Duke forward RJ Barrett drives to the basket against Michigan State in the East regional final of the NCAA tournament on March 31, 2019, at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Schmeelk: RJ Barrett Can Be Great But Has Much Work To Do

John Schmeelk
May 22, 2019 - 12:14 pm
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We’ve known where the Knicks are drafting on June 20 for a little more than a week. With Duke power forward Zion Williamson a shoo-in to be the top pick and the Grizzlies reportedly locking in on Murray State point guard Ja Morant with the second selection, Duke forward RJ Barrett is the chalk selection for the Knicks at No. 3.

The franchise is wisely doing its due diligence on Morant as well as with Texas Tech shooting guard Jarrett Culver, Virginia forward De'Andre Hunter, North Carolina point guard Coby White, Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland and the other players projected to go in the mid to high lottery, but Barrett is the odds-on favorite.

I’ve done a deep dive on Barrett as a prospect by watching a lot of his games, talking to people who have tracked him since high school and looking at his box score and advanced statistics. Keep in mind there is a range of outcomes for every single prospect. There is no guarantee what Barrett becomes, but here is his background, physical traits and an exploration of his game as he hits the NBA.

1. SIZE

Barrett wasn’t measured at the combine, but he was measured a year ago at the Nike Hoop Summit at 6-foot-7 with a 6-10 wingspan. Barrett has ideal size for an NBA wing and could still be growing.

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2. AGE

Barrett reclassified on July 31, 2017, and instead of heading to college in 2019, he went to Duke in 2018 as the top high school prospect in the country. He won't turn 19 until June 14, making him one of the youngest players in this draft class.

3. PEDIGREE

Barrett’s father, Rowan, played at St. John’s, on Canada’s Olympic team with Steve Nash (who is his godfather) and had a career in Europe. Barrett played high school and AAU basketball in the United States, but he was also trained up in the European style of basketball by playing in Canada’s FIBA program since the seventh grade. He reached the  national title game in high school, led Canada’s under-19 team to a championship (at the age of 17), won the tournament MVP and helped lead Duke to an ACC title. He checks every box here.

4. INTANGIBLES

Barrett has handled stardom every step of the way and is known as an extremely diligent and hard worker with no red flags off the floor. He should be able to handle the bright lights of New York since he relishes being the star on his team and taking big shots. He has been in that role for much of his young career. No one has raised any questions about whether he might not be a good teammate. This is another area where NBA teams should have no worries.

5. PRODUCTION

If you are a traditional box-score scout, you can’t go wrong with Barrett. As a freshman at Duke, while sharing the floor for much of the season with Williamson, he averaged 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He shot 45.4% from the floor and got to the free-throw line six times a game. Barrett is an elite producer of gross stats. According to Tommy Beer of Forbes, he was the first player in NCAA Division I history to tally at least 850 points, 250 rebounds and 150 assists in a single season. He joins three other freshmen who scored 850-plus points: Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley and Trae Young.

6. PASSING

At times, Barrett’s natural position looks like it could point guard or point forward, as he developed into Duke’s primary initiator out of the pick-and-roll throughout the season. According to Synergy, he was in the 94th percentile finding the roll man when the defense committed to him in screen-and-roll situations. He’s also in the 89th percentile as a passer in isolation situations. He is a very capable but not elite passer who can make good reads and decisions. He was inconsistent, however, and far too often did not utilize those skills as a willing passer and succumbed to his score first mentality. 

7. OFFENSE

There are many instances on Barrett’s film when he gets tunnel vision for the basket, seemingly predetermining that he wants to shoot the ball, which often results in tough, contested shots with little chance of going in. According to Synergy, Barrett was only in the 49th percentile (0.744 points per possession) in scoring while running the pick-and-roll at Duke and in the 59th percentile (0.829 points per possession) in isolation situations. Whether he doesn’t see his open teammates or simply chooses not to pass is impossible to determine with any certainty.

The game tape and advanced numbers show Barrett struggles to go right. He always tries to get to his dominant left hand, which will be something opposing players in the NBA will pick up on quickly. This should be easily correctable with additional practice. If Barrett can turn his solid handle into an elite handle, it could help him navigate the floor, get to his spots more effectively and become someone a team can run its offense through.  

His issues as an efficient shot creator in the half-court are reflected in his 53.2% true shooting percentage, 52.5% finishing rate around the basket in non-post-ups (44th percentile) and 51st-percentile ranking in scoring in the half-court (0.861 points per possession), according to Synergy. It is possible those efficiency numbers will get better with more space in the NBA, but there will have to be an improvement in his skill set or athleticism to go along with the stylistic change.

Barrett does possess plenty of crafty movements, smarts and footwork, including a Euro step, that allow him to create a lot of his own offense. These are advanced skills for someone in his age group, but how well they will translate to the pros against top athletes remains to be seen. Barrett also excels in transition, as his athleticism shows up most often as a finisher where he can get above the rim.

