Rowan Alexander “R. J.” Barrett has been on the NBA’s radar for a long time, even before he led Canada to a gold medal in the 2017 FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup. He was named the MVP of that tournament, outshining players such as Rui Hachimura, Cam Reddish, and Romeo Langford. A year later, he arrived at Duke as the top-ranked high school prospect in the country, and for the most part, he was considered to be the No. 1 overall NBA draft prospect prior to the start of this past season. His draft stock has slipped a bit since then, but he is still widely considered to be a lock to be a top-3 selection in June’s draft.
Barrett had an outstanding freshman season, leading the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in points per game with 22.6, and also finishing in the top ten in the conference in both rebounds (7.6) and assists (4.3) per game. His postseason honors included being a first-team All-ACC selection and a first-team Consensus All-America selection, and winning the Jerry West Award.
Despite his impressive accomplishments, Barrett didn’t quite live up to expectations at Duke. Part of that likely had something to do with his teammate, Zion Williamson, who stole much of the limelight with his unparalleled play. However, more than anything, it was Barrett’s inefficiency that tarnished his freshman season. He was first in the ACC and second in the nation in shot attempts (702). He had the second-most turnovers in the ACC with 123 (17th in the country). His shooting splits (45-31-67) were less than ideal. His overall metrics were good, such as a player efficiency rating of 22.5, but they were not outstanding. In terms of points per possession (PPP), he was better than average with .913 (60th percentile), but again, he was not exceptional.
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- Prolific three-level scorer; ranked 15th in the nation with 22.6 points per game this season, and ranked at the 60th percentile for points per possession (PPP)
- Great combination of size, strength, agility, and athleticism
- Fearless driver, who has good body control and hang time
- Good at drawing contact, and gets to the foul-line often (5.9 FTAs per game)
- Capable playmaker, who can run the point; when including passes, he ranked above average for PPP on both isolation (73rd percentile) and pick-and-roll (53rd percentile) plays
- Had a low turnover rate per possession (12.9 percent) and a positive assist-turnover ratio (1.33) this season
- Able to create his own shots and can shoot on the move; ranked at the 64th percentile for PPP when shooting jumpers off the bounce
- Shows potential as a post-area scorer; ranked at the 87th percentile for PPP in the post (limited attempts), and ranked at the 75th percentile for PPP on jumpers inside 17 feet
- Excellent rebounding guard, averaging 7.6 boards per game
- Shows potential as a defender; ranked at the 72nd and 81st percentiles, respectively, for PPP allowed vs. pick-and-roll handlers and in isolation
- Very young prospect, with a high ceiling for growth
- Inefficient volume shooter with a questionable shot selection; on half-court shots, ranked below the 50th percentile for PPP on jump shots, runners, and non-post-up shots around the basket.
- Inconsistent outside shooter; made just 72 of 227 (32 percent) of his half-court jumpers beyond 17 feet
- Not great from the foul-line, making less than 67 percent of his attempts this season
- Predictable driver, heavily favoring going left
- Struggles as a driver, finisher and passer when using his “off” hand (right)
- Struggled mightily to score on off-ball plays this season, ranking no better than the 34th percentile for PPP on cuts to the basket, shots off screens, and handoffs
- Lacks consistency and aggression as a defender; produced just 1.3 steals and blocks combined per game
Coming from a basketball family, Barrett was groomed for success, and he also has the physical tools and skills to be a great pro. The southpaw has good size and a sturdy build. He has a nice combination of strength, agility, and athleticism. He’s not exceptionally explosive in any way, but he is definitely a fluid player with above-average speed, quickness and vertical. More than anything, he is a fearless and persistent driver, and his best skills are his abilities to handle and create for others and himself. He uses a variety of dribble moves, crossover combinations, and spins to create space, and he is very effective at changing pace. He also has excellent body control, which helps him make tough finishes at the rim, and he excels at initiating contact, which leads to more points via the charity stripe. Again, he is not exceptionally explosive with the ball in his hands, but when combining all his of tools and skills, including his size, the result is a highly productive offensive basketball player.
More than two thirds of Barrett’s possessions this season came from four types of plays: spot up, transition, pick-and-roll handler, and isolation, and he was not especially efficient in any of those areas. In terms of PPP, he ranked the highest in transition (60th percentile) and the lowest in the pick and roll (47th percentile). However, when including passes, he improved in both isolation (73rd percentile) and the pick and roll (53rd percentile). His overall half-court numbers were similar, as he ranked slightly below average with jump shots (48th percentile), runners (45th percentile), and non-post-up shots around the basket (44th percentile). He did excel in one specific area, driving left to the basket via isolation; he produced 1.79 PPP on those plays, which ranked at the 100th percentile.
