CAIRO, Egypt—RJ Barrett just turned 17 years old three weeks ago, but Canada’s 6-7 high school junior forward who attends Montverde, Fla. Academy, seized the spotlight during this U19 World Cup here in the desert heat.
Barrett, who is regarded as the best prospect in the class of 2019, was selected MVP of the 16-team international tournament after averaging 21.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.4 steals for Canada, which made history, defeating Italy, 79-60, to win its first gold medal in a FIBA event. Barrett scored 27 points as Canada upset France in the quarterfinals, then had his defining moment when he went off for 38 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists as the Canadians, playing without their injured starting point guard Lindell Wigginton, stunned the heavily favored United States, 99-87, in the semi-finals.
It was arguably the best individual performance in the history of this 16 team international tournament.
Barrett shot 12 for 25 and was 9 of 13 from the line, drawing 12 fouls on U.S. players. He finished up his spectacular run with 18 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists against Italy in the final.
He has a bigger upside than Andrew Wiggins, the NBA’s No. 1 overall pick in 2014, and looks like the future of Canadian basketball—a great young athlete who is a slashing scorer and creative passer. “Every test I’ve faced, I’ve aced it,’’ he said. “But I want to exceed expectations, so I have to keep working hard.’’.
Barrett was not the only Canadian prospect to have a big game. Oregon 6-7 freshman forward Abu Kigab had 14 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. UAB sophomore wing Nate Darling contributed 13 points and Harvard freshman forward Danilo Djuricic added eight, including two critical three points down the stretch.
Barrett is a true prodigy, who played two years up in this tournament. Barrett’s father Rowan is a Canada Basketball veteran who played with Steve Nash on the national team that qualified for the 2000 Olympics—the last time a Canadian senior team participated in the summer games.
Nash is the GM of Canada Basketball. Rowan is his assistant.
Rowan Jr. is Canada’s not so secret weapon. After he won MVP honors at the Basketball Without Borders camp at the NBA All Star break this past February, he has been mentioned as a potential NBA first pick overall as early as 2019 if he decides to reclassify up to the class of 2018 and enter college early. Schools like Kentucky, Duke, Arizona and Kansas have been smothered him with early interest.
“Every test that’s been thrown at me, I’ve aced it,’’ Barrett said. “So, I’m really confident in myself. But I want to exceed expectations and I have to keep working hard.’’
Canada, capably coached by Roy Rana, is making rapid strides in grass roots basketball and this latest performance, accomplished without several of the country’s better prospects and an injurd Wigginton, speaks volumes for their progress. Canada won despite that fact blue chip prospects 6-10 center Simi Shittu of Vermont Academy, Kentucky freshman guard Shai Gilgeous Alexander of Kentucky, 6-8 Arizona freshman forward Emmanual Akot, high school senior forward Ignas Bragdeikas of Orangeville, Ont. Prep and high school senior guard Luguentz Dort of Colusa Prep in Montreal opted to pass on tryouts because of political. personal or shoe company reasons.
We can only imagine how good Canada might have been if they could consolidate all their elite talent on one national youth team.
As it was, Rana squeezed the most out of his front line— Barrett, Kigab, Djuricic and 6-10 Grant Shephard of the University of British Columbia—and came up with an exceptional game plan against the USA, using a zone to limit American penetration and contest second chance shots, taking advantage of the fact that neither 6-8 high school senior Cam Reddish or 6-5 Kentucky freshman Hamidou Diallo could effectively guard Barrett and only turning the ball over 14 times against U.S. normally suffocating pressure. Canada never flinched. Most of their players had played against U.S. stars in summer travel team tournaments before and were not intimidated by name on the front of the U.S. jerseys.
“The USA is always a big target in these tournaments and they’re always the ones to beat,’’ Djuricic said “To knock them out in the semis, this is something we’ve been waiting for. It’s been a topic for a long time. Can Canada beat the U.S.? Can Canada hang with the U.S.? We proved we are right up there. It has to translate through all the age groups to continue to work.’’
Djurcic and Barrett played on a team that came close in 2015 when their U16 team had a U.S. team with Wendell Carter and Gary Trent down 23-3, after 11 minutes in the FIBA Americas tournament gold medal game in Argentina before finally eventually collapsing in a 17-point loss in a gold medal game.
This time, there would be no collapse. Canada outscored the U.S, 54-45, in the second half, winning despite the fact the Americans gobbled up 62 rebounds, 30 of them offensive boards.
This was the American’s first loss in the youth division since 2011. They won bronze, blowing away Spain—the one team to defeat Canada in pool play—96-72. But U.S. coach John Calipari will always be mystified by the fact his seemingly more talented team—playing with 6-11 center Austin Wiley and 6-8 elite power forward P.J. Washington—only shot 32 percent and only made just 29 of 42 free throws
We got 30 offensive rebounds. We scored enough points to win,” USA head coach John
Calipari from Kentucky admitted. “But then it came down to some breakdowns defensively, and the other thing was, RJ (Barrett) had it going. I told the team after the game, I needed to try some different things – go zone, trap pick and roll, trap him. I kind of rode it because I thought we would figure out something, and that is my mistake.
“But, the reality was, one kid really went crazy, and then the rest of their kids did what they did, so hats off to them. Congratulate Canada, they deserved to win the game.”
Washington finished with 17 points for the U.S. Wiley had another double double with 13 points and 17 rebounds. Oregon sophomore point guard Payton Pritchard—the U.S. best three-point shooter– had 16, but never played after missing a questionable three with the U.S. down, 79-72, with 5:32 remaining.
“From the jump, our energy wasn’t there. Defensively, we just weren’t there. Nobody should have
that many points on us,” said Pritchard, the only US player on the All Star 5. “We just weren’t locked in, honestly. Like I said, our defense will win for us, but we didn’t show up today on defense.”