R.J. Barrett looks like a future NBA All-Star and is going to be a top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. But given his weaknesses, is he the right type of player to build around?
R.J. Barrett entered the season as the number one player on a lot of NBA Draft boards. One of the most well-accomplished players to come into college basketball in recent years, Barrett had made a name for himself in pretty much every avenue you can as a prospect.
He excelled in AAU early on, which put him on the map, and supplemented that by becoming one of the top scorers for Montverde Academy in Florida in 2015. He continued to build his reputation over the next two years, winning MVP at the 2017 Basketball without Borders camp, and performing well in the 2017 Nike Hoops Summit. His true breakout came in the 2017 FIBA U19 World Cup, where his Canadian team shocked the U.S. and won the gold medal behind an MVP performance from Barrett, who averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game in the tournament. Simply put, it’s hard to find players who have the pedigree Barrett had in high school, outside of Luka Doncic.
For the most part, Barrett’s transition to the college game has been a successful one. He has averaged 22.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game through 14 games for Duke, and has been the team’s bell cow in terms of offensive creation. While he hasn’t looked as impressive as his teammate Zion Williamson, who has become the near-consensus No. 1 overall pick, Barrett has done well for himself and is pretty firmly in position to go No. 2. That’s because Barrett clearly has the talent level to be a potential star in the NBA.
At 6-foot-7 with solid functional quickness and coordination, Barrett has the tools to be a strong playmaking wing at the next level. He’s a comfortable isolation scorer and can get the edge to get to the rim one-on-one pretty easily, as he does here against likely first-round pick Rui Hachimura.
Barrett has finished at 63.6 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math, and he hints at some very interesting craft finishing around the rim. His coordination and ability to change directions between steps allow him to get defenders off balance and snake around multiple defenders at the rim. That is coupled with strong pull-up shooting gives him the talent to be a number one scorer.
He also hints at the potential to be a number one creator, thanks to his flashes of excellent court vision and passing ability. He is capable of leading the fast break for Duke and has the foundation of a fantastic drive-and-kick game.
The path to Barrett becoming a number one scorer in an NBA offense is pretty realistic. He is going to build strength as he comes into the NBA and physically matures, and that’s going to help with his finishing. If his shooting improves, he looks like a three-level scorer with some playmaking ability, and that’s someone you can give a large usage to and be somewhat successful, as Duke has been able to do this year. That potential is absolutely worth a top-two pick this year.
However, star level talent doesn’t equate to star-level production and value in the NBA. It’s one thing to be a guy who can be a load-bearer in an NBA offense; it’s another to do so in a way that provides winning value at the NBA level. In that regard, Barrett has some highly concerning traits that could limit the functional value of taking Barrett with a top pick.
Most concerning is Barrett’s lack of functional finishing. If he adds that, he should be a guaranteed All-Star caliber producer; but in addition to his lack of strength, he doesn’t have the ability to extend over length, either by jumping or using his wingspan. He consistently gets bottled up in the paint, and you can see how clearly that lack of functional strength affects him when he gets into contact with an opponent.
This play highlights one of the other major criticisms of Barrett’s play — Jack White springs open in the far corner, and Barrett misses him, engaging with his third defender on the play instead. Barrett can make these reads, but he doesn’t consistently. Instead, too often he charges ahead into the teeth of the defense and throws up less than ideal shots. Now, his assist rate is solid overall — 23.1 percent — and he has improved since the start of the season. But so far, the distribution of his usage and his most effective sets has been counter to the types of plays he’ll be asked to make at the NBA level most often.
This all may seem a little hypercritical of Barrett — just like Trae Young last season, we’re focused on the trees and missing the forest of his insane output. But as we’re seeing with Young, these areas where he has to play catch up are significant for how fast value can come from him — especially if that player is a poor defender like Young. In theory, Barrett should be better off thanks to his frame; but so far, his defensive performance has been probably more concerning than his offensive flaws. That’s because Barrett goes beyond the simple inconsistencies that plague many freshmen — misreading plays, ball-watching, bad footwork — and into the James Harden or Kyrie Irving area of absolute apathy. Whether it’s defending on the perimeter:
Picking up guys in transition:
Or….whatever this is:
Barrett’s defense is a legitimate problem at this point. He doesn’t understand that he needs to stay in front of opponents on closeouts, too often allowing the opponent to blow by him. He swipes at the ball rather than sliding to recover. He has decent hands and is generally in the right place off-ball, but that’s offset by the general feeling that he gives up the instant he’s lost the advantage when he’s on ball. This isn’t the same as Keldon Johnson’s defensive issues — this is going to make him one of the worst defenders in the league if he doesn’t mature.
Barrett’s ceiling is as a star, and it’s pretty clear that he has the talent and pedigree to be a top pick. But the draft is about team building and roster construction and attempting to optimize your chances of competing for a title. We know that talent often wins out, but consistency, high-level awareness and execution are just as important. Barrett has the former but seems to be pretty far behind in the latter on both ends.
When you are taking a player in the top three, even in a down draft, you expect that player to be a foundational piece of your core, especially if you are bottoming out. In that scenario, a player like Barrett can put the team that drafts him in a bind. There’s a high likelihood that he can become an important player for your team as its rebuilding, but this type of player can also put a cap on the ceiling of your team with their flaws — and force you into uncomfortable situations when it comes time for that second contract. Every team is hoping to land Anthony Davis or Kevin Durant in this scenario — but just as common, you end up with Brandon Jennings or Andrew Wiggins – players good enough to carry your 26-win team and land a nice second contract, but whose development curves prevent them from carrying you much further as a top option. And when you look at Barrett, you see a lot of the issues that are common in that player archetype — namely defensive apathy, less than optimal shot selection, and tunnel vision.
Players can grow out of these tendencies and find a role on a winning team, though, and that’s what makes the draft process so difficult. At the end of the day, teams will bank on the talent and not pass it up, hoping that their development staff can deprogram the types of traits that can make a player the “wrong” type of star. However, that can lead to tougher decisions down the line. If a team drafts Barrett, barring significant improvement in the second half of the season, they’re likely going to be making that gamble — and while he’ll almost certainly provide a talent boost for that team, they may not be any closer to competing because of their decision.