Barrett’s inefficiency this season can be attributed to a few things. For starters, the Blue Devils were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in Division I this season, ranking 328th out of 351 teams, and as a result, opposing teams could collapse in the paint to stop the slashing Barrett. At the same time, Barrett didn’t display the best shot selection, often forcing the issue and taking difficult shots around the rim. He was also predictable, typically driving left and finishing with his left hand. His poor shot selection and predictability were especially apparent in “crunch” time, when he often displayed tunnel vision. Perhaps, most importantly, he could not make his jump shots with great consistency, which also allowed opposing defenses to focus on stopping him in the paint.
How far Barrett can progress as a jump shooter will likely determine how great a pro he will be. He already can create space for his jumpers with a variety of moves, including a very deep step-back, and in relative terms, he was actually most efficient shooting jumpers off the bounce this season, ranking at 64th percentile for PPP. However, as noted above, Barrett was an average overall jump shooter at best this season, which likely has something to do with his mechanics. He has nice elevation on his jumps, and a high release on his shots, and his overall shooting motion is fluid. At the same time, he tends to shoot with his guide (right) hand somewhat on top of the ball (see photo to the right), and with his right thumb behind the ball instead of the side. Given his shooting inconsistencies, there is good chance that his guide hand interferes with his shot at times.
Defensively, Barrett certainly has the physical tools to be effective, but he doesn’t shine on this end of the court. The first word that comes to mind to describe his defensive approach is conservative. Unlike his teammates, Williamson and Tre Jones, Barrett doesn’t take many chances as a defender, and some might say that he conserves energy on this end of the court.
This past season, Barrett’s production in terms of steals and blocks (1.3 combined per game) was disappointing, and his average of 1.8 fouls per game was an indication of a lack of aggression. In terms of PPP allowed this season, he ranked at the 64th percentile as an overall defender. He did very well in isolation and vs. pick-and-roll handlers, but he was just average as a spot-up defender, and he struggled in the post.
Playing for a Duke team that switched constantly, Barrett did show that he has the potential to be a good all-around defender at the next level. He displayed good awareness and communication skills. He typically maintained good positioning off the ball, staying in range to help or close out on his man. He didn’t typically play tight on the ball, though he often managed to adequately contest jumpers. Also, he displayed good lateral quickness and the ability to easily change direction while maintaining his balance, all of which, made it difficult for opponents to beat him off the dribble.
What Barrett didn’t do this season was defend with aggression. He was reluctant to help, and at the same time, he didn’t do a lot of denying. I hesitate to say that he spent a lot of time no-man’s land because that implies that he didn’t know where to be; it was more of a tactical choice that produced few impactful plays. As an on-ball defender, he took a similar passive approach, focusing on keeping his man in front of him.
Going all the way back to the 2015 FIBA Americas Under-16 Championship, Barrett has consistently been a highly productive player. This past season at Duke was no different, though his efficiency was less than ideal. He is not extraordinary in terms of athleticism or skill, but his all-around profile makes him a potential All-Star. The main areas where he needs to improve are shooting from deep, using his “off” hand, and playing with more effort and aggression on defense. Being one of the youngest freshmen in this draft class, his weaknesses are not as much of a concern as they would be for an average prospect.
As far as comparing Barrett to a current NBA player, three names come foremost to mind – Tyreke Evans, DeMar DeRozan, and James Harden – though none quite fits. All three were coincidentally top-10 picks in the 2009 draft. All three are big guards with the ability to both score off the bounce and create for others. Evans, who arguably peaked as a rookie with Sacramento and was recently banned from the league, probably was most similar to Barrett at the collegiate level. Barrett’s potential to score regularly around the basket, including the post, brings DeRozan to mind. Being a volume shooter and having superior ability to create space off the bounce inspires thoughts of Harden, but even at Arizona State, I believe that Harden was a more explosive athlete, a better isolation player, and a superior shooter.
Barrett could go as high as the No. 2 overall pick in this draft. Unlike many, I do not see Murray State point guard Ja Morant as a clear-cut choice over Barrett; in fact, the latter has a number of advantages, including his size, age, and defensive potential. On the other hand, I would not be shocked to see several other prospects taken before Barrett, such as Virginia forward De’Andre Hunter, who is far more efficient and a better defender. In other words, Barrett has enough flaws to potentially sway several teams to pass him over for a player that better suits their needs.
Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements: Stats used in our scouting reports mainly come from Synergy Sports Technology and RealGM.com, and occasionally from Hoop-Math.com and Sports-Reference.com. The photo was courtesy of Duke Athletics. Other outside sources are noted with links to the source.