TORONTO – Mike Krzyzewski has seen it all. He’s coached almost everyone. The U.S. basketball coaching legend’s career spans from Grant Hill to LeBron James. He’s won five NCAA titles, three Olympic gold medals, two world championships and more college games than any coach in history.
And he’s already pleased with what he’s seen from R.J. Barrett, the latest big-buzz Duke recruit who happens to be the hottest name in Canadian basketball; the kid everyone hopes will lead his country to international basketball glory, but not before he helps a freshman-laden Blue Devils team to another NCAA title.
He’s been on Duke’s radar since he started high school because, as Krzyzewski says, “he’s just that good.”
But having had Barrett on campus in Durham, seen how he carries himself with his teammates, noted how he works in his off-season conditioning program and in the eight or nine team practices they’ve had, Krzyzewski was comfortable giving Barrett a ringing endorsement before he’s even played a game:
“Not surprised, [he’s] just fulfilled a high level of expectation that I have for him,” Krzyzewski said in Toronto on Monday in advance of Duke’s three-game exhibition tour against U Sports teams that begins Wednesday night at Paramount Fine Foods Centre (formerly Hershey Centre) in Mississauga. “He comes from an amazing family, he’s been exposed always to older [players], and also around class, and how things are done, he’s always played up, so he’s older, he’s such an upbeat kid and smart.
“He has — besides ability — he really has the passion to compete. There’s a passion to play, and there’s a passion to compete, I think the passion to compete is higher, and this young man has it. I love him, I’m glad I’m going to have the opportunity to spend some time with him and help him develop those talents that have been developed up to a high level already. I think we can do any more. He wants to win. He throws himself into winning, which is a pretty cool thing.”
The basketball universe is poised to open for Barrett in the coming year.
Everything about him screams first pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.” As R.J. Barrett gets set to make his @DukeMBB debut on home soil, Sportsnet takes an in-depth look at the Canadian basketball phenom. Watch the full feature on Sportsnet Wednesday. #DukeCanadaTour https://t.co/9YCedMVy13
The kid from Mississauga cemented his status as the top player in the world for his age and the leading candidate to go No. 1 in the 2019 NBA draft by leading Canada to a U19 world championship last summer and his high school team, Florida’s Montverde, to a national championship and an undefeated season this past winter while sweeping every possible player-of-the-year award along the way.
His next challenge is helping Duke and its highly touted freshman class – in Barrett, YouTube sensation Zion Williamson, and wing Cam Reddish they signed the three top-ranked players by ESPN in the class of 2018 with Tre Jones and Joey Baker ranked 17th and 39th, respectively – deliver a sixth NCAA title to Duke and Coach K.
That quest – amazingly – begins in Barrett’s hometown of Mississauga.
“I think it’s going to be really fun. Toronto is cool, but Mississauga is really my home,” said Barrett. “It’s going to be amazing to play there in front of family and friends with my brothers. It’s going to be cool.”
With such a young team – all five freshmen could end up starting – leadership could potentially be an issue, but Krzyzewski says he’s not concerned, in part because of what Barrett brings.
“Leadership can come from anybody, and multiple [people],” Krzyzewski. “There doesn’t have to be one leader. I think it’s not hard for a young man to do that especially if you have upperclassmen who respect who he is and what he’s doing. He [Barrett] just has to have the courage to step up, which he has. Once he steps up like that in a practice, like ‘Let’s go,’ he’s got a really good personality.”
“I think R.J.’s experience, whether it be at Montverde or whether it be with the Canadian team, will allow him to do that better,” said Krzyzewski. “He’s been in more things. Leadership for him is very natural. I love that about him.”
Dukes’s visit to Canada in the same year it landed the player Krzyzewski says is “as good a player that has ever come out of Canada, potentially” is mostly a coincidence, although the Duke coach acknowledged that Barrett’s father – Canada Basketball executive Rowan Barrett helped facilitate the tour.
Krzyzewski has been unable to take his teams on pre-season tours in the past – schools can take one every four years – due to his commitments as head coach with the U.S. national team. Having stepped down from those duties and with a team that needed seasoning Duke has come north.
It plays two-time defending U Sports silver medallist Ryerson on Wednesday and University of Toronto on Friday before travelling to Montreal to take on McGill on Sunday.
It’s a quick trip home for Barrett, in his role as unofficial host, listed a visit to the CN Tower and a taste of poutine among his diplomatic responsibilities.
More importantly for Barrett and his teammates, it’s a chance to travel and a chance to play some different faces:
“It will definitely be a challenge,” Barrett said. “We haven’t been together that long so to go against someone other than ourselves will definitely be a challenge.”
For Duke and Coach K it’s a chance to use August to ease into a season where everything is pointed towards the NCAA tournament in March and the title game on the first Monday of April.
For Barrett it’s the first step in the next stage of his journey pointing towards the NBA draft in June.