As practice for the Canadian senior men’s national team came to a close, R.J. Barrett is shooting free throws on a rim on the side of the court. As the sounds of Drake bellow out from the speakers at Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto, Barrett quietly raps along, his eyes never breaking focus for the rim. It provides an interesting snapshot of Canadiana at the moment, the country’s foremost artist bumping on the eve of the highly anticipated “Scorpion” double-album releasing and its foremost basketball prodigy on the eve of his biggest spotlight yet, an appearance with the national team in FIBA World Cup 2019 qualifiers at just 18 years of age, and on home turf no less. For Barrett, this is also a rare moment of calm on a court, the routine individual work marking the only time he’s not outwardly competing with anyone but himself.
At this point, Barrett’s star is well known. Last Thursday, the end of the 2018 NBA Draft made way for the first mock drafts for the 2019 edition, and Barrett is atop the most prominent boards. He was a five-star recruit, wound up ranking No. 1 on ESPN’s recruiting board for the 2018 class (just ahead of future college teammates Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish), and ahead of his freshman year at Duke, he is already the presumptive No. 1 pick and a near-unanimous bet to be a franchise-level player at the professional level.
His talent is undeniable, with an incredible mix of footwork, balance, and body control and an array of crafty moves well beyond his age. He’s incredibly athletic, with elite speed, explosiveness, and agility, traits that already make him a terror on offense and make his defense at 6’7 project as a potentially versatile weapon if the results can catch up with the tools. There is just so much to like at 18, and even if every skill doesn’t reach its full potential — he needs to continue to work on his right hand, add strength through his lower half, extend his pull-up game closer to the college three-point line — Barrett is likely to be a star.
A lot of prospects are talented, though, and the impression of teammates and staff as Canada camp runs its course is that Barrett is also equipped with the sort of make-up that helps translate those skills to stardom. The words “amazing” and “incredible” come up in casual conversation, and inevitably the conversation turns not toward Barrett’s natural talent, but his demeanor and approach. He knows how good he is, and he’s as aggressive as his talent suggests he should be. As one trainer who worked with the team at their camp in British Columbia last week put it, Barrett is scared of no man and no moment. Head coach Jay Triano has another way to describe it.
“I think that’s part of who he is,” Triano says. “He’s got a little bit of that, as they call it, the dog in him. He’s got that. He’s got that ability. When the game comes on, or if it’s a competitive situation, he’s gonna go all out.”
That fire is not limited to game action, though Barrett clearly felt no sympathy for an overmatched China split-squad as he helped steamroll them in a pair of exhibition games last week. Throughout the week, Barrett’s intensity in practice has helped set the tone for a very competitive camp that saw Canada have to whittle down a group of 17 to a roster of 12 with some tough decisions. Barrett’s place was largely secured by that point — the bigger question was availability ahead of reporting to Duke, with whom he’ll play a series of exhibition games in Canada in August — but that didn’t keep him from pushing the intensity level, the high tide of his competitiveness helping lift all boats.
“Man, he’s phenomenal,” says point guard Kaza Keane. “I’ve seen some things in my day, I played with Andrew Wiggins, and there’s a lot of similarities. Just the way he’s just constantly going. He’s just insane, how competitive he is all the time. I call him Mad Max, because he’s just always ready to go, you know? He’s always angry and always ready to play hard. I enjoy that. Trying to take him under our wing and hopefully he goes forth and does great things. And I know he will.”