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.

Donovan Mitchell scores 25, Rudy Gobert has 22 and key late block, Jazz rally past Mavs

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Rudy Gobert had 22 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks to propel the surging Utah Jazz to a 112-107 come-from-behind victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.

Donovan Mitchell scored 25 points and Bojan Bogdanovic added 23 for the Jazz, who have won 14 of their last 15 games.

Luka Doncic scored 25 points for the Mavericks, who have dropped two of three after winning four straight. Doncic managed only two points in the final quarter.

Seth Curry added 19 points for Dallas.

Gobert’s three-point play — a dunk and a free throw — gave the Jazz their first lead since the first half at 96-95. The Mavericks responded with a 3 by Curry and two free throws from Delon Wright.

Gobert broke a 104-all tie with a tip-in, and after Tim Hardaway Jr. and Royce O’Neale exchanged 3-pointers, Gobert blocked what looked like an easy layup for Wright.

Mitchell made a pair of free throws, and then Gobert rebounded Doncic’s missed 3-pointer and was fouled. He made one of two free throws for the final margin.

The Mavericks raced to a 32-19 lead behind Doncic’s playmaking and shooting. The Jazz later scored 12 consecutive points and took a brief 37-36 lead on Georges Niang’s 3-pointer.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 15 points and Hardaway and Wright each chipped in 11 for Dallas.

Portland’s struggles do not have Damian Lillard pushing for trade, “I can weather the storm”

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard isn’t going anywhere.

The Trail Blazers are 19-27, sitting as the unexpected 11 seed in the West, and there calls from some quarters of the Pacific Northwest for Portland to do something drastic to try and salvage the season. Too often, those calls are followed by “what if Lillard decides this isn’t working and pushes for a trade?”

It’s not going down that way. Not according to Lillard.

In a league where it’s become commonplace for superstars to use their leverage — either to get traded or to force the team to make bold moves they want — Lillard remains loyal and trusts the front office in Portland. He realizes what this season has become for the Trail Blazers and he wants the franchise to think about next season, not desperation moves to save this one. Here is what he told Jason Quick of The Athletic.

“That don’t have nothing to do with my commitment to the team,” Lillard said. “I mean, it’s not like we are going to do something that is going to take us to the championship at this point. I think it’s more important for us to protect the assets we have, the guys who are going to be here and who are going to help us going forward. I don’t think it makes sense to sacrifice that just to make a desperate play.

“It’s been a tough season, but the season is not over. We can make something of this season as we are, but it’s not worth, you know, saying ‘OK, let’s force something and go do something that at the end of the day doesn’t make sense.’ But that has nothing to do with my commitment. I said it after last game (Golden State): I feel like I can find a way. I can weather the storm. I can go through hard times.”

He also has made clear he isn’t going to push GM Neil Olshay to make specific trades.

Lillard is averaging 28.3 points and 7.6 assists per game, he scored 108 points in his last two games, and he’s playing at an All-NBA level again. He remains one of the game’s top guards and a player the Trail Blazers can build a contender around. His five-year max contract extension doesn’t kick in until next season.

Portland’s challenge is this: Lillard is 29 and in his prime. If they are going to win a title with him that has to happen sooner rather than later. Portland should not make desperation moves to salvage this season — getting Jusuf Nurkic back in the next few weeks could turn things around without a trade — but even looking ahead: If they are fully healthy next season are they on the level of the Lakers or Clippers? To my eyes, no. Then the question becomes what needs to be done to get there? If it’s time for something bold, should they test the trade market for CJ McCollum?

The Trail Blazers have some big questions to answer after this season.

The thing they don’t need to worry about is Lillard.

 

 

Dion Waiters debuts, nearly keys Heat comeback vs. Clippers (video)

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Dion Waiters‘ season entering Friday:

  • Suspensions: Three
  • Instagram posts offensive to the Heat: Two
  • Games played: Zero

However, due to a rash of injuries on the Heat, Waiters finally escaped the doghouse and actually played against the Clippers last night.

He played a little in the first half then started the fourth quarter with Miami down 16. In the final minute, Waiters even twice blocked Lou Williams on the same possession then made a 3-pointer on the other end to cut L.A.’s lead to three.

But the Clippers held on for a 122-117 victory.

Waiters finished with 14 points, including 4-of-9 3-point shooting, in 18 minutes.

Kings demote Buddy Hield, start Bogdan Bogdanovic

Buddy Hield
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Even for a franchise accustomed to misery, the Kings hit this season’s rock bottom Wednesday. Sacramento lost by 22 to the Pistons, who were missing Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown. It was the Kings’ sixth straight loss.

So, Sacramento made a big change last night – starting Bogdan Bogdanovic over Buddy Hield at shooting guard.

The adjustment worked beautifully. The Kings beat the Bulls, 98-81. The starting lineup outscored Chicago by seven points. Hield scored 21 points, shooting 2-for-3 on 2-pointers and 5-for-9 on 3-pointers, and grabbed eight rebounds.

Not every game will be against the lowly Bulls. But it’s not as if Sacramento had been beating anyone.

Kings coach Luke Walton, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“There’s nothing permanent with it, it’s not a punishment to Buddy at all,” Walton added. “Buddy’s been great and we expect him to be great for us tonight. But we’ve got to keep looking for something that works for us.”

“He’ll be fine,” Walton said. “Buddy’s a professional and he knows how we feel about him. Again, this is not a punishment towards him, we’re just looking at trying to mix some things up, try to give ourselves a little juice and find a way to win a game in this stretch that we’re in right now.”

Hield, via Ham:

“You’ve got to come in, be ready and when coach call your number, go out there and hoop,” Hield told Grant Napear on the NBC Sports California telecast following the Kings’ 98-81 win.

“Today I was just locked in and more confident,” Hield said. “I’m just trying to be myself and do what I do best, which is score the basketball.”

Hield has underperformed this season, sometimes leading to tension. Good for him playing hard last night, and Walton was probably wise to downplay the move.

But a team benching a highly paid cornerstone is a big deal.

In order to balance lineups, teams don’t always start their five best players. But the best players usually start, because teams want to play their best players more. It’s generally better to spread that greater playing time over the full 48 minutes than a compressed period that begins several minutes into the game.

Last night, Sacramento treated Hield like a true reserve. He played just 23 minutes, down from 34 per game as a starter.

Maybe Hield will regain his confidence off the bench, return to the starting lineup and continue his momentum. That’d be great for the Kings, though it’d also maintain complications with Bogdanovic headed into restricted free agency this summer.

Sacramento has two talented shooting guards. That’s fine with Bogdanovic still on his first (though relatively high-paying) contract. It becomes more complicated when Bogdanovic receives his raise. The Kings might eventually have to choose between the two.

If nothing else, this lineup change shows not to take Hield’s once-exalted status in Sacramento for granted.