2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Lack of hype doesn’t diminish R.J. Barrett’s superstar potential

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at R.J. Barrett.

The narrative of R.J. Barrett’s one season at Duke is fascinating when you look at it from 30,000 feet.

People that start paying attention to college basketball as soon as the Super Bowl ends won’t realize this, but as recently as October of 2018, Barrett was widely considered to be the surefire No. 1 pick in this draft. Zion Williamson has rightfully taken over that title, and New Orleans should fire everyone associated with the organization if they opt to take anyone else with the first pick.

But that has everything to do with just how good Zion was in his one season in Durham.

Because Barrett, for all the criticism that he faced throughout the season, became the first high-major player since Anfernee Hardaway to averaged 22 points, seven boards and four assists in one season. Barrett did it as an 18-year old (he turns 19 on June 14th) playing in the ACC. Hardaway did it as a 21-year old junior playing in the Great Midwest Conference.

Barrett quite literally did something this season that we’ve never seen a teenager do in college basketball.

So why has consensus opinion on Barrett dropped off over the course of the season?

Part of it is first impressions.

Back in November, when Duke was losing to Gonzaga in the finals of the Maui Invitational, Barrett made some plays down the stretch that snuggled right up to the line between ‘he wants to take the big shot’ and ‘he’s selfish.’ Without a doubt, there were stretches throughout the early and middle portions of the season where Barrett made the wrong reads or opted to try and power through and over multiple defenders in the paint as opposed to drawing the defense and making the right pass.

This improved as the season progressed, but Barrett still led the NCAA in charges. He still turned the ball over almost 20 percent of the time he was involved in a ball-screen. He still ranked in the 44th percentile as a finisher in half-court situations. These are problematic numbers for a guy that is being drafted based on his ability as a primary playmaker and a downhill driver.

But context has to be considered here.

Duke was one of the worst three-point shooting teams in all of college basketball this past season, ranking 327th nationally, according to KenPom. Even when the Blue Devils went to their small-ball lineup, that meant that Williamson, at 33.8 percent, was the best three-point shooter on the floor, and he was playing the five. No one bothered to guard Tre Jones or Jordan Goldwire, and if they did, never beyond the foul line. Against UCF in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Johnny Dawkins used 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall to “guard” Jones so he could leave his monstrous center standing in front of the rim to help on Barrett and Williamson.

This matters for Barrett because the thing that he does best is turn a corner, power his way to the rim and finish. That’s really hard to do when this is what you are looking at every time you drive:

That put Barrett in a difficult spot.

The obvious play to make in the screengrab above is to kick the ball out to Jones. That’s also the pass the defense wants him to make, because that’s the shot they want.

The example that gets thrown out more than any other when discussing Barrett’s selfishness is the performance he had in Duke’s home loss to Syracuse, when he shot 8-for-30 from the floor and 4-for-17 from three while scoring just 23 points in a game Duke dropped in overtime. What gets easily overlooked by simply reciting stats from the box score is that Cam Reddish, Duke’s alleged floor-spacer, didn’t play, or that Syracuse more or less decided they were going to play their 2-3 zone entirely within 12 feet of the rim, daring Duke to shoot threes. Barrett still finished with nine assists in that game. He might have finished with 19 had his teammates shot better than 5-for-26 from three. Jack White, who Syracuse dared to shoot all night long, finished 0-for-10 from beyond the arc on threes that, for the most part, were unguarded.

Oftentimes, the best play for Barrett to make on a given possession, the decision that would make Duke most likely to win a game in the long-run, was the selfish one.

This is not going to be the case in the NBA.

Barrett will not be forced to choose between playing 1-on-3 or giving the ball up to a guy shooting 26 percent from beyond the arc.

The other thing to factor in here is the human himself.

Speaking with sources around the Duke program and close to Barrett himself paints a picture of a kid that is ready and willing to work. He’s wired the same way that they greats are, the Kawhis and the Kobes and the Hardens. That’s not to say that he has the same talent level as those three — comparing any 18-year old to Hall of Famers is inherently unfair — but the point that has been made over and over again is that Barrett is the kind of kid that is going to find a way to absolutely maximize the ability he has.

And without question, there are things that he has to continue to improve on.

His jumper, for starters, just is not good enough. He shot 30.8 percent from three on more than six attempts per game, shot just 66.5 percent from the free throw line and finished the season under 32 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers. That has to improve, no ifs, ands or buts, if he wants to be an All-Star.

He can also improve on his decision-making. He was better as the season progressed, but there were still too many instances where Barrett had a chance to make the right play and didn’t:

Keep in mind that he is an 18-year old playing at this level of basketball for the first time. That will come if he puts in the time, especially if he continues to work with his Godfather, Steve Nash.

I say all that to say this: Barrett certainly is not a finished product as a player. He has some warts, some of which are justifiably worrisome and others that were magnified by the situation that he found himself in college. He’s also the kind of worker that should work through some of those flaws, the same way that the likes of Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell and Victor Oladipo have.

For my money, there are two things that will determine whether or not Barrett becomes a perennial All-Star at the next level:

1. How well does his defense develop? Barrett has the physical tools to be multi-positional defender at the next level. He looks a bit stiff and awkward when he moves, which means that his athleticism has become somewhat undervalued. I think that, in theory, he’s quick enough to be able to guard down and big enough to guard the best combo-forwards in the NBA, the likes of Paul George and Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard, but he’s never really proven to be all that willing of a defender.

2. Will he be a willing playmaker? What we all see when James Harden is playing is the scoring. The space he creates with his step-back, the players he makes fall with his crossovers, just how lethal he is as a three-point shooter off the dribble. He’s a scoring machine, but part of what makes him so effective and efficient as a scorer is that defenses know they cannot overhelp. He’s finished top eight in the NBA in assists in each of the last five years. In the season before Chris Paul got to Houston, he averaged 11.2 assists. Barrett showed an improved ability to make some of those same reads as the season progressed, but this is a player that has always been wired as a scorer first and foremost. There’s a reason he was dubbed the Maple Mamba when he was still in high school in Canada.

We know Barrett is going to be a guy that can get to the rim and that will thrive in transition. We’ve already seen his jumper improve, and there is still plenty of room to grow for a guy with a work ethic that is lauded.

But simply being a scorer will only get you so far at the next level.

If Barrett truly does have an All-NBA career in front of him, it will be because the rest of his game catches up to what he already does best.