high-level basketball, but also had access to a growing number of developmental resources as basketball exploded nationwide.
“It was definitely different from my dad’s time. And he’s honestly a big part of the reason why all of this is happening, and that we could do all of these things now,” Barrett explains by phone from Hamburg, Germany during Team Canada’s final preparations for the 2023 FIBA World Cup. “It’s been easier for me growing up, especially just having a dad that kind of knows all the things that I need to do, all the positions that I was going to be in. He’s been able to just kind of guide me, guide a lot of Canadian basketball players throughout their journeys.
“So yeah, it was different, but I appreciate him going through that because it’s easier for us now.”
Now, Barrett is in many ways charged with bringing the Canadian men’s basketball team back to the promised land — back to the place his father and godfather carried it 23 summers ago, the year he was born. It starts this week, at the FIBA World Cup, where Canada has brought its most talented roster ever assembled in hopes of medaling for the first time in program history and making a statement on the international stage, not to mention qualifying for the 2024 Olympic Games.
Fortunately for Team Canada, Barrett and his father have been preparing for this challenge all his life.
A ccording to Nathaniel Mitchell, it was a “perfect storm” of circumstances that brought him to Canada Basketball and, in turn, to RJ Barrett in the early 2010s.
After finishing his playing career and returning to Toronto, Mitchell got into development work and started training Canadian national team players like Jermaine Anderson, Jevohn Shepherd and Junior Cadougan, who were all in Toronto during the NBA lockout of 2011. The players told Rowan that Mitchell was doing a good job keeping them in shape and improving their skill work, so Rowan invited Mitchell to a test run of sorts, working out a handful of players that included a 17-year-old Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a 16-year-old Andrew Wiggins, a 14-year-old Jamal Murray, and an 11-year-old RJ Barrett.
“Kid sucks,” Mitchell jokes, recalling his first impressions of Barrett. “No. When I first met him it was on court. We started working out, and I remember starting out with him, trying to get a feel for what he can do, trying to make him do layups on both sides of the backboard and ball handling — he struggled a lot in those skill areas. I remember [thinking]: Oh man, it’s gonna be tough.”
What Mitchell, now an assistant coach on Jordi Fernandez’s staff at the World Cup, didn’t realize was that Barrett was bigger and more athletic than most players his age. When he finally saw him in an AAU game, however, “I just remember him destroying kids,” Mitchell says.
“He scored the ball at a really high rate, was getting to the rim,” the coach continues. “He had like one move: a little hesitation going left — [his preferred hand] — and went to the rim and scored every time. Or he would spin back and score. I just remember him at the free-throw line and at the rim all game.”
Mitchell started to think that given Barrett’s size and athleticism compared to his peers, he could be pretty good. But only after someone in the crowd explained that Barrett was actually a year younger than the other players on the court did Mitchell realize he could be really special. After all, Barrett was not only embracing the older competition but attacking it, showing no fear and finding ways to succeed without a consistent jump shot or refined skill set.
Mitchell took the mantle from Rowan and became Barrett’s primary trainer, traveling to Mississauga in the mornings to do individual skill work with RJ before school. They worked hard, but Barrett still struggled at times to do basic drills. In fact, no matter how good he got, Barrett was never a great drill guy. You could walk into a practice session and fail to pick him out of the bunch, and coaches said he could have a week of bad practices before showing up to dominate a big game, a trend that would continue throughout his career.
“I’m a gamer, man. I’m a gamer,” Barrett says. “I’m a really big competitor. That’s really what it is for me. I kind of understand my game and who I am and my skill that makes me who I am. What makes me kind of one of the elite players is just that I compete at such a high level: I want to beat you. I want to win. It doesn’t matter who’s in front of me. That’s why sometimes they say that [I struggle in drills], because I raise my level to whoever I’m playing against because of how bad I want to win.”
