WESTFIELD, Ind. — R.J. Barrett grabbed the rebound at rim level. He pushed the ball to halfcourt in only two dribbles and by the time he reached the center circle, he was already sizing up his target.
This was Barrett’s debut appearance on Nike’s EYBL senior circuit, but the 16-year-old from Canada needed no introduction. He is the most decorated high school player in the world, cementing his spot as No. 1 in the class of 2019 by dominating older competition all over the globe for the last two years. For everyone else, summer basketball is an audition in front of scouts and college coaches. For Barrett, this was just another showcase.
The Southern Stampede was Barrett’s opposition on this day, and it had three players camped out in the paint as he approached the three-point line at full speed. He gathered the ball as he charged into the paint, exploded off his right foot, and hammered the ball through the rim with his left hand.
The gifts that made this type of coast-to-coast finish possible are the same ones that have made Barrett a household name as he finishes his sophomore year of high school. His list of accomplishments is just beginning and it’s already long and impressive. Most notably: Barrett was the youngest player at this year’s Nike Hoop Summit in April and the MVP at Basketball Without Boarders during All-Star Weekend in February.
“On the biggest of stages, R.J. Barrett is unbelievable,” said Corey Evans of Rivals.
Any player ranked No. 1 in his class has a lot to live up to, but it feels especially true for Barrett. No other player is seen as a symbol of his home country’s basketball future. No one else has to answer to a godfather like his — two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash.
“Especially the next couple years, we’ll be right up there,” Barrett said on Canada’s chances of competing on the world stage. “I believe in my country and all the players we have. We’ll be pretty good.”
Barrett has aced every test he’s had up to this point. He just dominated his biggest challenge yet, carrying Canada to the gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Cup and winning the tournament’s MVP by averaging 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. That included a mesmerizing 38-point performance in an upset win over John Calipari’s U.S. squad.
As he stays in the spotlight, those tests are only getting harder.
R.J. Barrett was born on June 14, 2000. Three months later, his father flew off to Sydney to compete for Canada basketball in the summer Olympics.
Rowan Barrett Sr. already had an accomplished career by the time he made his Olympics debut. He was good player at St. John’s in the mid ’90s and then embarked on a professional career that took him around with the world, with stops in Spain, Argentina, and eventually France and Italy.
In Sydney, Barrett teamed up with 26-year-old point guard Steve Nash to help Canada to a seventh-place finish. Canada hasn’t been back to the Olympics since. Barrett and Nash are tasked with changing that.
In 2012, Nash was named general manager of Canada basketball. Barrett was hired as assistant GM. The two have known each other since they were teenagers coming up in the national program back before anyone thought Canada could ever be a basketball powerhouse.
Now their best hopes may rest on the broad shoulders of young Rowan Jr.
Like his father, basketball has already carried R.J. Barrett far away from his home in Mississauga, Ontario. He came to the United States for high school at Florida’s Montverde Academy, the same school that recently produced Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell, and a host of other high-major recruits.
Barrett has already been a star on the international circuit playing for Canada’s junior program. As a 14-year-old, he led his country to a silver medal at the U-16 FIBA Americas tournament in Argentina. Barrett was again one of the youngest players the next summer at the U17 FIBA World Championships in Spain, where he finished as the tournament’s sixth-leading scorer at 18.6 points per game.
Barrett’s hype reached a new level at Basketball Without Borders in February during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. With NBA scouts in attendance, Barrett drew rave reviews in taking home MVP honors. “The consensus among NBA executives that we spoke to was that Barrett was not only the best player, but also far and away the best prospect at the event,” wrote Evan Daniels of Scout.com. He wasn’t the only one:
I don't usually say this lightly, but R.J. Barrett showing superstar level talent here at BWB. On another level athletically, creating shots— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) February 18, 2017
“He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s also very skilled for a guy his age,” said Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress. “He’s never afraid. It doesn’t matter who he’s playing against — he’s taking the ball strong to the basket every single time. He’s not going to back down.
“He shows you a lot of versatility, his handle, his shooting, his defense, his passing, his ability to get out in the open floor and make plays. He’s an absolute stud, there’s no question.”
What do scouts see in Barrett? A slashing wing with great size (6’7), long arms, and a strong frame. He’s a freight train in transition, a versatile defender, and is developing as a creator for others.
He’s also undeniably productive. Barrett only played in half of the EYBL’s four sessions this spring — he missed one weekend with an injury, another for school — but he ended the regular season as the league’s leading scorer at 28 points per game. No other incoming junior averaged more than 18.2 points per game.
This has perhaps been the single most-encouraging trend of Barrett’s path to this point: He’s so often the best player on the court despite also being one of the youngest. That’s part of why he may reclassify up a year and enter the class of 2018.
Barrett said a decision on reclassification won’t come until August. Until then, he’s holding off on talking much about recruiting, but he does already have offers from every major program, including Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and Arizona.
“No matter what environment I go to — I could be playing against LeBron James and the best players in the world — I always think I can do my thing,” Barrett said. “It’s just that confidence that I have.”
Barrett is not a finished product. He shot only 31 percent from three-point range in the EYBL this season and made just 58 percent of his free throws. He also needs to get better with his right hand. These are common areas of improvement for almost every young wing, let alone one that is still only 16 years old.
Meanwhile, Barrett’s development is on track to coincide with the rise of Canadian basketball. There are young Canadians thriving all over the NBA, from Tristan Thompson to Jamal Murray to the player he is most often compared to, Andrew Wiggins. Barrett is already the youngest senior team invite in Canada basketball history.
That type of pressure could crush lesser players, but Barrett continues to leave little reason to doubt him. This is only the beginning for both Barrett and his home country as a basketball nation. That might be the most promising thing of all.