The laments about the quality of the 2019 NBA Draft don’t extend to the top of it. The best prospects in the class could likely go head-to-head with just about any other year. Leading the way is Duke freshman RJ Barrett.
Barrett, the consensus top prep prospect in the 2018 high school class, is one of the most successful youth players in recent memory. In 2017, he was named MVP of Basketball Without Borders and led Canada to its first gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Cup, a run that included an impressive 38 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in a semifinal win over the United States.
As a senior, he was named National Player of the Year and led Montverde Academy to a national championship. Then he scooped up the MVP award at the 2018 Nike Hoop Summit to close out his high school career. Barrett’s been really good for a while.
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The 18-year-old wing fits the mold of what NBA teams are looking for on the perimeter. He measures in at 6-7 with a 6-9 wingspan and an 8-6 standing reach. Barrett already has a relatively mature body at 202 pounds, although he’ll need to add a bit of a strength if he wants his bully-ball tactics to work at the next level. He’s also a plus athlete who can play in space vertically and uses long strides with the ball in his hands to create space.
Barrett’s upside lies in his ability to be a primary creator on the perimeter. Early film suggests the Blue Devils intend to use him this way at least in some lineups, particularly when point guard Tre Jones is off the floor.
At the NBA level, a player needs a far-reaching set of skills to handle that type of offensive load, including the ability to consistently get to and score at the rim, knock down jumpers off the dribble and handle facilitating duties. Obviously the weights for each of these can shift, but they represent the package draft analysts ought to be interested in as a starting point.
Barrett’s most refined skill at this stage is his ability to attack and score around the basket. He excels as a straight line threat thanks to lengthy strides that allow him to eat up space, but he can also change directions with a couple go-to moves. Once at the rim, he’s a creative finisher who can re-adjust midair to avoid defenders.
Barrett’s most common change of direction action is a Eurostep. He frequently uses it in transition to shake defenders. Here, his long strides are most useful as they allow him to clear out the room to avoid an initial defender:
In addition to the Euro step, he’ll also use a spin move to shed defenders. It’s not as quick as his Canadian counterpart Andrew Wiggins, but it is effective enough.
If there isn’t space to move into with a Eurostep or spin, Barrett will simply try to go through his opponent. The 18-year-old is adept at using his shoulder to create sufficient space and possesses quality touch on a left-handed floater to finish just away from the rim:
The above clips highlight a bit of Barrett’s limited athleticism in traffic. He’s not yet — and may never be — the type of player who will rise up to the rim with a defender on him like his college teammate Zion Williamson. However, with just a slight bit of space, Barrett isn’t lacking in the vertical department:
Assuming he continues to add strength and make smart decisions about when to attack, there’s not much doubt Barrett will be able to continue to score around the basket as a professional. In terms of his ability to get buckets, the larger worry lies with his jump shot.
In high school, Barrett’s jumper was, at best, inconsistent — his lower body mechanics can be erratic — and he’s certainly a more viable off-ball shooter than pull-up threat at this point. As such, he’s likely to face pick-and-roll coverages that call for his defender to go under the screen and for the big to contain penetration.
In order to be the most effective primary creator he can, Barrett will need to punish those defenses like he did here against Oregon’s Payton Pritchard and Auburn’s Austin Wiley during the FIBA semifinal:
The Duke freshman still requires load-up time to get his shot off in these spots and isn’t comfortable pulling up immediately after coming off the screen, especially when dribbling to his right. Consider this example — another make — from the Blue Devils’ offseason trip to Canada. Barrett takes an extra dribble, allowing the defender to lightly contest his jumper:
Consistently and quickly knocking down pull-up 3-pointers is the most straightforward way for Barrett to develop into a more well-rounded scoring threat. Of course, it’s also probably the most difficult skill to add. NBA teams will have an eye on how often he’s able to connect on these types of attempts in Durham.
The final box to check here is Barrett’s passing ability, a skill that’s probably underrated relative to the rest of his game. He can throw one-handed passes to either corner as well as find open teammates around the basket when defenses collapse on his drives. He’s also an excellent lob thrower:
Barrett shines when finding passing lanes against non-under pick-and-roll coverages, too. Here, his defender goes over the screen and the big steps up to cut off the drive, leaving Javin DeLaurier an open path to the basket. Barrett’s able to use his height to see the floor and accurately connect with the roll man:
The upside value in Barrett as a potential No. 1 pick hinges largely on his ability to develop into a primary creator. However, part of his value in general relates to his high floor offensively.
Barrett should almost always be at least a secondary creation option at the next level, as his catch-and-shoot jumper has improved, and he’s a smart off-ball cutter to go along with the above:
As a defender, Barrett still needs to subjected to some scrutiny. He has the physical tools to be solid on the wing and is usually engaged on that end of the floor.
He does occasionally find himself uncertain about how to handle weak side rotations, but hopefully that will come with time. If it does, he has the athleticism and verticality instincts to be disruptive around the basket:
NBA teams will still be looking to see more of how Barrett defends during his time at Duke.
Ultimately, though, Barrett sits atop our initial draft rankings because of the polish he brings on the offensive end and the lack of real holes in his overall game. The 18-year-old may not have the same ceiling as some of the other players in the class due to lesser athleticism and size, but he possesses both a better median outcome than the others and probably a higher chance of hitting above his median outcome than them.
In general, that means Barrett’s expected value as professional right now is better than the likes of Williamson, Nassir Little and Cameron Reddish. That’s why he’ll start the season as the No. 1 prospect in the 2019 NBA Draft.
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