Mitchell agrees that Barrett’s big-game moniker carries weight: “I think he’s always put himself in situations where he’s been under scrutiny … he’s always been in the spotlight, and he’s always been able to perform. I think it speaks a lot to his character, his ability to perform throughout all the things that are going on…
“There’s a big trust factor there with him that you can trust him to perform and show up.”
The track record speaks for itself, starting with Barrett’s first real test at the U-15 national championships in 2014. With his Team Ontario knotted at 30-30 with Team Quebec after two quarters, Barrett scored 27 of his 37 points in the second half en route to a 40-point victory and the tournament MVP — all while he was still two years younger than the competition.
“RJ and Andrew [Nembhard, who was also on the team], you could just tell that they weren’t afraid at all of the moment. They weren’t afraid of the competition. They knew that they just had to get down and compete super hard in the second half,” Team Ontario head coach Aaron Blakely recalls. “There was some adversity that had happened in that game, and RJ basically answered the bell.
“So, it’s been a trend that when things get difficult, RJ just gets better.”
A fter dominating at the provincial level and proving that he was too good for the Canadian high-school hoops scene in his freshman year at St. Marcellinus Secondary School in Mississauga, when he was recognized by the Peel Secondary Schools Athletic Association as the best prospect in the region, Barrett moved on to the illustrious Montverde Academy near Orlando, Fla. in 2015. Head coach Kevin Boyle told him that he would be the 15th man on the roster but, despite his youth, that didn’t last long.
Barrett’s first statement south of the border came in a quarterfinal loss to Lonzo Ball-led Chino Hills High School at the City of Ponds Classic in December, in which he scored 31 points. By the end of the season, Barrett led Montverde in scoring and was named to the MaxPreps Freshman All-American First Team. As a sophomore, he led Montverde to a 27-5 record and a No. 7 ranking in USA Today’s final Super 25 poll.
Barrett spent the summer between his sophomore and junior seasons with Dwayne Washington and UPLAY Canada in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, where he once again played against older competition, this time on the strongest AAU circuit in the United States. Barrett led the EYBL in scoring at 28 points per game and brought UPLAY Canada to the championship.
“I thought he was relentless. I thought he was very mentally tough, I thought he was physically tough. I thought that he just had a major drive,” Washington says of his first impressions of Barrett. “When things didn’t go as well, or his way, he didn’t get discouraged. He just kept coming back.
“The mental toughness comes into the part where he didn’t get rattled. He literally just kept doing his job. And he had a goal and he definitely was going to accomplish that goal. He didn’t let things — turnovers or anything bad on the court — he didn’t let it affect his performance. He didn’t drop his shoulders. He didn’t look discouraged. He just got more aggressive. So, that was quite impressive.”
In his junior year, Barrett led Montverde to an undefeated season, scoring 25 points and pulling down 15 rebounds in the national championship game, becoming the first player since LeBron James to sweep all the major high-school awards and win the national championship.
“The biggest thing that kind of stood out to me was the way he carried himself, the way that he worked with others,” Blakely says. “He carried himself like a person that was really, really — I’m not gonna say ‘professional,’ because he was so young in Grade 8 [when I met him] — but he carried himself like an extremely, extremely mature-beyond-his-years type of athlete.
“If you know RJ and you know, kind of, what he’s about, it’s not by chance, right? Nothing that he’s doing right now is by chance,” Blakey continues. “He has a really, really strong support system. Everything he did was very calculated and his family was very, very meticulous in terms of working with him about setting goals and kind of ticking boxes as he went through his youth… Everything he’s done as a family to me is kind of playing chess while a lot of people have been playing checkers.”
As Barrett tracked down the highest level of competition and overcame obstacles along the way, he also grew into a leader. Because even when he had the high-top haircut and babyface, Barrett boasted experience beyond his years, and he was always willing to share it with others.
“Age doesn’t mean you’re a leader,” Washington explains. “I know a bunch of guys that are much older that are soft. A leader is: you are made to be a leader. He was born to be a leader… He’s about the moment. When the moment comes, he steps up. When you know people are not shook in the moment, you look in their eyes, that’s a leader.
