Ian Begley, SNY.tv | Twitter |
About six weeks after Duke's loss to Michigan State in the Elite Eight, RJ Barrett was in California with Zion Williamson and trainer David Zenon. They were on the West Coast for something totally unrelated to college basketball, but the defeat was still on Barrett's mind.
"He was saying, 'We should have had that game,'" Zenon says. "(My teammates and I) should have done this and we should have done that. He had four or five things that he listed that the players needed to do."
As he reeled off the specific issues, it was clear how much the loss still bothered Barrett.
"He was in mourning after that loss," says Dwayne Washington, who has coached Barrett since he was 12. "Most people would have been like, 'I'm going to the league, I'm going to be a top-five pick. (Let's move on).'... He was burning."
That competitive drive has shaped Barrett as a player and person throughout a decorated high school career and his season at Duke. And those close to Barrett believe it will lead to success at the next level.
"Winning is the only thing that matters to him," Washington says. "There's no compromise.... Everything he's been about has been about winning, excellence, not being afraid to compete at the highest level, the biggest stage."
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Barrett will step onto the biggest stage of his life on Thursday night when he shakes commissioner Adam Silver's hand and puts on the hat of the team that drafts him. If everything goes the way it's projected, Barrett will have a blue Knicks hat on when he walks off the Barclays Center stage. New York is expected to select Barrett with the No. 3 pick.
And if they do, the immediate question some long-suffering Knicks fans will ask about Barrett is, can he handle the Big Apple?
Those who have spent time around Barrett believe the answer is a resounding yes.
"There's one guy in (the draft) that's built for New York City and that's RJ Barrett," says Rae Miller, an assistant coach at Montverde Academy, where Barrett played high school basketball. "He has the personality, the level of play that New York enjoys and he has the character."
"He's been raised with a New York mentality," says Washington, adding: "He is what people say New Yorkers are supposed to be -- aggressive, determined, confident and always pushing the envelope. That's how you get to greatness."
Barrett has embraced the idea of playing for the Knicks, a franchise that has won just one playoff series in the past 19 years. He's only met and worked out for New York in the weeks leading up to the draft, eschewing workout invites from other teams with top picks.
"This is the place I want to be, so I hope they draft me," he said earlier this month.
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If you talk to enough people around Barrett, a clear picture starts to emerge. There are 'two RJs,' to borrow a phrase Washington uses.
There's 'off-the-court' RJ.
"Everybody seems to gravitate toward him. He exudes confidence and humility. His stature is how he doesn't let that define him," Washington, the director of the UPLAY Canada grass roots program, describes it.
That demeanor has made Barrett a natural leader.
"He's a great locker room guy. He gets the temperature in the room pretty quickly," says Zenon, an NBA/NCAA trainer -- but not Barrett's personal trainer -- who spent time with Barrett and Williamson at Duke regularly this season. "He's able to relate to a lot of guys."
Then there's on-the-court RJ.
Washington, a Bronx native, says Barrett embodies the traits on the court that New Yorkers, in particular, can appreciate: an insatiable drive combined with an unrestrained competitive streak.
"This kid is like a real 1988 New Yorker. He's not some 2016 Instagram model. He's trying to kill you," Washington says.
The city may have rubbed off on Barrett over the years. His mother, Kesha, is from Brooklyn and ran track at St. John's. His father, Rowan, played basketball for the Red Storm. Barrett spent significant time playing pickup basketball in New York while visiting family in Brooklyn as a child.
"I was the young guy and they tried to push me around. It was a great experience," he said.
Barrett started playing the game at a young age, following in the footsteps of both his father and godfather, Hall of Famer Steve Nash, who grew close with Rowan Barrett while playing with the Canadian National Team.
It was clear early on that Barrett was an elite talent. He was named as one of the top players in Canada by youth scouting services and played for national team programs at a young age. At age 14, Barrett left Toronto to attend high school at Montverde Academy in Florida under head coach Kevin Boyle, who has coached several lottery picks, including D'Angelo Russell, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons.
Barrett thrived at the school, earning multiple National Player of the Year awards.
"He had an ability to raise his level of play to match the situation," Miller says, referencing Barrett's late-game prowess in high school.
If Barrett's killer instinct was apparent on the court at Montverde, off-the-court RJ also emerged at school.
The team participates in a Buddy Program, which pairs players with a class at the academy's lower school in an effort to show them that they can have an impact on others.
"Too often you have a kid (with elite talent) like RJ who is revered for his basketball ability but never understood what it is to give back, never understood what it is to have someone look up to you," Miller says.
Barrett, says Miller, never had that perception issue. He embraced the program and was also 'revered' by teachers and administrators for the way he interacted with the kids. To Miller, it was a reflection of the way Barrett was raised.
"RJ's parents are conscious of their opportunity to impact others. He was raised in an atmosphere of service and fellowship," Miller says.
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While those attributes are admirable in pro sports, there's still something that matters above all in the Big Apple: winning games.
Barrett certainly showed evidence that he can contribute to winning in his one year at Duke, averaging 22.6 points, 4.3 assists and 7.6 rebounds as a freshman. In doing so, he became the first player in NCAA history to have at least 850 points, 250 rebounds and 150 assists in a season.
But, like most 19-year-olds, Barrett's game has room for improvement. Scouts have concerns about Barrett's shot selection, outside shot (he hit 30.1 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc at Duke) and ability to get past defenders off the dribble at the next level.
Barrett isn't blind to these aspects of his game, according to those close to him.
"He knows he's not a finished product," Washington says.
To that end, Barrett has been working with trainer Drew Hanlen since shortly after the college season ended to address each aspect of his game. Hanlen, who has worked with Barrett since he was 15, says recent workouts have been tailored toward working on his shot and improving his 'shiftiness' off the dribble.
"He likes to be coached, likes to ask questions, he's big on mastering the nuances of each skill," Hanlen says. "He's a guy that works his ass off and really wants to be special"
Hanlen has trained dozens of pros, including Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum, and he says Barrett approaches workouts with the same maturity that Beal and Tatum showed when they were younger.
One thing that stands out to Hanlen?
"Whenever I show him something on the court, we'll walk through it, we'll talk through it, we'll go through it. Right after the workout is over, he'll ask me to send the video of him doing it, and then he'll ask, 'Hey can you send me videos of other players like me doing it?'
"That's a huge sign of maturity," Hanlen says.
About an hour after Duke's loss to Michigan State, Hanlen texted Barrett a heartfelt message. Barrett's response was revealing, and should comfort Knicks fans if the club drafts him Thursday night.
"I'm ready to go to work," he said.