Barrett can score, but can he score efficiently? This is the ultimate question NBA teams need to ask themselves.

8. SHOOTING

The skill Barrett will have to improve upon most is his shooting. His 3-point shooting (30.8%) and especially his free-throw shooting (66.5%) raise bright, red flags, and the advanced numbers from Synergy don’t paint a much prettier picture. His jumper is better the closer he is to the basket. Inside of 17 feet, he actually hits 44% of his jumpers, which is in the 75th percentile, but the numbers plummet as he nears the 3-point line.

On possessions when he shoots a jump shot in the half-court, Barrett hits only 33.7% of them, which is only in the 48th percentile. In spot-up situations, when he takes no dribbles before shooting a jumper, he is only in the 52nd percentile. In unguarded catch-and-shoot situations he was in just the 26th percentile. Including guarded possessions, he was in the 41st percentile, shooting 32% in catch-and-shoot situations. Despite these bad numbers, scouts believe his shooting has improved when he has his feet set.  

Barrett’s shot looks flat, and his issues shooting from the perimeter date back to his younger days playing for Canada and in high school. He has flashed a step-back jumper and some ability to shoot off the dribble (64th percentile, according to Synergy). A shot is something every player can improve with more repetitions and better mechanics, but Barrett has a long way to go from where he is right now.

9. ATHLETICISM

Since Barrett didn’t do any testing at the combine, it is impossible to quantify the type of athlete he is. He is certainly an NBA-level athlete who should not be out of place battling bigger, stronger and faster players. His athleticism flashes most in transition, where he finishes well and shows the ability to get above the rim.

Aside from Barrett's struggles shooting from the perimeter in the half-court, his efficiency issues are a result of his lack of elite athleticism in small areas in the half-court. He rarely turns the corner on players to create separation. He has to rely on his length, strength or footwork to score through contact he initiates. It is easy to do that when playing against much smaller collegiate shooting guards. In the NBA, his bully-ball style against bigger opponents could be far more difficult to execute. There isn’t any sudden vertical leaping to finish at the rim without a long build-up, either. He lacks explosion and short-area burst.

Barrett does possess less obvious athletic traits. His body control and coordination are extremely strong, allowing him to manipulate in small spaces to score without innate elite athletic traits. He sometimes shows great touch despite awkward body positioning. These skills can go a long way.

10. DEFENSE

Barrett shows the ability to lock in as a man-on-man defender with his length and strength when he wants to, but he's inconsistent. He far too often gives up at the first sign of a screen and gets lost watching the ball as an off-ball defender. His failure to box out almost cost Duke an NCAA tournament game. He is a good rebounder for his position.

CONCLUSION

Low-End Projection: Low-efficiency player who never develops a jump shot and looks for his shot first. His lack of elite athleticism holds him back on both ends of the floor: Comparisons include Jeff Green or Andrew Wiggins. Evan Turner also works if he truly hits rock bottom with his scoring (which is unlikely.)  

Median Projection: Point forward who never develops long, elite distance shooting, but he is good enough at everything else, including defense, to be a good starter. He makes two to four All-Star games during his career. Comparison is Jalen Rose.

High Projection: The jumper comes together, and he learns to overcome his lack of elite athleticism using his length, savvy and smarts to be a top scorer and playmaker for others. He is a perennial All-Star and All-NBA performer. Better passing version of DeMar DeRozan or Paul Pierce. Super high (unfair) projection: James Harden.  

The most important factor that will determine where Barrett winds up on this developmental tree is how much he can improve his jump shot and overall offensive efficiency. An improved jumper would force defenders to guard him much tighter, which might allow him to break them down off the dribble and get to the hoop despite his lack of burst. Improved efficiency will come down to cleaning up his jumper, working on his shot selection, developing his handle more and finishing better near the rim.

The two other important parts of his game that he need to be fixed are his tendency to get tunnel vision for the basket and being a poor, low-effort off-ball defender. Even if his scoring efficiency takes a jump, these two issues could hold him back from true two-way superstardom and being someone who makes his team better rather than just being a stat stuffer.

Barrett has a lot of skills to work with and has it inside him to be an excellent basketball player who can do a little bit of everything on the court. Like all 19-year-olds, he will have a lot to work on when it comes to his game, but no player’s development curve is the same. Everyone develops differently, and it will be up to the Knicks to get the best out of him. Whether they can will determine exactly how good a player Barrett will become.

You can follow John on Twitter for everything Knicks and Giants at @Schmeelk. Listen to his Knicks podcast, "The Bank Shot." The latest episode is with draft analyst Cole Zwicker from The Stepien, which can be heard here (link). You can subscribe on RADIO.COM, the RADIO.COM app, iTunes and other places where podcasts are found.