“He’s just that guy. I mean, listen, I wish I could just be like, ‘Here’s the formula.’ No, he’s Captain Canada, just like his [godfather] was.”
W hile the women’s national team has had a lot of success in recent years, holding a ranking of No. 5 in the world, the 15th-ranked men’s side has been a disappointment, with few moments for Canadian hoops fans to cheer for since 2000. In fact, the men’s team has now missed out on five straight Olympics, often in heartbreaking fashion. But in the flashes of glory the program has enjoyed, Barrett has always been front and centre. Before he had a single hair on his chin, his career in the red-and-white had already become the stuff of legend.
A year after leading Canada in scoring as his team’s youngest player at the 2015 FIBA Americas U-16 Championship — and taking home silver — Barrett was selected to attend a senior men’s team training camp ahead of the 2016 Olympic Qualifying Tournament. However, he was ultimately sent to represent Team Canada at the U-17 World Championships in Zaragoza, Spain instead. That was when he first turned some heads on the international stage, leading the team in scoring and to a 5-1 record and fifth-place finish despite once again being two years younger than the competition.
The true highlight, though, came in 2017, when a 17-year-old Barrett put up 38 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in one of the best Canadian performances of all time to defeat Team USA in the semi-finals of the U-19 World Championships in Cairo. It marked the first time in six years the Americans had lost in that age group.
“I was like, ‘Damn yo, he’s really going at it. He’s really not shy about putting his team on his back,’” says Danilo Djuricic, a teammate of Barrett’s on those U-17 and U-19 teams. “He had that emotion and he showed it as well on the court. After and-ones, he’d let the other team hear it.… Being two years younger, having that confidence, that competitive fire in you to be really letting other teams hear it after scoring bucket after bucket. And it’s not even just other teams, it’s that team at the time: Team USA, right? That’s something that doesn’t happen pretty much ever.”
Barrett followed that up with 18 points, 12 rebounds and five assists to defeat Italy in the final, leading Canada to its first-ever gold medal in a global basketball event. Barrett also led the tournament in scoring and was named MVP, calling it “the most special basketball moment of my life.”
“It definitely helped me just being able to play basketball,” Barrett says of his vast experience playing for Team Canada. “It’s a different brand of basketball. It’s a lot more just thinking and learning how to make plays, read, react. It’s a completely different game, and I think that being able to play this style has helped me in the NBA as well.”
Barrett wore his jersey the whole plane ride home from Egypt. Back on Canadian soil after making history, the team were greeted by large swaths of supporters at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
“Being from Canada is something that I’ve always taken a huge, huge pride in. And there’s some people that tried to make fun at the beginning,” Barrett says. “But then I really, really showed them when I was able to go over there when we went to Egypt and won the tournament.
“That really was huge just for us and even for me going back to the States like: ‘Look, we went, we beat the States on the way to winning the gold.’ That put some respect on our name down there, for sure.”
A fter the U-19 world title, Barrett reclassified, moving to college competition one year earlier with Duke University.
Playing under the brightest lights and in the best conference in college basketball also meant enduring the most pressure and scrutiny, especially with teammate Zion Williamson often out of the lineup due to injuries. Still, in his first regular-season NCAA game, Barrett scored 33 points in a win over second-ranked Kentucky, a Duke record for a freshman’s debut. He led the Blue Devils to a 32-6 record and the ACC Tournament Championship while setting a freshman single-season conference scoring record with 724 points.
After losing in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, Barrett declared for the 2019 NBA Draft. Then, in his boldest move to date, he refused to workout for the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies, who held the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the draft. He opted instead to only work out for the New York Knicks, saying at the time: “This is the place I want to be.” The Knicks drafted him with the No. 3 pick.
Once again, Barrett had sought out the brightest lights, Madison Square Garden, with all the media scrutiny and fan pressure that came with it.
