Canadian basketball stars R.J. Barrett, Andrew Nembhard ready for next step in NCAA

Canadian basketball stars R.J. Barrett and Andrew Nembhard are going their separate ways this fall to play collegiate basketball. But after countless years of playing together, the longtime friends have built a bond that goes beyond the sport.

Longtime friends will attend different U.S. colleges after years together on the court

Nembhard, centre, and Barrett, right, have played together for most of their lives, including high school at Montverde Academy. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Canadian teenaged basketball stars R.J. Barrett and Andrew Nembhard have been almost inseparable over the course of their promising basketball careers.

They played together in grade school, rose up the ranks of the Canadian national program, attended basketball camps in the U.S., and put together a perfect 35-0 record at Florida's Monteverde Academy in their final high-school season en route to a U.S. national championship.

But come this fall, the two will go their separate ways, with Barrett, 17, off to Durham, N.C., to play for the Duke Blue Devils and Nembhard, 18, to Gainesville, Fla., and the Florida Gators.

"We were never going to go to [college] together," Barrett said with a laugh. "It's good to see him go off and make a bigger name for himself. Playing alongside him, I was able to do great things. It's time [for him] to go shine, and my time somewhere else."

For those who believe Nembhard's success was a by-product of playing alongside the more highly touted Barrett — widely regarded as the world's best player in his age group — Nembhard points to time he put in making himself a better player and he is excited to prove himself in college, especially against his friend. 

"Having a great scorer beside you is good to get the ball to and get him open," Nembhard said of Barrett. "But I feel like I can expand my game even more. I'd love to play Duke next year to be honest. I hope we do."

Plenty of friendly trash talk

The pair got what might be a preview of college clashes on Monday at the first annual Signature All-Canadian Classic at the Hershey Centre in Barrett's hometown of Mississauga, Ont.

The showcase event — featuring 28 of the best Canadian high school basketball players and NBA scouts sitting courtside — pitted Barrett's Team White against Nembhard's Team Blue.

While Nembhard and Team Blue won 138-135, Barrett couldn't help but remind reporters post-game of the two blocks he had on his good friend.

Barrett headlined the field of players in Monday's Signature All-Canadian Classic. (Chicco Nacion/CBC Sports)

"We talk a lot of trash, that's what we do every day," Barrett said. "He was just telling me that he was going to shut me down and I said, 'You're not scoring.'"

But behind the digs is mutual respect.

"Everyone's going to love a point guard that passes and gets 13 assists a game," Barrett said of Nembhard. "He's a great human being off the court. On the court, he's aggressive, plays defence, can shoot it … He's a winner. Every day he comes in and sets the tone defensively. He's just a well-rounded player." 

More than a playmaker

Nembhard demonstrated why he's ranked 26th on ESPN's top 100 recruiting list and one of the top point guards in this year's class.

The Aurora, Ont., native had 11 assists on Monday night, using the pick-and-roll to draw a second defender — either finding open passing lanes for teammates or driving to the net to keep the defence honest.

And he's constantly looking to get better, emulating his favourite NBA point guards and working with trainers to refine the mechanics of his jump shot.

"I'm definitely trying to work on my shooting — catch and shoot from three-point range, pulling up off ball screens and finishing over seven-footers — and just becoming a vocal leader on the court."

Nembhard, seen above, and Barrett were among three Canadians selected to represent Team World at the prestigious Nike Hoop Summit. (Chicco Nacion/CBC Sports)

With the graduation of the Gators' starting point guard, Chris Chiozza, there's an opportunity for the six-foot-four Nembhard to become that leader from day one.

Answering Coach K's challenge

The same is expected of Barrett, who's been called upon by legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski to be the alpha dog on a loaded Duke squad that includes Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish — the second and third-ranked recruits, respectively, behind Barrett. 

"He needed me to come in and be a leader for him. When Coach K is telling you that he needs you, that's significant — that stuck with me," Barrett said.

Barrett's addition has made Duke one of the favourites for a national championship this upcoming season. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

If there were any doubts that Barrett was the top high school recruit he tried to snuff them out Monday night, stuffing the stat sheet with 47 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and three assists.

The six-foot-seven guard seemingly did no wrong, hitting contested three-pointers off ball screens, jab steps and stepbacks, including a stretch of four in a row, something he's been recently practising from the NBA distance.

When defenders tried to close out on him, he used his athleticism and burst off the bounce to get to the rim at will. His six-foot-10 wingspan allowed him to snatch away rebounds he had no business getting, and as for the five blocks, he chalked it up to not wanting to deal with his friends' banter after the game.

Living in the moment

But amidst the hype and accolades, Barrett isn't looking too far ahead.

He reminded reporters that he still needs to graduate high school before attending Duke. 

After all, he's not even 18 years old.

"I have a lot of people that keep me grounded. I know that I still have a lot of work to do before I get to where I want to go. So if I don't do that work, I might not get there. Just be humble — work like you're an underdog, which was what helped my godfather, Steve Nash, become a two-time MVP," Barrett said.


Chicco Nacion returns to his birthplace of Toronto after growing up in Niagara Falls. He graduated from the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at the University of Western Ontario. Follow him on Twitter @chicco_n


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