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.

Bucks GM Horst says keeping Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez was summer priority

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Milwaukee made the leap last year — won 60 games last season, had the MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, was top five in offense and defense, reached the conference finals, and became a serious title contender. It was an amazing season and run, one that earned GM Jon Horst Executive of the Year honors, as voted by his peers.

But a GM’s job is never done.

The Bucks went into the summer with three starters as free agents and a lot of questions about keeping the roster together. Milwaukee retained two of those starters — Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez — and those two were the top priorities, Horst told Eric Nehm of The Athletic.

Khris was always a focus… He’s our second superstar, our second star. He’s an All-Star. He’s been one of our best players for a long period of time here. Fits our culture, fits our style of play, fits our aging curve. He’s become a leader of our team. For us, we want to try to recruit with him and play the culture fit, winning. Create an environment he wanted to play in for a long, long time. A place where his family is happy with Sam and the baby and everything…

When we got Brook last offseason, we understood, at some level, how important he was going to be to us and how important he was going to be and what the value was going to be. We also understood if he’s as good as we think he’s going to be, it’s going to present a lot of challenges.

The challenges Horst is referring to are about money. The Bucks got Lopez on a one-year steal of a contract at $3.4 million, but he played his way into an eight-figure salary. Keeping Lopez meant roster changes were needed to create cap room.

The ultimate upshot of that is Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic are no longer with the team. The Bucks could have matched the four-year, $85 million offer Indiana put on the table for Brogdon, but doing so would have put them deep into the luxury tax and tied their hands in other ways. The Bucks signed Wesley Matthews as a stopgap instead.

Malcolm is very, very important and we knew how important he was to our team. It will be hard to replace him. I think we’ve done the best that we can and we’ll continue to work in ways to be creative and fill that gap.

Horsts’ moves this summer should keep the Bucks as title contenders next season, they head into the season as the favorites in the East.

That’s not the biggest question facing Milwaukee, however. That is: Did the moves keep Antetokounmpo happy? Next summer he can be offered a super-max contract extension to stay with the Bucks through his prime, if he turns it down the Bucks have to consider trading him. Will Antetokounmpo take the money? Every move Horst made this summer needed to bring Antetokounmpo closer to answering yes to that question.

We’ll see how it went in a year.

Chris Paul says players don’t really talk about money in locker room

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Locker room banter flies all over the conversational map: Clubs/restaurants to first cars to rappers to Fortnite to why Player X never has any lotion and always has to borrow someone else’s.

What doesn’t come up? Money.

That according to Chris Paul, who should know after 14 years in the league and now serving as the players’ union president. He was talking about his campaign to help players become more financially aware and said this to Clevis Murray of The Athletic.

“I think the reason why I’m so passionate about this is because I’m finishing up my 14th year in the NBA, and I’ve been around long enough to realize that guys in our league, we talk about everything in the locker room except for finance, except for money,” he said. “Nobody talks about money, because it’s one of those uncomfortable things.”

It’s a strange dynamic in an NBA locker room because everybody knows what everybody else makes, it’s very public, and that provides a certain measuring stick of worth.

Yet how does one player tell another “man, your entourage is too big, you’re blowing your money.” Players finally making money understandably want to take care of family and close friends, but other people come into their life and things can spiral fast. CP3 says he gets it, and he is working with Joe Smith — who made $60 million in NBA earnings and lost all of it — to help prepare rookies.

The stories of NBA players blowing through their money absolutely happen, but they also are not the majority, and the numbers are shrinking. More and more players are learning to be smarter with their money and set themselves up on some level for life after basketball. Not all, but guys who stick in the league a few years tend to learn. If Paul and the union can come up with ways to reach players at an earlier age and prepare them for what is to come, all the better.

Bobby Portis says watch out for underrated Knicks, they could make playoffs

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You don’t want a player on your team that heads into the season thinking, “we suck, I just hope we can get to 20 wins and not be embarrassed every night.” Even if that might be the reality for that roster.

Enter Bobby Portis of the New York Knicks. The Wizards let him walk to save money and he has ended up on a Knicks team with a lot of guys who see themselves as underrated: Elfrid Payton, Marcus Morris, and Julius Randle. Plus New York has young players with a lot to prove — especially after Summer League — in Kevin Knox, R.J. Barrett, and Mitchell Robinson.

Portis likes this underdog team, he told Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype.

I love being underrated, man. I’m an underdog. I say that every day. We’re the team that’s being counted out right now. People are looking past us. They’re talking about stars going to new teams and this and that, and that’s okay. Everybody on this team has a huge chip on their shoulder. We’re the guys who are always picked second. I think that’s going to make us close. Our practices are going to be top-notch; we’re all going to be competing and that’s going to make us better. We have a lot of dogs on this team, which will help us out as well. Collectively, we all have a chip on our shoulder – a log on our shoulder – so we’re going to go out there and play with an edge. I think that’s great for us.

So… playoffs?

Yeah, for sure, for sure. The naysayers, the haters, the people who are doubting us will say that we’re crazy as hell for saying that. But we have a bunch of guys who are coming in each and every day with that log on their shoulder and that’s going to push us to become a great team. We have a lot of pieces who can play. I think we’re loaded at every position; there are two-to-three players who could start at every position. When you have that much talent, that rises the competitiveness and improves the team as a whole.

That is exactly the attitude you want to see heading into the season.

The Knicks are going to struggle this year, talent wins out in the NBA and the Knicks don’t have enough of it. However, if the goal is to build a culture of gritty players who go play all out and are tough to play against — the cultures the Nets and Clippers developed that drew stars to them — the Knicks are on a decent road. New York didn’t pull a classic Knicks this year and overspend on a couple of second-tier stars when they struck out on the big guns, they went out and got decent players on short contracts. Stay flexible, build a culture.

We’ll see if Portis will be part of that going forward, but he has the right attitude.

Report: Lakers claim Kostas Antetokounmpo off waivers

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is a 24-year-old MVP playing in Milwaukee and heading toward a super-max decision that could have him hit 2021 unrestricted free agency.

Big-market teams are licking their chops.

That probably has something to do with the Lakers adding his brother, Kostas Antetokounmpo.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kostas Antetokounmpo was the last pick in last year’s draft. He spent the season on a two-way contract with the Mavericks, who just waived him. He’ll remain on a two-way deal with the Lakers. The 21-year-old was alright in the NBA’s minor league, but he’s not a tantalizing prospect.

Except for his connection to Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles. But maybe he’d change his mind if someone close to him has a positive experience there. That must be the Lakers’ hope, at least.

It’s worth a shot, and the Lakers aren’t the only team trying this angle. The Bucks also signed Thanasis Antetokounmpo this summer.