“Obviously being in New York is one of the biggest spotlights in the NBA, if not the biggest. And through all those times to be able to deal with the New York media and still averaging 20 points a game regardless of who’s on his team, I think it speaks a lot to his character, his ability to perform throughout all the things that are going on,” Mitchell says. “Obviously, this year in the playoffs you saw it a lot.” Though, his Knicks ultimately lost to the Miami Heat in the second round, Barrett averaged 19.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists on 55 percent true shooting over New York’s 11 games.
The hope is that Barrett’s strong playoff performance will carry over to this summer’s World Cup, where Team Canada is hoping to finish the 32-team tournament on the podium — or at least ranked in the top-two among the seven teams from the Americas in order to qualify outright for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Barrett will play a huge role for the Canadians as their starting small forward and a primary option on both ends of the floor. He already had two eye-opening performances in exhibition games, helping defeat European powerhouses Germany and Spain with clutch buckets down the stretch of each game.
“There’s not many players like him, right?” Team Canada head coach Fernandez says. “Size, physicality, ability to score. Second side pick-and-roll player, physical defender. You put all those things together and his experience playing in the NBA, but also his experience in FIBA: He’s a big piece for what we’re trying to do.”
Despite being the second youngest player on Canada’s 12-man roster, Barrett is the most experienced FIBA player among the NBAers outside of Dwight Powell and Kelly Olynyk, who are both 32 years old. In addition to playing every level of youth basketball for Team Canada, Barrett played a major role for the senior team at the 2021 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, where he was their second-best player at age 21, averaging 20/4/5 in a team-high 32.1 minutes per game. Barrett has 24 official games under his belt with Canada at all levels of competition, and has been playing with most of the core group since he was a kid playing up.
“I think he’s one of the youngest guys — he’s been in the NBA for four years and it seems like he’s a veteran,” Rowan says. “I feel like there’s going to have to be some leadership from some of these guys, but RJ will have his voice as well and I’m sure he has the respect of the players.”
Mitchell agrees: “I think the guys love him. I think the biggest thing is that he’s been the guy who’s been consistent for us… So, I feel like he’s always been a guy that’s shown up wanting to play, trying to help his country.
“And I think it just sets an example for everybody else to follow.”
A t World Cup training camp in Toronto in early August, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander joked that Barrett “has no choice” but to spend his summers playing for Canada given his father’s current role as executive vice-president and general manager of the team. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Barrett was the one who gravitated towards basketball all his life. He was the one who decided to step into the spotlight at Monteverde and Duke and in New York, challenging himself against older competition in the EYBL and with Team Canada. Of course, his parents guided him every step of the way, providing him with the resources to achieve his goals, but Barrett carries the weight of a nation on his back because he wants to.
“I feel like [he has a] goal of wanting to make the Olympics. He’s a competitor. And I think if there’s an influence in any way of playing, it’s growing up and seeing his father play on TV for Canada,” Mitchell says. “RJ is playing because he wants to compete. Because he has his own goals written down from when he was young for himself, things that he wants to do. So, this is one of them. And I’d probably bet on the fact that because his dad did one [Olympics], he would want to do two.”
After all, because of who his father is and what he did for Canadian basketball, every time Barrett has stepped onto the court, he’s represented not only himself, but his family and the entire nation of Canada, too. And instead of running away from that responsibility, it’s something he has always embraced.
“I’m honestly very happy, very excited [for the World Cup]. Because competing for my country is one of the things that I always want to do,” Barrett says. “I feel like this is a way to give back. This is a way for us to show just how good Canada is, and also just to show how much we appreciate being [from] where we’re from.”
One day, Barrett would like follow in his father’s footsteps “being the captain of this team, just like my dad was.”
It might not happen this year or even during this Olympic cycle, but RJ Barrett and the rest of the Canadian men are coming for the international basketball throne. And when they do, don’t say it was luck or chance or destiny that got them there. Understand that it was a long, arduous, calculated plan.
That they were playing chess all along.