Q&A: Canadian stars Barrett, Nembhard on Raptors, friendship

R.J. Barrett holds up his No. 21 Duke jersey after announcing his commitment to play for the Blue Devils (Maggie Naylor/AP)

In a showcase for the top high school basketball players in Canada, two of the best teenage players in the world will be suiting up on opposite teams. R.J. Barrett and Andrew Nembhard headline a talented lineup of Canadian preps taking part in the inaugural Signature All-Canadian Showcase at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ont.

The game will make rivals out of Nembhard and Barrett, who aren’t only good friends, but they teamed up to lead Montverde Academy in Florida to an undefeated season in their senior year, blowing out University School 76-58 in the GEICO National boys’ basketball championship.

They also teamed up to lead the World Select Team to an 89-76 win over the United States in the Nike Hoop Summit. The event full of NBA scouts was dominated by the Canadians as Barrett had a game-high 20 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Nembhard chipped in off the bench with nine points, five rebounds and four assists.

The groundbreaking year for Barrett began in the summer of 2017 in Egypt, where he propelled Canada to its first-ever gold medal in FIBA play, when the under-19 team won the international tournament behind Barrett’s MVP efforts. He then became the first Canadian to sweep all five of the major player of the year awards in America. Lost in his shadow was Nembhard, who after being slighted and not invited to the McDonald’s All-American game, controlled the Jordan Brand Classic with a nine-point, nine-rebound, six-assist, three-steal showing.

The Canadian all-star game comes at the end of a long season that included a pre-season trip to China and ended with a stretch last month with four games in four nights and culminated in more games played as a high-schooler than they will face next year as a NCAA student athlete. The Signature Classic gives the duo a chance to get used to competing against each other as they head to differing NCAA schools next year. The nation’s top-rated recruit, Barrett is part of Duke’s top-ranked class. Nembhard is also a five-star recruit and is the prized possession in Florida’s best recruiting class under head coach Mike White.

With the hopes of both being one-and-done collegiate players a year from now, the plan is to be back together, going through the NBA draft process at this time next year.

I sat down with both teenagers to talk about their love for the Toronto Raptors, and how they now watch their beloved team in the playoffs no longer as just die-hard fans but as future professionals scouting the level it takes to compete in playoff basketball.

Sportnet – Everyone dreams of running the table and winning the championship in their last year. You actually did it. What was it like to go through your senior season undefeated?

R.J. Barrett – I didn’t know it was gonna go that way this year, but we were blessed. You know, we worked really hard.

Andrew Nembhard – It was just a great experience. I’ve been at Montverde for two years and I feel like it’s been a long time coming. We worked really hard. Just a great, great time.

RB – We’ve been playing together for so long. I feel like that really helped this year where we were the two main guys on the team and it was easier just find each other and we really stepped up as leaders this year. So really just having him as a great person and great player made my job a lot easier.

SN – You guys obviously have a great relationship on and off the court. Was there any talk about maybe keeping that going on the next level and going to the same college?

AN – Yeah, there definitely was talk early on. It didn’t pan out, but I mean it would have been a great opportunity for us. I think we would have thrived at the next level together.

SN – How quickly after you guys made your separate decisions did the smack talk start?

RB – Right away and we beat them so that was fun.

AN – Smack started right when we (Florida) played Duke. We go to play Duke early in the season. We were watching the game together. It was intense, but they got that one.

SN – Has the smack talk ever ended?

AN – It’s never gonna end to be honest.

SN – You guys get to go through the season together, these all-star games together. Have you talked about what it would be like a year from now to go through the draft process together?

AN – Yeah. We were actually talking about this a couple of days ago actually like if we really work hard, this next year could be like, our dream come true. So, I’m not gonna lie it would be a great experience and I would love to do it with one of my best friends.

RB – See, this is the thing. We’re still in high school. So, it’s kind of hard. I guess everyone wants to get there and everybody sees that it’s closer and closer. But kind of just focus on getting through college first.

SN – In the NBA playoffs we are seeing rookies play huge roles right away. These are guys that you guys played against in high school. What’s that like to see them not far removed from where you are now on the big stage?

RB – It just gives even more confidence that you’re working and that your abilities are going to be able to play there on that level one day. So I’m just anxious to get there.

AN – It just gives me more motivation to do what they did. It kind of feels like I’m so close and if I just put in the work I can get to the same spot.

SN – Going through this process, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

AN – The best advice was just kind of limit the outside noise and just kind of focus on your goal and set little goals.

RB – Not to lose myself in anything, just stay to myself.

SN – Who told you that?

RB – My godfather Steve Nash. Just little tips of how to handle everything that’s come. Telling me to keep working hard like I’m an underdog and that’s the approach that he used and he went to win MVP.

SN – What is it like to have access to a Hall of Famer in Steve Nash?

AN – I worked out with him one time a couple summers back with R.J. and he’s just a great guy. I feel like he has so much knowledge to give out so it benefits the players across the country under him especially for me playing the same position.

SN – What did you learn from him?

AN – The main thing I learned from him was balance on the court at the point guard position. Just to be able to see everything and make plays.

SN – Andrew, you’ve seen R.J. play more than anyone other than his father. What’s the best part of his game?

AN – The dog in him. His motivation to win every game and compete and just beat his opponent.

SN – What’s the best part of Andrew’s game?

RB – The best part of his game is when he’s just attacking because when he attacks, he’s like one of the best players I’ve ever played. He sees the floor. He can shoot. He’s mentally tough. He really can do anything you need on the court.

SN – Have you had time to watch the Raptors in the playoffs?

RB – Yes, sir.

AN – Coming from Canada and coming from this area, we’re Raptors fans growing up. I became more of a Raptors fan watching them as they got to the playoffs. Now, I’m a big fan. It’s been amazing to be honest. I went to a game last year and the atmosphere that we have in Toronto is amazing in the playoffs.

SN – How much of you is watching them as a Raptor fan and how much of you is watching them evaluating what it’s like to play in the league?

RB – I think it’s a little bit of both and that’s for every NBA game that I watch. You know, I’m watching with my family, these are my hometown Raptors. I want them to do well, but then also, I might be playing with or going up against those guys in a year or two or however long it takes so it’s just a really funny dynamic.

AN – Definitely a shift for me because I kind of look at the players, what they are doing on the court, how they move, look at the different calls and stuff like that.

SN – Most importantly, what’s going on with the short shorts? Why are you trying to bring the John Stockton look back? Is it because of OG Anunoby?

RB – It’s a new era, a new age for the young guys. We all roll our shorts to make them as short as possible, you know got to show off the tights.

AN – I feel like the old starts coming back a little bit. So, I mean we bring it in the shorts. I mean, I kind of got into the wave a little bit too. So, I think it’s pretty cool.

SN – R.J. get you in that wave?

AN – I feel like it’s the players in the league doing a lot of it, like those guys kind of pushed the culture.

SN – We’ve got skinny, euro pants. Is this going to be an off-court thing also?

AN – Yeah, I do a lot of that. I’m not gonna lie. So probably.

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