R.J. Barrett shook up the basketball world last weekend. The 17-year-old prodigy led Canada to its first gold medal in basketball in the FIBA U19 World Championship, and he was named MVP of the tournament despite being two years younger than most of the other players in Cairo. Barrett’s shining moment came in the semifinals against the United States, when he had 38 points on 12-of-24 shooting, 13 rebounds, and five assists, giving Team USA its first defeat in international competition in six years. He won’t be eligible for the NBA draft until at least 2019, but he already looks like one of the best prospects in the world, regardless of age. Canada has produced some great young players over the past few years, and he has a chance to be the best of all of them.
Barrett is the son of Rowan Barrett, a Canadian basketball standout who played with Steve Nash in the 2000 Olympics and currently serves as Nash’s assistant GM on the senior national team. The two have known each other since they were teenagers; Nash is R.J.’s godfather. R.J.’s star has been rising over the past year: He dominated the Basketball Without Borders international camp at All-Star Weekend this season, and he shined at the Nike Hoop Summit in April. Like most elite Canadian players, Barrett attends high school in the U.S., playing at the same school in Florida (Montverde Academy) that produced Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and D’Angelo Russell. With his performance at the U19 championships, Barrett has put himself in the same discussion as those players, all of whom were top-three picks in their respective draft classes.
At 6-foot-6 and 193 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Barrett is an elite athlete who already has the size and speed to match up with the best perimeter players in the NBA. Team USA, which was coached by John Calipari, was stocked with NBA-caliber athletes, but none of them could guard Barrett, who scored over the top of their guards, outwitted their wings, and blew past their big men. Like James Harden and Manu Ginobili, Barrett is a left-hander who plays at his own pace and uses his ability to change speeds and score from awkward angles to keep the defense off balance. He has already mastered the floater, one of the most difficult shots in basketball:
Team USA’s trademark at the junior level over the past few years, regardless of who coached it, has been the ability to press up on opposing ball handlers, turn them over, and overwhelm them with length and athleticism. They didn’t need to beat teams in the half court. However, whenever the U.S. threatened to pick up momentum on Saturday, Canada gave the ball to Barrett, who could get a shot for himself or one of his teammates at any point in the clock. There aren’t many 17-year-olds with his touch and footwork in the lane:
Barrett lived at the free throw line throughout the tournament, shooting 75.4 percent on 8.7 attempts per game. Against Team USA, Barrett went 12-of-15 from the charity stripe, allowing Canada to set up its defense and prevent the Americans from getting too many easy baskets in the open court. Even when he was going up against fellow high-level athletes like Hamidou Diallo and Cameron Reddish, who have similar run-and-jump ability, Barrett was able to dig into his bag of tricks and create space to attack them. Watch how he uses his shoulder to drive into the chest of Reddish, a wing listed at 6-foot-7 and 203 pounds, and generate enough contact to draw a call:
Maybe the most impressive part of Barrett’s play in Cairo was his feel for the game. He’s not quite as physically imposing as Andrew Wiggins, but he’s much more polished than his fellow Canadian phenom was at the same age, showing the ability to manipulate the defense and find his teammates all over the court. Barrett was the primary ball handler for Canada throughout the tournament, averaging 4.6 assists and 2.9 turnovers per game. If he can tighten up his handle as he gets older, he could play as a point guard in the NBA. He can make every pass in the book, and his size allows him to see over the defense:
The biggest hole in his game right now is his 3-point shot, which is fairly common for elite wings his age. Barrett can get to the rim so easily against lower-level competition that he hasn’t needed a consistent jumper. He’s a streaky shooter who can heat up from the perimeter, but he also settles for a lot of contested shots and defenses will go under screens against him until he proves he can punish them. Barrett shot 23.8 percent from 3 on three attempts per game in Cairo, and improving his range and consistency from the perimeter will be the main thing he needs to work on over the next few years.
Even without a great jumper, though, Barrett should be able to thrive at the NBA level. Playing as a lead ball handler means he wouldn’t spend as much time spotting up, and he’s agile and savvy enough to take advantage of the space created when defenders sag off him. As he gets older and adds weight to his frame, he will have the physical tools to match up with all three perimeter positions, making it easy to put shooters around him who can space the floor. His rebounding ability means he might eventually be able to play some as a small-ball power forward, as he averaged 8.3 rebounds a game in the tournament:
Barrett, who is being recruited by every major college program in the country, will likely reclassify and graduate a year early from high school, which would allow him to play college basketball in the 2018–19 season. He has excelled against players two and three years older than him for the past several years, and he doesn’t have much more to prove at the youth level. He would benefit from being challenged on both ends of the floor by the best players in college basketball, where the number of teams that play zone defense would force him to work on his jumper. Barrett will be eligible to play in the next U19 championships in 2019, but he may already be in the NBA at that point.
No matter what happens to him when he gets there, Barrett will be one of the key players in Team Canada for the next generation. Last summer, he became the youngest player in Canadian history to receive an invitation to a training camp with the senior team. Canada has enough NBA-caliber players to fill out a roster, from Wiggins to Jamal Murray, Tristan Thompson, Kelly Olynyk, Cory Joseph, Nik Stauskas, and Justin Jackson, a projected first-round pick in 2018 who currently plays for Maryland, but they will need plenty of star power to actually beat Team USA at the Olympics or World Championships. R.J. Barrett could provide that. He has already knocked off the Americans once, and he will get many more chances over the next decade. Canada could be looking at its biggest basketball star ever. International basketball just got a lot more interesting.