It would be easy to look at R.J. Barrett’s current lot in life and assume everything has gone according to plan.
And it has.
But that plan included a monumental life decision at the age of 15 that not every teenager would be willing to make.
Barrett chose to leave his family and his home country to chase his potential, a potential that has become the reality of Barrett being the top-ranked high school basketball recruit according to numerous recruiting services who has committed to Duke.
Barrett has seen his parents about every couple months over the past three years.
“The first year was definitely the worst,” Barrett said. “It was a new environment, I was not used to being away from my parents for a long period of time. As time goes on I won’t see them for a long time and we’re just fine with it now. This is how my life’s going to be so we’re getting used to it.”
Barrett, 17, is a native of Mississauga, Canada, which is outside Toronto, and he was a star attraction at last week’s Beach Ball Classic at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center as the top player on the top-ranked team in the country according to USA Today, Montverde Academy of Florida, which won the championship.
It has been commonplace in Canada for decades for talented junior hockey players to leave home early in their teenage years to develop in other parts of the country, and now that more basketball talent is being produced in the country, they have been leaving Canada as teenagers to play and develop in the U.S.
“This is what Andrew Wiggins and some of the better players have done, so I think it’s more acceptable,” Barrett said. “Now Canada is trying to grow and keep more players at home. But when it was my time to leave you would just go to the states and try to learn as much as you can. You go where it’s best for you.”
He chose Montverde Academy and coach Kevin Boyle, whose recent players include Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I wanted to be at the best level so it wasn’t really hard for me,” Barrett said. “Everything is planning out perfectly. Being around coach Boyle, I think he’s the best coach in all of high school basketball so just being around him every day and learning is a pretty great experience.”
Barrett’s teammates this year include guards Michael Devoe and Andrew Nembhard, who are committed to Georgia Tech and Florida, respectively.
“I think all of our starters are committed Division I this year so we have a lot of competition every day in practice and that’s how you get better,” Barrett said. “Every day is hard so when it comes to games it’s a lot easier for us.”
Barrett has also met the challenges of the academics at Montverde. He has done enough in three years to reclassify as a senior and graduate to be eligible to play at Duke a year early. He chose the Blue Devils over his other finalists, Kentucky and Oregon. He compares the Duke academics and basketball program to Montverde at the next level.
“I was really comfortable with it, that was my main thing, and my parents being comfortable,” Barrett said. “I think it’s a lot like Montverde is so it will be an easier transition for me.”
He may only be at Duke for a year, as he’s a projected NBA lottery pick in 2019.
Basketball has been in Barrett’s life essentially since birth. His father, Rowan Barrett, was a Canadian basketball standout who played with two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash in the 2000 Olympics and currently serves as Nash’s assistant general manager on the senior national team. Nash is Barrett’s godfather.
“As soon as I was born I was watching my dad play in the Sydney Olympics and since I was a baby I was watching him play in Europe and everything so it’s been in my blood,” said Barrett, whose mother ran track at St. John’s University in New York, where his parents met.
If there were any doubts about Barrett’s ability, he erased them on an international stage this past summer.
He led Canada to its first basketball gold medal in the FIBA U19 World Championship and was named MVP of the tournament after a performance that included 38 points, 13 rebounds and five assists against Team USA to hand America its first defeat in international competition in six years.
It was Barrett’s third year playing on Canadian national teams.
“To be able to go in and win with a great group of guys is something we’ve been working toward for a long time,” said Barrett, who accepted a leadership role despite playing with older players. “It was definitely hard at first having older guys, some guys who had already been at university for a year, so it was definitely challenging for me. But my coaches helped me and teammates helped me to push through every day.”
The Canadian championship team included Coastal Carolina 6-8 sophomore forward Amidou Bamba, who contributed six points and seven rebounds in the gold medal game and stopped by the convention center Wednesday to greet Barrett following Montverde’s opening win. “He’s a great guy,” Barrett said. “He just worked hard and gave us everything we needed for the team and really helped us in the USA game.”
Between Montverde and his previous head coaching stop at St. Patrick in New Jersey, Boyle has coached several high NBA draft picks including Kyrie Irving, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and D’Angelo Russell, in addition to Simmons and Embiid.
“All of those players have been different, including him,” Boyle said. “He’s more of a two guard that can play one. His uniqueness is, with the way the game is officiated today, he’s got a long first step. He’s got a great ability to create contact on drives and it’s very rare when he doesn’t go to the foul line 10 to 15 times a game. He has a great knack for getting fouled.”
Barrett continues to work on his skills, including his shot and dribbling. “His shot has developed a lot over the years,” Boyle said. “He has shot the ball much better each year. Like any player his age he has to continue to develop. When I look at some of the good young players in the league today that I see doing well, I think he’s definitely ahead of them at the same stage and the same age, so I’d be surprised if he doesn’t have a stellar NBA career.”
Barrett didn’t begin his career at Montverde on the varsity. He was on one of several academy teams at Montverde before Boyle quickly promoted him to varsity and a starting position.
“I didn’t think he would play much as a freshman but he ended up starting because he earned it,” Boyle said. “I think he’s learned to work harder each year and is starting to understand why he has to really compete at a high level and intense level consistently, and I think he has really showed great maturity. We have a really mature team, and he and Andrew [Nembhard] have been the leaders of that.
“They’re really easy to coach. They practice hard, they play hard and they listen.”
Montverde, which is 17-0 this season, has allowed Barrett to see and experience several parts of the U.S. and world, as the team’s travels this year have included trips to China and Hawaii in addition to Myrtle Beach. Barrett believes that’s even more preparation for his life at the next levels of the game.
“In the NBA, and that’s what I’m looking to, you travel every day or every other day, so just being able to go through a long stretch with these guys, and we haven’t lost, that’s pretty good,” Barrett said.
All according to the plan.