TORONTO – Canadian basketball has been waiting for its ‘total package’ for some time now – maybe forever.
R.J. Barrett may end the wait.
Even Steve Nash, the most accomplished player in Canadian basketball history didn’t check off every single box on the ‘great player’ menu. The two-time NBA MVP was – if only by world-class standards – lacking a little in terms of power and explosiveness and size; the so-called ‘measurables.’
But Nash more than compensated with his superb skill, elite basketball and emotional IQ, and a fitness level that was second-to-none.
As the next generation of talent from Canada has taken root, even the very best have a flaw here and there. Tristan Thompson lacks the offensive polish to go with his energy; Kelly Olynyk the length and burst to go with his skill, size and smarts; Andrew Wiggins’ inner drive and competitiveness will always be an open question, if only because he can make the most spectacular feats look easy.
Which is why Barrett is such an enticing prospect for Canadian basketball and basketball in general.
At 18-years-old and having just finished high school, the 6-foot-6 slashing wing is far from a complete product. He’s got years of work to do to tidy up the details of a skill set that have made him the presumptive first overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft should he come out after one season at Duke University.
But the template is all there. It will be on display in his hometown on Friday at Ricoh Coliseum when he takes the floor with the men’s national team in an important World Cup qualifier against Dominican Republic and again on Monday in Ottawa against U.S. Virgin Islands.
A win by 13 or more points against the Dominican – avenging Canada’s loss to them earlier in the home-and-home qualifying format – and what should be a routine win against an over-matched USVI club will send Canada into the next round of qualifying for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
Head coach Jay Triano has access to a deep pool of professional talent but it is Barrett who has turned heads so far. He led the team averaging 18.5 points, 3.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds on 50-per-cent shooting (4-of-7 from deep) while getting to the line nine times a game in just 21.5 minutes of floor time in two blowouts wins over China in Vancouver and Victoria, respectively last week.
“I mean, he’s really good,” said Olynyk, the Miami Heat forward and national team fixture who is going into his sixth NBA season. “Super talented. He’s a freak athletically … Right now he’s an unbelievable player, but if he makes everyone around him that much better, he’s gonna be one of those guys who’s unstoppable and a franchise person who’s at a high level for basketball.”
It’s salivating to think about, but as much as Barrett almost instantly turns heads because of his size, quickness and rim-rocking explosiveness, it’s the ‘softer’ elements of his game and character that suggest he will be able to deliver on his athletic promise in a way that few players – Canadian or otherwise — ever do.
He showed his ability to rise to the occasion while playing two years above his age group as he led Canada’s U19 team to a World Championship – a first for a Canadian basketball team – in Egypt last summer. His monstrous 38 point, 13 rebound and five assist outing vs. Team USA in a semifinal win was the kind of performance that only the very best players seem to be able to pull out of their hip pocket.
But Barrett’s ability to feel comfortable no matter how deep the water doesn’t seem shaken even playing with and against men several years older and with years of professional experience on him.
“He’s got a little bit of that, as they call it, the dog in him,” said national team head coach Jay Triano, who joked that he remembered Barrett’s father, Rowan, getting a couple of days off from practice to attend to RJ’s birth when the elder Barrett was in preparation for the summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000. “He’s got that. He’s got that ability. When the game comes on, he wants to, or if it’s a competitive situation, he’s gonna go all out.”
That level of confidence or arrogance is essential at the highest level of sports. Perhaps the most encouraging thing for long-suffering fans of Canadian basketball is that its ‘Generation Next’ seems to have their share of it, in a good way.
No one will ever confuse Jamal Murray for someone lacking confidence and Dillon Brooks is the type to will his way into being taken seriously.
That Barrett has the same force of personality on the floor at such a young age is one reason many expect him to make an impact first at Duke and subsequently at the NBA sooner rather than later.
Even this stint on the national team is part of a plan for him to hit the ground running on what is an absolutely loaded Blue Devils team, setting him up for success in advance of what will almost certainly be his draft year.
“Just trying to gain a competitive advantage over people, other freshman maybe that are going into college next year,” Barrett said when asked what he was hoping to get out of his two-week stint with the national team before heading to school next week to get a jump on his freshman season. “Not a lot of people have played at the men’s level, I’m playing with NBA guys every day, so not a lot of people can say that.”
He’s already come a long way from the gangly youngster who was hanging around the fringes of the national team when Triano took over as head coach (for the second time) in 2012 and his godfather Steve Nash took over as general manager and his father as assistant general manager and executive vice-president.
“He had feet that couldn’t fit his body, he had big floppers, running around, flopping around with his feet,” said Cory Joseph. “He was always talented. I just remember his dad putting him through drills and working with him and always playing with the older guys for countless hours, he loved the gym, loved to work and I just see how good he is now and he’ll just continue to get better.”
Which is what is so exciting. All that talent comes with a good work ethic and good habits that come from good early coaching. And he’s got the ability to think on his feet, too – which now fit quite well with a long, strong frame that allows him to get the rim from almost any direction and finish through contact when he arrives.
“He’s got a good basketball mind, he understands the game, understands spacing,” says Triano. “A lot of it will still come with more experience and figuring out what he can do with the talents that he has, but his basketball IQ, I would say, is very very good … you know, you look at the athleticism that he has and the ability that he’s been able to dominate players in his age, but when he comes in here, he’s still doing the same type of thing. So I think that shows that it’s not just about being the most athletic anymore, it’s about understanding the game and angles and what works.”
Barrett said that early in camp, he found the pace faster than what he was used to. In basketball parlance he got ‘sped up’ – playing at a rate above his comfort zone. No one rushes LeBron James or James Harden or even DeMar DeRozan, for that matter. They spread the panic, they don’t succumb to it.
“The biggest things about the guys who have been in the league for a while is they slow down and kind of let the game come to them,” said Olynyk. “You can’t speed them up, you can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do … but, you know, those guys are special.”
It’s not something that happens overnight. For some players it never happens at all.
“It comes with playing games and playing guys at the highest level, and playing guys who are just as fast, strong, quick, bigger,” said Olynyk. “You’ve gotta use your IQ, you’ve gotta use your body, your stuff from the game. You’ve gotta slow down, make sure you’re taking what they give you, and that’ll come. That’ll come with experience and more games, and more games at a high level.”
But in a couple of weeks with the national team – his first extended experience against professionals — Barrett is already finding his comfort zone.
“Especially my first day or two, I was going really fast, trying to catch up,” Barrett said. “But now that I’ve been here for a week and a bit, I’m starting to slow down, starting to just try to play.
Presumably, at some point Barrett will meet a test he’s not quite ready for yet. Maybe it will be against a veteran, physical Dominican team on Friday, or maybe as a freshman at college or maybe he’ll get all the way to the NBA before he meets challenges that set him back on his heels.
But Barrett has shown so far that beyond having the physical talent to make the basketball world take notice, he’s got the smarts, the maturity, the confidence and the competitiveness that suggests he won’t be set back for long, and will come on stronger if he does.
It’s a package that Canadian basketball has never seen before and promises to be a lot of fun to watch.