TORONTO — On the day RJ Barrett played his first NBA game at home, and hours after he committed his summer to Canada, the New York Knicks rookie wore his heart on his shoes.
The 19-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., debuted custom Puma shoes for the Knicks’ game in Toronto on Wednesday. They featured the Maple Leaf, Toronto skyline, and the words "Made in Canada."
Hours earlier, Barrett became the latest NBA star to commit to playing this summer in Canada’s quest for its first Olympic berth since the 2000 Sydney Games.
"One-hundred per cent, definitely plan on playing for my country this summer," Barrett said. "I’m very proud to say that."
Canada’s national program has been criticized for its absence of NBA talent, but the past 24 hours has seen a groundswell of commitment.
Denver Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray announced Tuesday evening that he’s on board to play this summer. Cousins Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (New Orleans) added their names to the list a few hours later.
Dillon Brooks, Dwight Powell and Khem Birch have also said they’ll play, while Kelly Olynyk and Cory Joseph virtually never turn down a Canadian team invite.
"It’s great to see everyone buying in and trying to do something great for our country. It’s really exciting," Barrett said. "People want to play and it’s finally starting to show now."
Earlier Wednesday, Canada learned it will host Greece, the Czech Republic, Turkey, China and Uruguay in its last-chance qualifying tournament June 23-28 in Victoria. Canada must win to clinch its first men’s Olympic berth since the 2000 Sydney Games.
Barrett’s dad Rowan, who’s also the general manager of the men’s team, played in those Games alongside Canadian legend Steve Nash. The younger Barrett is keen to follow in his father’s footsteps.
"It’s the way to serve and give back to your country," RJ Barrett said.
Expectations for last summer’s World Cup had been sky-high. Canada could potentially have assembled the best team in program history. But one-by-one the big names withdrew for various reasons. Birch and Joseph were the only NBA players to make the trip to China where Canada, led by Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, finished 21st.
Nurse spoke briefly with Barrett during the Knicks’ visit.
"There’s a number of really good players (Canadian players in the NBA), and I think they should be proud to play for the team and it looks like they’re going to, and all that stuff’s been great news, I think it’s super exciting," Nurse said. "It’s going to be a hell of a tournament out there in Victoria, a hell of an opportunity."
Barrett is no stranger to donning the red and white. He earned tournament MVP honours at the U19 World Cup, where Canada captured an historic gold medal.
The six-foot-seven Duke product, who was picked third overall in this year’s NBA draft, is averaging 15.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists with the Knicks.
Eighteen games into his first NBA season, Barrett said it hasn’t completely sunk in.
"Sometimes when I’m on the court I literally just stop and am like, ‘Wow, I’m really here,"’ Barrett said through a wide smile. "So to me it’s just my everything, it means the world to me and it’s just the beginning."
Barrett had been battling an illness and was listed as questionable for Wednesday’s game. But the Canadian vowed a bug wouldn’t keep him from his first NBA game at home.
"I think everybody when they go home has (that game) circled," Barrett said.
He estimated there would be 300 friends and family members at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday night.
"Everybody kind of feels something for where they grew up, where they came from," Barrett said. "For me, Canada, the whole country had my back. I love them for that."
Barrett’s love of the game flourished in what was then the Air Canada Centre. He sat courtside for his first ever Raptors game as a 10-year-old. His dad was being honoured that night.
"When I think about coming back here and playing my first game, coming to the arena just now for shootaround I was thinking about all the times where my dad took me to a playoff game, or I was able to come and watch LeBron play, or I was able to sit courtside and watch the Hawks play one time," Barrett recalled. "So just to see all that and now for me to be playing this game means a lot to me and I’m just excited and I’m going to have fun."
Knicks coach David Fizdale didn’t expect Barrett to be affected by the moment.
"I just know that any time you go home you want to perform, you want to play for your family and your friends. I’m just trying to keep that adrenaline down a little bit, I don’t want him running around throwing the ball over the place," Fizdale said.
"(But) today you would have thought we were in any other gym. It was like any other shootaround today. I’m expecting him to play well."
Fizdale said the Canadian is easy to coach.
"His maturity, he’s a steady kid. All the guys that I’ve worked with — when you can tell them something and they apply it right away? That’s usually a guy that’s pretty special and he’s one of those guys," Fizdale said. "If you show him something, he’s got it. You have to have certain kind of focus and maturity to do that and he has that."