R.J. Barrett's rise to senior squad comes at perfect time for Canada
18-year-old emerging star to play with men's team in official game for 1st time this week
Jay Triano recalls a Canadian basketball team practice he was coaching in 2012. Steve Nash was at the opposite end of the court working with a 12-year-old boy and the scene caught Triano's eye.
The boy was R.J. Barrett.
"We were just like OK, [Barrett's] got a chance to be really good,"' Triano marvelled. "And sure enough, he's just kept getting better and better and better."
Triano has Barrett, who just turned 18, under his guidance with the Canadian senior men's team for the first time ahead of two World Cup qualifying games. Canada hosts the Dominican Republic on Friday at Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum, then the U.S. Virgin Islands on Monday in Ottawa.
The team practised Wednesday at Ryerson University's Mattamy Athletic Centre, and it wasn't lost on Triano that he'd coached Barrett's dad Rowan, who paced the sidelines of Wednesday's practice as the assistant GM of the men's program.
R.J. was born in June of 2000, just three months before Triano coached Rowan, Nash & Co. at the Sydney Olympics.
"I think we let Rowan miss practice one day so he could be around for the birth of his child," Triano laughed. "His child happens to be on the court right now. It ages us real quick."
Barrett made his senior team debut in a pair of exhibition wins over China last weekend, finishing with 37 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in the two games combined, and playing with the self-assurance of a veteran.
'He's a freak athletically'
"He's really good. Super talented. He's a freak athletically," said Miami Heat centre Kelly Olynyk. "He sees the game really well, has a vast skill set — which is going to help him — and if he just keeps growing and keeps growing. . . Right now he's an unbelievable player, but if he makes everyone around him that much better, he's going to be one of those guys who's unstoppable and a franchise person who's at a high level for basketball."
Barrett, a crafty left-handed wing from Mississauga, Ont., said his game can only get better playing for Canada ahead of his freshman season at Duke.
"It's very different, different speed, different physicality. Even mentally you have to learn a lot of plays. It's just a lot different playing with men than playing with younger people," Barrett said. "Really, [I'm] just trying to gain a competitive advantage over people, other freshmen maybe that are going into college next year. Not a lot of people have played at the men's level, I'm playing with NBA guys every day, so not a lot of people can say that."
Those NBA guys, meanwhile, have watched Barrett grow up.
"He had feet that couldn't fit his body, he had big floppers, running around, flopping around with his feet," Cory Joseph laughed, describing a younger Barrett. "He was always talented. I just remember his dad putting him through drills and working with him and always playing with the older guys for countless hours. He loved the gym, loved to work and I just see how good he is now and he'll just continue to get better."
Barrett's jump to the senior squad comes on the heels of an eye-popping high school campaign. He led Florida's Montverde Academy to a 31-0 record, and was named the Gatorade U.S. national player of the year, the U.S. high school title, the Naismith Prep Player of the Year, and the MVP of the Nike Hoop Summit.
'He's got a competitiveness in him'
Last summer, Barrett led Canada to a historic victory at the U19 world championships, earning MVP honours.
Triano likes Barrett's coachability.
"He's got a competitiveness in him that he wants to be good, so anything we ask of him or we tell him, he takes it in and he applies it. He spends a lot of time getting better and he's had good coaching in the past, and he seems very open to coaching," he said.
"He's got a little bit of that . . . as they call it, the dog in him. He's got that. He's got that ability. When the game comes on, or if it's a competitive situation, he's going to go all out."
Canada takes a 3-1 record into its final two games of the first round of qualifying. The Canadians, who are looking for their first World Cup berth since 2010, have already clinched a spot in the second round which will see games in September, November and February.
FIBA drastically changed qualifying criteria, which for Canada used to mean earning a top spot in the FIBA Americas tournament often held in a far-flung location.
So the Canadian players are cherishing the chance to play meaningful games at home. And Triano said Barrett's emergence on the senior level, particularly in front of a home crowd, comes at the perfect time.
"When we've watched his progression over the last couple years, we've known that he was going to be part of the national team and he was going to have a great basketball career in front of him. The fact that it's happening now is good for us," Triano said. "We're playing in our country, he gets a chance to play in his home city, which is great, and he's been really good so far."