Inside the real reasons why R.J. Barrett chose Duke

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

By now you know Canadian phenom R.J. Barrett has chosen Duke as the next destination on his basketball odyssey.

Barrett’s announcement was more family reunion than press conference with family, friends and former coaches in attendance.

It was a joyous occasion until I looked at my Twitter mentions.

When I left the euphoria of the announcement I immediaetly saw push back on line. The assertion was made Barrett wasn’t a “real black man” or in some way less authentic because he choose Duke University.

It’s a conversation that followed days after in the barber shop and in the gym.

Even though Eugene, OR and Lexington, KY aren’t the most urban city centres, a decision to attend Oregon or Kentucky would have somehow been more accepted.

It’s a mindset that has been around for a while and isn’t new. It’s talked about in the ESPN 30 for 30 “Fab Five” documentary. Michigan (or UNLV before it) was the urban choice and Duke was considered the sellout choice amongst African-Americans.

Duke alumnus Grant Hill responded to the criticism with an op-ed in the New York Times.

Almost three decades after Hill decided to go to Durham for his schooling, the crabs in a bucket mentality is still prevalent and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

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The criticism for choosing Duke isn’t just about race. Duke has always been a school the masses love to hate. Even Bill Simmons weighed in on it during a recent podcast after being taken aback by Barrett’s decision.

When The Ringer suggests you might be the greatest Canadian basketball prospect ever, surely many people on both sides of the border will be engaged with where you decide to go to school.

Free Association: Is Duke the right choice for R.J. Barrett?

The most impressive aspect of Barrett’s game is that he can look past his primary defender — almost with dismissive annoyance — to evaluate where the help defender will be coming from.

His mindset when it came to choose a school wasn’t all that dissimilar. Everyone around Barrett was confident he’d do what is necessary to become a top lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, no matter where he went to school. So the decision in terms of his NBA draft stock was immaterial. What mattered was how higher learning might impact not just his sure-to-be abbreviated NCAA life, but his post-NBA life as well.

What Duke offered him is legacy. There are generational advantages at Duke can tap into given their traditions and alumni.

If Barrett wants to talk broadcasting he can give Jay Williams a call. If he is interested in a front office career, Danny Ferry or Billy King can provide counsel. If NBA ownership is in his future, then perhaps Grant Hill can open doors. Or even if he wants to tap into a business network outside of basketball, Duke’s brand name will carry some weight.

For a 17-year old that’s some advanced thinking.

Unlike his decision to go down south for prep school, the decision to attend Duke was collaborative with his family.

“When I went to Montverde (Academy) I just fell in love with the place and stayed there. This was much different,” Barrett explained. “I feel good about it now, but I definitely went back and forth. This was much more of us working together as a family. I didn’t talk to too many people about it, but they helped me for sure because they know me best. This was us working together.”

If Barrett didn’t reclassify or happened to be a bit younger, his decision might have been entirely different. Executive director of the National Basketball Players Association Michele Roberts and NBA commissioner Adam Silver are talking about eliminating “one-and-dones” for prospects such as Barrett who are both emotionally and physically ready for the NBA.

As for his plans once he arrives at Duke?

“I hope to be one-and-done and go No. 1 in the (2019) draft,” Barrett told me following the announcement. “That’s the perfect plan to me.”

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A misconception about Duke is that it is a largely caucasian institution. But Duke is actually ranked 14th in the country in diversity and over half of its current student population is made up of visible minorities.

When he arrives on campus, Barrett will still be under the legal drinking age but he has already been tasked with making adult decisions that will impact him far beyond his basketball career.

But make no mistake, he remains and teenager at heart. His favourite part about the decision?

“Being able to post pictures on Instagram.”

It’s official!!!

A post shared by Rj Barrett (@rjbarrett) on

He’s excited to wear the Duke uniform and getting a single digit jersey, hopefully his preferred No. 5. He’s excited for “the countdown to craziness,” midnight madness celebration and he’s excited for the March Madness tournament he’s watched so many times on TV.

But when you fill out your NCAA bracket next March and cheer on Barrett in his Duke jersey, just remember that the biggest reasons why he choose to go there have little to do with what happens on the court.

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