There’s something special brewing in Canada, and the rest of the international basketball community is on notice. The Canadian Men’s National Basketball Team is shaping up to be one of the more dangerous squads in the world, with a mix of NBA talent and younger potential stars who can bring the program to another level.
Among that second group of players, no one is more prominent than R.J. Barrett, the 18-year-old wunderkind who will suit up for the Duke Blue Devils next year. Barrett has all the makings of a future superstar, the kind of player who can shoulder the load of an entire country’s expectations on the hardwood.
Dime caught up with Barrett prior to the Gatorade Athlete of the Year ceremony — where he was a finalist but eventually lost out to J.T. Daniels, a quarterback from California. The future Blue Devil spoke about hoops in Canada and why he believes the national team is ready to compete for gold medals against the United States.
Dime: Why is basketball in Canada on the come up right now?
R.J. Barrett: Basketball is a very popular sport. So when you see basketball on TV all the time, people naturally want to play it more, and as Canadians, it’s finally taken more and more seriously. You see the wave pool of talent that we have, and we’re gonna be contenders.
Yeah, is it because of that talent that is coming through in the sport, is it the success of the Raptors, is it kind of something in between?
I’d say it’s definitely the success of the Raptors, and really the people that have come up in Canada that are going to the NBA and being successful. You have Kelly Olynyk, Andrew Wiggins, you’ve got Steve Nash that played. So you have this — Cory Joseph — there’s just a lot of players up and coming here that are doing well in the NBA, so I feel like the young kids, we … for me growing up, what I can see in guys like Tristan Thompson, I felt like “wow, I can do this, too, I can achieve this.”
You kind of mentioned it, but who were some the young guys who you think will kind of carry this next generation of Canadian hoops and what is it that makes them so special as basketball players?
Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins, Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson, Kelly Olynyk, Dillon Brooks, you know Dwight Powell. A whole bunch of young guys, and really, we don’t have that underdog mentality here, they will be paving the way for the present day younger generation.
Next to you the other young dude who gets so much love is Andrew Nembhard. You played with him in high school, could you give me a quick scouting report about his game and how it meshes with yours?
I think he’s the smartest player I’ve ever played with. I mean he just has a knack for the game that no other has. I was very fortunate to play with him literally since middle school, we played together on the same team, so it was great, he made me look good, he was a great person on and off the court.
We’ve been talking about it but I think the reason people get so excited is how young this core group is. What do you guys, when you talk with other young dudes on this Canadian team, what do you hope to accomplish over the next 10-15 years of ball with the national team?
To go to the Olympics and get a gold medal. We’re going to have a great pool of talent, the older veterans are going to start getting into their prime soon, along with the younger guys that are going to have a couple years of experience, myself and Andrew Nemhard. I think if we all pull together we’d have a really good team and make some noise.
And to get to the point where you’re winning championships, and you’re winning gold medals with this group, historically it’s shown that all roads go through the United States. What makes this group of Canadian players so well-equipped to do that?
I’ve beaten the USA twice in my lifetime, so they’re beatable. I feel with all the great players we have, a whole bunch of NBA players now, they have experience. So it’s really going to be a fair game, and I think we can take them.
Is it one of those things that when you guys get on the court against them, you bring that little bit extra, you relish that opportunity a little more?
For sure. They’re great competition, everyone wants to beat Goliath. Definitely for them, I feel like they’re on notice, so let’s do it, we beat them so they’re worried about us doing it again.
Do you ever feel pressure on your shoulders to be one of the guys who serves as a face for this golden generation for the sport in the country, and why or why not?
Never felt pressure, more of a want. Canada is what made me, it made me who I am today so I just want to give back. Other than the military this is really one of the only ways to serve your country, so I never take that for granted.
Let’s talk about Gatorade for a sec, you’ve won basically everything that a high school basketball player could win, so what would it mean to you be named High School Athlete of the Year?
That would mean a lot to me, to be a person of all people to be selected for this award. It will be very close to my heart, you know I put in a lot of work, the people that are with me put in a lot of work every day for this, so it would be great to achieve it.
Obviously you don’t want to finish winning awards when you’re in high school, so looking ahead to the rest of your hoops career, what’s the one honor that you hope to win above everything else?
NBA Championship, Finals MVP, regular season MVP, All-Star, really all of that. In the NBA, those are my goals.
And what do you think you need to do, whether it’s add to your game, whether it has to do with your mindset to make sure that by the time you’re looking back on your career in 15-20 years, you have won all of those?
I have a great mindset, so just keep the same, really competitive. I think I can beat anyone. And just continue to work on my craft everyday, be the hardest worker.