Duke’s Barrett becomes more than a scorer, by necessity

In many ways, Basketball Hall of Famer Steve Nash knew RJ Barrett before he was born in June 2000.

Nash and RJ’s father, Rowan Barrett, had known each other long before that, two Canadian basketball standouts who headed south to play NCAA ball in the 1990s before playing together on the 2000 Canadian Olympic team at the Sydney games.

When RJ was born that summer, Rowan and his wife, Kesha, picked Nash as their son’s Godfather.

Nash knows RJ Barrett, the person and the player. He knows basketball, from his college days starring at Santa Clara to an NBA career that included a pair of MVP awards.

Yet when Nash sat with Rowan Barrett at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 2, watching RJ play for Duke in person for the first time, the performance amazed him.

Barrett fell just short of his second-triple double of his freshman season, tallying 19 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a Blue Devils 87-57 win over Miami.

“He’s incredible,” Nash said. “It’s hard to believe he’s only 18 years old. Really his skill is he’s a fantastic passer. His size, at that position, it’s hard to compare. At 6-7, to handle the ball and pass like that is a skill that translates even more so in the NBA.”

Barrett’s scoring prowess was a given, starting with the 33 points in he scored in his Duke debut on Nov. 6 that spearheaded a 118-84 wipeout of Kentucky. He led the ACC in scoring with 23.4 points per game.

What has surprised many, Nash included, are the playmaking skills that have improved as the season progressed.

Doubts existed about Barrett’s passing, particularly after a frantic final minute in Duke’s 89-87 loss to Gonzaga in November. Since then, Barrett’s done plenty to put them to rest.

With or without a healthy Zion Williamson,even as Duke prepared for his return in Thursday night’s ACC tournament opener against Syracuse, Barrett must continue to be in the middle of Duke’s play with both his scoring and passing.

“He really is a good a passer as we’ve had and his defensive rebounding and then his leadership,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s been our most durable guy. He’s played every game and the most minutes. He’s become a better leader, rebounder, passer. As good player as he was at the beginning, I think he’s better right now. And he wants to continue to get better, which is kind of a neat thing.”

Barrett was always going to be an important part of any success Duke had this season. He entered Duke as the nation’s consensus No. 1-rated recruit, projected to be among the top picks in this June’s NBA Draft before he even played a collegiate game.

While point guard Tre Jones, a fellow freshman part of Duke’s star-studded recruiting class, was always going to be the Blue Devils’ top distributor, Barrett honed those skills out of necessity.

Back on Jan. 14, Duke began the game with freshman forward Cam Reddish unavailable due to an illness before losing Jones to a separated shoulder 6 minutes into a home game with Syracuse.

Barrett played all 45 minutes as the Orange pushed Duke into overtime. He scored 23 points with 16 rebounds and nine assists. The Blue Devils lost 95-91, a result of their 9-for-43 3-point shooting than anything else.

A month later, Barrett’s 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists against N.C. State produced Duke’s first triple-double in 13 years. The Blue Devils beat the Wolfpack 94-78 for their ninth consecutive win and regained the nation’s No.1 ranking two days later.

Duke’s RJ Barrett (5) slams in two during the second half of Duke’s 94-78 victory over N.C. State at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Ethan Hyman

Then Williamson’s left shoe ruptured against North Carolina, causing a right knee sprain and leaving Williamson sidelined for Duke’s next five games. Over the five-plus games Williamson has missed, Barrett is averaging 38 minutes a game, producing 26.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game.

“He has already had an impressive freshman season,” Duke junior center Marques Bolden said. “Obviously with Zion being out and him being able to do more than he already had, with the experience he has -- very little -- is really impressive to see him picking up a lot more slack.”

Barrett downplays his increased role, saying everyone on the team has help prevent the Blue Devils season from falling apart without Williamson.

But there’s a confidence that shines through anyway.

“I kind of always knew what I could do,” Barrett said. “With him out, it’s just a little more attention because he’s not playing. I always knew what I could do. I am trying to play the game, play as a unit and win games.”

Barrett always knew what he could do because it’s been drilled into him to play aggressively for years. His father played at St. John’s from 1992-96 before embarking on an international playing career.

By the time RJ was involved in organized basketball as a youth, he was already being taught to bring the game to the opponent.

“When I was younger my dad told me to be aggressive,” RJ Barrett said. “I had some hard coaches. That’s where it stemmed from.”

That same day Nash watched Barrett for the first time at Duke, Miami coach Jim Larranaga also got his first look at the Blue Devils’ star in person this season. He saw enough that he’ll be using Barrett as a teaching tool about aggressiveness by an all-around star player.

Basketball Hall of Fame guard Steve Nash, center left, and Rowan Barrett, RJ Barrett’s dad, watch during the team’s introductions before Duke’s game against Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Saturday, March 2, 2019. Ethan Hyman

“RJ Barrett lives up to the billing,” Larranaga said. “He plays so hard at both ends of the court. He is such an aggressive attacker. He does something that I’ve tried to teach my sons and my grandsons about basketball and that is, about 95 percent of the time the aggressor wins. When you play offense, attack. Always be in attack mode. Compete for every rebound. RJ does that at such a high level with such an incredible set of skills, size and athletic ability.”

RJ Barrett’s memorable final minute in Duke’s loss to Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational left many wondering about his play-making skills.

In the final minute, with Duke down two points, Barrett missed 3-pointer and had three of his four other shots blocked in the lane by the Zags.

Krzyzewski publicly defended Barrett against criticism in the days following his team’s first loss of the season, saying he made winning plays even though he failed to score. Rowan Barrett didn’t disagree but reminded his son there are times when finding an open teammate is the smart, aggressive play.

Such lessons have been passed from father to son for years.

“He told me to always be aggressive, no matter if you’re not playing well or making mistakes out there, continue to be aggressive,” RJ Barrett said. “But also be smart. If you’re just aggressive without thinking, that’s not going to end up good.”

That balance between aggressiveness and smart play can be difficult for young players to navigate. It was on display again at the end of Duke’s 79-70 loss at UNC last Saturday.

Trailing 75-60, the Blue Devils reeled off 10 points in a row to climb back into the game. Barrett’s 3-pointer with 2:19 left cut the Tar Heels lead to 75-70.

UNC went scoreless on its next two possessions, giving Duke chances to draw closer. But Barrett’s shot at the rim was blocked by UNC’s Luke Maye at 1:34. With 56 seconds left, UNC’s Kenny Williams swatted Barrett’s 3-point shot and the Tar Heels held on to win.

Just as he did after the Gonzaga game, Krzyzewski was comfortable Barrett’s decisions.

“Down by five, RJ took the ball to the basket,” Krzyzewski said. “You are hoping to get an and-one or a bucket or whatever and they blocked it.”

An aggressive player like Barrett will always be faced with the decision to take the shot himself or dish to an open teammate. It will follow him to the NBA this summer as well.

Krzyzewski gives him freedom to choose. His teammates are glad he’s there as they seek to win ACC and NCAA championships from here on out.

“He’s been aggressive from day one,” Bolden said. “That’s just who he is and the type of player he is. That’s who I want on my team.”

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.