R.J. Barrett has never seen himself as a secondary option. It’s both a testament to a relentless playing style that has made him one of the most productive scorers in the country as a freshman and a potential obstacle standing in the way of the Duke’s national championship chances and an NBA team hoping he can eventually assimilate into a winning culture.
You can trace Barrett’s mentality on the court all the way back to his upbringing. As the son of a Canadian Olympic player and the godson of Steve Nash, Barrett has been something of a child prodigy from the moment he picked up a basketball. His incredible prep career was defined by early achievement, which helped establish him as the No. 1 player in two different high school classes. His heroics with Canada basketball’s youth teams — most notably powering a defeat of John Calipari’s U.S. squad in a FIBA U19 tournament — made him an icon.
It’s easy to forget now amid Zion Williamson hysteria, but the one thing everyone agreed on coming into the college season was that Barrett would be the Blue Devils’ best freshman and the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft come June. Williamson surpassed him almost immediately, but Barrett has remained a prolific scorer even as his efficiency waned.
This is the context behind the position Barrett found himself in following Williamson’s knee injury last week. While the rest of the world was arguing itself in circles over the hypothetical that Williamson would shut it down for the season, Barrett saw an opportunity. He’s used it to play his best basketball of the season.
By dropping 30 points against Syracuse, Barrett broke Kenny Anderson’s 29-year-old record for most 20+ point games by an ACC freshman. But it’s the plays Barrett made as a passer that really stood out, especially when compared to his other game against the Orange this season.
Barrett faced Syracuse the first time under totally different circumstances. When Duke hosted the Orange on Jan. 14, they did so with Cameron Reddish out of the lineup with an illness and point guard Tre Jones getting injured just six minutes into the game. Barrett had no idea how to beat Cuse’s patented 2-3 zone on that night, so he just kept shooting. His line — 23 points on 8-of-30 shooting from the field and 4-of-17 from three — provided more evidence to critics that he didn’t play a team oriented game even on a night he finished with nine assists.
That wasn’t an issue on Saturday. Barrett stood out not with his shot making or athleticism, but by making the right play with the ball in his hands.
RJ Barrett at Syracuse: 30 points (6-6 FGA at the rim, 7-8 FGA on cuts) and 7 assists, which led to 4 3-pointers (4 of AOC's 5 3s) and 2 dunks. pic.twitter.com/UH54cTtOkO— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) February 25, 2019
Barrett attracts so much defensive attention that making a simple pass is often the best thing he can do. That’s been the biggest difference in his recent stretch that has him averaging 25 points and 5.6 assists per game on 57.4 percent shooting on twos and 41.2 percent shooting on threes.
He was at his best in a win against NC State on Feb. 16, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists to notch only the fourth triple-double in Duke history. For all of Barrett’s skill as a scorer, it was plays like this one that emerged as his most impressive.
Just by making the right reads and easy passes, Barrett can take his game to a whole new level.
Barrett was purported to have impressive vision as a recruit, but it hasn’t always translated at Duke. Instead, he’s gained a reputation for having tunnel vision as a scorer. The stats back it up. He’s finished with as many or more field goal attempts than points in nine of his 27 games this season. It isn’t benefitting anyone — the Blue Devils’ chances today or Barrett’s NBA hopes tomorrow — to have him playing so inefficiently in a third of his games.
Plays and critiques like this one from a December game against Texas Tech have become common place:
Half full glass attempt : RJ Barrett not passing to wide open teammates is so incredibly and impressively bad that it just can't be a lack of vision or IQ.— NBEinstein (US) (@NBEinstein) February 24, 2019
It had to be about selfishness, mentality and willingness to pass.
So...maybe easier to fix ? Doubt it, but we never know. pic.twitter.com/tBRdRaw7M6
Barrett has started calling himself Maple Mamba on social media, but it’s easy to twist that into a pejorative. The jokes have been writing themselves as Barrett has tried to play hero ball throughout the year even with the most talented cast of the teammates in the country.
RJ Barrett after he’s passed the ball once pic.twitter.com/fR5QY313y6— Caine (@caine1_) February 21, 2019
An unbroken resolve to get buckets can also make you a ball hog. The line between hero and hero ball can be incredibly fine.
No one doubts Barrett’s talent. For a player who doesn’t turn 19 years old until a week before the draft, Barrett’s game is impressively pro-ready. He offers a physical game on both ends that shines in transition with remarkable body control in tight spaces. His craft as a scorer goes well beyond his years. The only thing that’s been holding him back is a mentality that makes him think he can win games by himself.
The biggest strike against Barrett is that he’s averaging 18.7 field goal attempts per game compared to just 12.3 per game for Williamson. If everyone agrees that Williamson is the best player in the country, Barrett should be looking to feed him instead of going RJ-against-the-world on offense.
Showing a willingness to pass benefits Barrett now and in the future. Could you imagine Duke losing an NCAA tournament game because Barrett takes significantly more shots than Williamson? Showing the ability to act as a facilitator would also improve his NBA stock. Given that Barrett shoots only 33 percent from three, NBA teams may think he’s better on the ball than off of it. If he really wants a lead initiator role like James Harden, he’s going to have to prove his playmaking chops.
Will Barrett reverse to his worst tendencies when Williamson comes back? Is he finally learning how to read defenses and trust his talented teammates? Duke’s national title hopes in a single-elimination tournament depend on the answer. His NBA future might, too.