Duke freshman R.J. Barrett is ready for his homecoming games — and his college career hasn’t even formally begun yet.
The native of Canada figures to be the centre of attention when the Blue Devils play three exhibition games north of the border, beginning next week in Barrett’s hometown outside Toronto and also near Montreal.
Barrett says it’s "very surreal" that his debut in a Duke uniform will come in his hometown of Mississauga, Ontario, where the Blue Devils will play twice.
While there are plenty of potential distractions for the top-rated recruit, Barrett says his new teammates will keep him focused. Barrett is the centerpiece of the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruiting class.
"It’s not hard for me, because we have a lot of guys on the team — they keep me grounded, they keep me going," Barrett said Friday. "Everybody has something on their plate, so everybody just helps out."
The trip was scheduled in part as a team-building exercise to help a roster packed with the next wave of star freshmen blending with a core of returning players. All five starters are gone from a team that began last season at No. 1 and ended it with an overtime loss to Kansas in the Elite Eight.
Two of those freshmen won’t play due to injuries, but will travel with the team, coach Mike Krzyzewski said. Guard Tre Jones has a hip injury while Cameron Reddish is dealing with a strained groin, he said.
"The main thing is, it’s not so much the practice strategy, it’s to get to know our team — and it’s not just the freshmen, it’s the upperclassmen, how much they’ve improved since the end of the season," Krzyzewski said. "We’ve done a lot of watching and we’ve been teaching individually, and then collectively, and then to use this time for individual growth and that will give us a better idea of what we’ll start doing in September. … This is all a learning thing and a team-building thing."
It’ll also give Barrett a chance to show off in front of the home folks.
Barrett, who attended schools in Canada before transferring to Montverde Academy in Florida for his senior year of high school, says his French is "pretty good" but "a little rusty." He played for the Canadian national team this summer, and grew up watching his godfather, Steve Nash, as well as Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins, who he says "kind of paved the way for us young guys in Canada."
He will play against Ryerson on Wednesday and the University of Toronto two days later. The Blue Devils also will play McGill on Aug. 19 just outside Montreal.
"We haven’t really been together for that long, so it’s a different kind of competition," Barrett said. "It’ll definitely be a challenge."