SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – R.J. Barrett had to make a play.
There were just 23 seconds left in regulation, and Barrett’s Montverde Academy led Simeon Academy, 61-60, at the 2018 HoopHall Classic.
Simeon’s Talen Horton-Tucker took the ball down the court, just seconds after Barrett sunk a free throw to give the Eagles the one-point lead. Barrett slowly backpedalled, his eyes locked on Horton-Tucker. His expression, much like the entirety of the game, didn’t quiver one bit from a cold, hard stare.
Barrett, the top-ranked recruit in the class of 2018, the crowned jewel of Duke’s historic incoming class and the most heralded Canadian prospect since Andrew Wiggins, knew his job. He had to make a play. And he did.
The 6’6 guard used every inch of his lengthy frame to practically create a wall in front of Iowa State-bound Horton-Tucker. He stayed low to the ground, lower than Horton-Tucker, and made a swift lunge at the ball to knock it away. He corralled the ball before being fouled, and then went on to split a pair of free throws to lock up a 62-60 Eagles win.
“That’s my favorite moment of the game,” Barrett told DIME. “The end. You have to win the game for the team.”
Was Barrett’s performance impressive? Yes. Surprising? No. If anything, it was expected. Plays like that will continue to be expected, too. For the rest of his tenure with the Golden Eagles, his future career with the Blue Devils and beyond, Barrett will have lofty expectations resting on his broad shoulders.
It starts in the gym. In practice, when the cameras, fanfare and pressure to win is gone. Barrett, like many top tier athletes, is the first one in and last one out. On this particular day at practice, he’s in the gym 20 minutes before his Montverde teammates. As the Golden Eagles begin to run drills, head coach Kevin Boyle blows his whistle. The team was too sluggish for his liking, and it’s Barrett who receives the brunt of the veteran coach’s criticism.
“I was ready, I was ready,” Barrett campaigned to Boyle.
“Yeah, but your team’s not ready,” the coach responded.
The margin for error at Montverde is slim, to the point that it is practically nonexistent. After all, Boyle didn’t produce a pair of future first overall picks — Kyrie Irving during his time at the now-close St. Patrick High School in New Jersey and Ben Simmons at Montverde — as well as a bevy of first rounders and college stars by allowing complacency on the court.