Takeaways: R.J. Barrett lives up to hype in electrifying Duke debut


Duke forward RJ Barrett (5) shoots around Kentucky forward Reid Travis (22) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AJ Mast/AP)

It took just a handful of possessions before it was confirmed: R.J. Barrett is absolutely the real deal.

The 18-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., and projected first-overall NBA draft pick took centre stage in his NCAA debut for Duke on Tuesday night versus Kentucky, and lived up to the hype that’s followed him for the better part of two years.

Barrett had 20 points by halftime and made his mark on the court while flashing his advanced, all-around game as the Blue Devils made easy work of Kentucky.

Here are some takeaways from Barrett’s debut college game and Duke’s 118-84 blowout win:


There is no shortage of Duke supporters out there, and even more college hoops fans who openly loathe the Blue Devils. Frankly, it doesn’t matter which camp you’re in — this team might have already reached must-watch status.

The team got out to a fast start from the opening tip and never slowed down, putting on a show with as many quality highlights in one night as some college teams take an entire season to accumulate.

First impressions went something like this:

Led by Barrett and fellow five-star freshman Zion Williamson — more on him in a moment — they pounced on turnovers and pushed the ball with purpose. Duke had 59 points by halftime. It was a ton of fun to watch, and the activeness and athletic maturity of Duke’s stars was an obvious advantage.

It’s a scary notion given their opponent, Kentucky, boasts a roster also loaded with top recruits and elite athletes; long stretches of the game felt like watching an intense 2019 NBA draft combine scrimmage. But Barrett & Co. completely overwhelmed their opponent from start to finish, winning by 34 points and handing John Calipari the most lopsided loss of his NCAA coaching career.

It wasn’t just on offence where Duke did damage. They also posted 10 steals to Kentucky’s one and forced 15 turnovers leading to several Blue Devil makes in transition.

The system-heavy, milk-the-shot-clock feel college basketball often offers can make the on-court product less fun to watch. Needless to say, this Duke team is a noticeable exception.

Barrett’s breakout

There were so many impressive moments from Barrett in his first game that illustrated just how good he is already. Take your pick.

For instance, there’s this flashy behind-the-back dribble on the run that lead to a tough and-one layup with his off-hand.

Or, on the next possession this strong coast-to-coast finish at rim:

The top recruit scored in a number of ways, finding particular success getting to the basket and finishing near the hoop. He finished with 33 points, the most a Duke freshman has ever scored in his debut, shooting 50 per cent from the floor, while also knocking down three three-pointers.

Barrett has a mature game that helps him be effective in a number of situations, whether in half-court sets, running the fast break, or improvising amid broken plays. He reads the court well and dished six assists, showing good recognition while calmly passing out of double-teams to open shooters.

What really stood out was his strength. He seemed to command multiple defenders when he had the ball beneath the basket and, although he missed some chances, was active around the hoop and surprisingly effective muscling his way around.

That strength is also on display when he puts the ball on the floor and looks to attack the rim, helping Barrett stay in control while creating chaos around him.

On the heels of Jamal Murray’s 48-point outburst the day before, Tuesday night was another reminder of Canada’s rising basketball talent. Barrett has the chance to be a special talent and to see him take control of the stage like he did felt significant.

If Barrett is this good already, where will his game be at in six months? What about six years?

Iron Lion Zion

Not to be outshone by Barrett’s big night was Williamson, the Internet sensation who has accumulated nearly two million Instagram followers and became a mix-tape legend in high-school.

Williamson, for the uninitiated, is a dictionary-definition freak and maybe the most explosive dunker in NCAA history. No, really. He’s in the conversation.

He’s six-foot-seven, 285 lb., and boasts an unthinkable 45-inch vertical leap. In summary: Williamson is as tall as Kawhi Leonard, is 20 pounds heavier than Jonas Valanciunas, and yet somehow jumps as high as Zach LaVine.

He’s a physical anomaly, and the most reliable highlight-generator to land on the scene in a decade.

Williamson finished with 28 points and seven boards, while also flashing the long-range jumper that is sure to help make him one of the most unstoppable forces coming to an NBA court near you shortly.

Zion looks like he’s going to be a star. So does Barrett. Yes, it’s just one game, but watching them share the court with eacher, you can’t help but feel like you’re watching an iconic collegiate duo in the making.

At one point in the second half Barrett and Williamson had nearly outscored the entire Kentucky team — and the Wildcats entered the game higher in the national rankings — posting 47 points to Kentucky’s 51.

With both Barrett and his co-star almost surefire one-and-done talents, there won’t be many more nights like the one we saw on Tuesday night before they go their separate ways in the NBA next season.

Enjoy this while it lasts.

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