R.J. Barrett could be the future face of Canadian basketball

R.J. Barrett just turned 17 last week, and his dad, Rowan, is a Canada Basketball veteran who played alongside Steve Nash for the last national team to qualify for the Olympics in 2000. R.J. Barrett is the most hyped Canadian prospect since Andrew Wiggins, and some have him projected as a future No. 1 pick.

Teenage phenom is also Steve Nash's godson and an elite NBA prospect

R.J. Barrett is at least a couple years away from the NBA draft, but he's still the most hyped Canadian prospect since Andrew Wiggins. (Twitter/@coreyevans_10)

R.J. Barrett has never defeated his dad at one-on-one.

To be fair, Barrett just turned 17 last week. His dad, Rowan, is a Canada Basketball veteran who played with Steve Nash on the national team that qualified for the Olympics in 2000 — the last Canadian men's team to do so. Rowan Barrett also signed a few NBA contracts, though he never got into a regular-season game.

These days, Nash is the GM of Canada Basketball, with Rowan serving as his assistant.

Their star player? None other than R.J., short for Rowan, Jr.

R.J. Barrett, who hails from Toronto, is the most hyped Canadian prospect since Andrew Wiggins. Some have him projected as the first overall pick, but that's still a few years away — either 2019 or 2020 — depending on whether he can get reclassified for early entry to college.

In February, the Canadian phenom attended the Basketball Without Borders camp, directed by Raptors president Masai Ujiri, where he was by far the youngest player. He still took home MVP honours. 

That prompted NBA draft expert Jonathan Givony, of Draft Express, to refer to him as "showing superstar level talent."

Givony also called Barrett the best prospect in last year's FIBA U17 tournament. Right now, he is preparing for this summer's U19 World Cup, set to begin in Cairo, Egypt, on Canada Day.

Confident kid

So why can't R.J. beat Rowan one-on-one? We know confidence isn't an issue. Despite all the pressure that comes from attaining elite prospect status, R.J. Barrett knows he can take on anything.

"Every test that's been thrown at me, I've aced it," he said. "So I'm really confident in myself."

Confident and cocky aren't the same thing, though. Barrett hears all the noise about his NBA future, and he says it makes him feel good about himself.

"But if I wanna keep and exceed expectations I have to keep working hard. So I just try to work hard and be better every day," he said.

That hard work mantra is one repeated by every successful athlete. It's a mantra ingrained in Barrett's head by his father from a young age. Barrett said he's still managing some time for fun through the process with Canada Basketball, and at his high school in Montverde, Fla. Still, persistence is key.

"Like my dad says, 'work hard now and have fun later.'"

Olympic hopes

His father's words allow Barrett to stay focused on the task in front of him, and not events as far away as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"If it happens then it happens," Barrett said of making that team. "It's a dream of mine."

If Team Canada qualifies for Tokyo, it will be the first squad to get to the Olympics in 20 years. Certainly, the expectation is there for Barrett to become the face of Canada Basketball. Nash isn't just GM of the team, but a close friend of Rowan's.

Rowan Barrett Sr., right, is embraced by teammate Steve Nash following a basket at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

He's also R.J.'s godfather.

So, yes, Barrett bears a heavy weight on his shoulders. Not just the weight of becoming one of the best basketball players Canada has ever produced, but also the burden of his father — a national team stalwart — and the connection to Nash, the best Canadian player ever.

Calm under pressure

It helps that Barrett has friends around him experiencing similar pressure.

"So many of my friends are also elite guys so we're all being talked about," said Barrett. "It's cool, it just keeps me humble."

The person at the helm of these kids is junior national team head coach Roy Rana — a Canada Basketball veteran who doubles as head coach of Ryerson University's men's basketball team. He's used to working with teenagers, and understands all the pressure that grinds on Barrett and others.

"They have so many more pressures because of social media, the rankings, the importance of all these things. I'm not sure it's fair to them sometimes. It's a little bit overwhelming, but it's part of being an elite prospect now," said Rana.

As for Barrett, Rana expects his role at the World Cup to develop as the tournament progresses, though he will obviously be relied on as a scorer. The tournament itself is just another step in his development.

"[R.J.] is a tremendous talent, but like most young players he's got a long way to go and that's our job trying to help him get there," said Rana. "But he's uniquely gifted and we're gonna ask him to express that."

So, given those unique gifts, what in the world could possibly stop him from beating his 44-year-old father at one-on-one?

The answer, according to Barrett: "he hasn't played me in two or three years."


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