(Photo Credit: The News & Observer)
Welcome to the third of our four-part series analyzing Duke’s premier players as we lead up to the IU v. Duke showdown on Tuesday, November 27th. Each article will be divided into three sections: (I) general overview of the player and comparison to his IU one-on-one matchup, (II) the player’s signature strengths, and (III) potential game plan strategies to minimize the player’s impact. In the third edition of the series, we will focus on Duke wing RJ Barrett.
RJ Barrett is no man of international mystery. Barrett has been on scouting radars since he was 14, eventually culminating in him becoming the most highly-sought-after recruit in North America. The Canadian has just about every tool you could possibly want in a player. While his teammate Williamson is coming on strong, Barrett is still the presumptive #1 pick in the upcoming draft. In fact, many believe that if he was allowed to declare straight from high school that he would have been a top-five selection in last year’s NBA draft.
Barrett started off playing for his local high school but later moved to the US, transferring to powerhouse Monteverde Academy. His high school career was dominant, but he really began to separate himself from the rest of the recruiting class on the international level. At the 2016 FIBA U17 World Cup, Barrett averaged 18.4 points and began to put his diverse skill-set on display. But, it was the 2017 FIBA U19 World Cup where he really shined. Against the US, Barrett was unstoppable, dropping 38 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists in a Canadian victory. This was the game that made the headlines and even turned the heads of casual observers who don’t follow high school recruiting. It was at this point that Barrett became an international phenomenon.
Thus far, Barrett has certainly lived up to the hype. Barrett is averaging 22.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. He also averages 32.3 minutes, which is a team-high. His biggest strength is his versatility. He can score at the rim or on the perimeter. He is effective in the half-court and in fast-breaks. He can play multiple positions, moving effortlessly from point guard to shooting guard to small forward. He is also an underrated ball-handler (after all, he is the godson of point guard great Steve Nash).
While Barrett has been overwhelmingly impressive, he does have a few (small) vulnerabilities to his game. He only shoots 62.2% from the free-throw line. This number is surprisingly low, particularly considering the fact that he gets fouled often and attempts about 6.2 three-throws per game. If he can be more efficient from the line, his statistics would be even more impressive (which is a scary thought). Similarly, he is a bit of a streaky shooter from beyond the arc, only averaging 31.6% from three. However, he has great form and has an uncanny ability to knock down important shots. Because he has solid fundamentals and technique, one could reasonably expect this percentage to dramatically increase the course of the year. One of Barrett’s strengths is his ability to get to the basket, but confidence in this skill can also get him in trouble. At times, he goes to the well too many times or drives into three defenders believing he can make it through (because he often does) but runs into a wall. He averages 2.5 turnovers per game, often because of this exact scenario. Finally, he occasionally blows a rotation assignment on defense. This is just a part of the learning curve for Barrett. What’s most important is that he is an extremely competitive defender and cares about both ends of the court. Expect these defensive mistakes less and less as the year progresses.
Matchup comparison – This is a topic of great interest because there is no obvious IU matchup for Barrett. Most likely, Reddish will be guarding Langford. But, when it comes to defense for their Hoosiers, IU could put Langford or Durham on Reddish. This would leave the other to likely matchup with Barrett. Another potential option would be McRoberts (if healthy). In reality, your guess is as good as mine. We will just have to wait and see what Archie Miller has up his sleeve.
Barrett’s Signature Strengths
• Getting to the rim – Barrett’s most effective move is driving to the basket. He has the perfect combination of athleticism and strength. He has good footwork and is superb moving through traffic. He has an innate ability to find the perfect angle and explode through the opening. He has good speed but is not particularly fast. Instead, Barrett is crafty. He can weave through the defenders with ease and he is a great finisher. He prefers to finish with his left but is efficient with each hand.
• Absorbing contact – One of his best strengths is absorbing contact and still finishing. He has EXCEPTIONAL body control. Even at the point of contact, Barrett remains vertical, always allowing for him to get the shot off.
• Being a point-forward – Another of Barrett’s great differentiators is that he can run the offense. Within Duke’s “positionless basketball” philosophy, there are times when Barrett will inbound the ball and orchestrate the offense by himself. When running the offense, Barrett typically likes to push the pace and get down the floor as quickly possible. This is an extremely valuable weapon because it can surprise the defense. Similarly, if Tre Jones is in foul trouble or playing poorly, Barrett can step in to run the point (particularly since the backup point guard Jordan Goldwire only has 5 assists and 1 point in 52 minutes of action so far this year).
• Top of the key three – Barrett’s favorite spot is at the top of the key. He will take this shot at least twice a game. While Reddish prefers to catch-and-shoot, Barrett is most effective when walking into his shot. The top of the key walk-up three typically occurs when Barrett is running the point and can catch the defense off guard by promptly shooting.
• Midrange game – Another of his signature moves is the midrange jumper. Most commonly, he will take the shot right at the free-throw line.
• Rebounding – Barrett is a great rebounder for a wing. He averages 5.7 rebounds per game, but he is much more proficient than these numbers indicate. He has great rebounding instincts and his strength allows him to fight in traffic for rebounds. This is a very sought-after commodity at the next level and another reason why Barrett’s draft value is so high.
• Quick elevation – While he might not have quite the same athleticism as Williamson, Barrett has a tremendous ability to elevate quickly and explode to the rim. You’ll see him utilize this skill during fast-breaks and when in traffic around the rim. He is equally as efficient jumping off of either foot. He will draw several fouls per game simply because of his quick elevation that often takes opponents by surprise causing them to swipe at the ball resulting in a foul call.
Game Plan Strategies to Minimize Barrett’s Impact:
- Force turnovers – Barrett plays aggressively. One of the byproducts of aggressive play is the turnover. He averages 2.5 turnovers per game, the highest rate on the team. IU should be aggressive defensively and try to force Barrett into playing recklessly. In particular, while he can run the offense quite well, he can occasionally try to do too much and become sloppy with the ball. It is on the IU defense to force the issue and create these turnovers.
- Make him shoot – When it comes to Barrett, shooting is the lesser of two evils. It’s not that he is a bad shooter. In fact, his form and release is extremely fluid. However, Barrett is a streaky shooter. The IU defense likely will make Barrett take threes and hope for the best. It is especially important to force him away from the top of the key where he prefers to shoot and heard him toward the sideline.
- Don’t let him run – Barrett is ridiculously dangerous in the open court. His athleticism and ballhandling allow him to push the pace and his strength makes it nearly impossible to prevent him from getting to the basket. The only option is to force the team into half-court and hope the IU defense rises the challenge. Under no circumstances should the Hoosiers make this a track meet. The only way to neutralize Barrett is to prevent easy buckets by slowing the game down. The slower, the better.