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.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.

 

Cavaliers’ Dean Wade to miss 3-4 weeks due to shoulder injury

NBA: NOV 06 Cavaliers at Lakers
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In Cleveland’s search for a fifth starter to play the three next to Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, Dean Wade might be the best of the group. Not that the numbers are great for him or anyone (Cedi Osman is the best statistically) but the eye test makes one think Wade could be the answer.

We’ll have to wait a while to find out as Wade will be out 3-4 weeks with an AC joint sprain in his left shoulder, the Cavaliers announced. Friday night against the Magic he suffered an aggravation to a previous injury.

Wade has been a quality floor-spacer for the Cavaliers this season, shooting 41.1% from three, and is averaging 6.4 points and 4.1 rebounds a game, playing a little more than 24 minutes a night.

When he returns, hopefully coach J.B. Bickerstaff will give him a little more run with the rest of the Cavaliers core (when they are healthy).