INDIANAPOLIS — It won’t always be this easy. It can’t possibly be, because nothing in competitive sport is this easy for too long. … But what if it is?
What if all the magic we witnessed from Duke’s RJ Barrett in the Blue Devils’ Champions Classic destruction of Kentucky is merely the beginning?
If it becomes this effortless every night for Barrett, he’ll take every one of the many college basketball player of the year trophies and transport them across this nation’s northern border before spring arrives. He’ll become the first Canadian to win the Naismith Trophy, and the Wooden and the Robertson and the one presented annually by Sporting News. And he may carry the Blue Devils to the Northern U.S. for an April date in Minneapolis, the site of the 2019 Final Four.
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There have been few debuts in college basketball quite like the one Barrett delivered while wearing a deep-blue Devils uniform Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He scorched Kentucky for 33 points and six assists before leaving to a standing ovation from his teammates with nearly five minutes still to play.
This unequivocally was not the best-ever entrance from a college freshman, but consider how high we must reach to find those who outperformed him. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 56 points against rival Southern California in his first game for UCLA. Pete Maravich scored 48 against Tampa in launching his career at LSU. They are two of the 10 greatest college players in history.
No, wait. Those guys were sophomores when they played their first college games.
The freshmen who’ve been national player of the year? Anthony Davis scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds when he played his first game at Kentucky in 2011, but he did it against Marist. At Texas in 2006, Kevin Durant scored a comfortable 20 in a breezy victory against overmatched Alcorn State. It’s quite possible Barrett, matched against a team SN and others projected as the 2019 NCAA champion, set a new standard here.
Mike Krzyzewski began his 39th season at Duke with this 118-84 victory. He has coached such impressive freshmen as Grant Hill, Jay Williams, Jahlil Okafor and Marvin Bagley. None, however, walked into his first college game against an elite opponent and owned the joint the way Barrett did in the first 20 minutes against Kentucky.
“We’re usually in this, and you’re playing Kansas, Kentucky or Michigan State. Our freshmen have done OK, or good, but RJ in that first half was terrific,” Krzyzewski said. “He was a man.”
Barrett was considered by scouts to be the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 high school class, and talent analysts are projecting him as the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He is not like anyone who has held these distinctions recently, though. He does not present himself as an imposing physical specimen, in the way 6-8, 285-pound teammate Zion Williamson can. At Kansas five years back, Andrew Wiggins could execute athletic maneuvers that few basketball players, ever, would dare to imagine. Barrett is dynamic, but he’s not on that level.
And yet defenders cannot seem to stay in front of him. In part because he can read his defender and trick him into falling off balance, in part because he is left-handed and opponents struggle to adjust, in part because he is reasonably quick and exceptionally rugged, Barrett excels at driving the ball toward baskets or fouls.
“He puts it up in the refs’ hands a lot of the time in terms of the way he’s attacking you,” Kentucky center Reid Travis told SN. “He makes it difficult to guard as far as staying in front of him without fouling. He puts a lot of pressure at the rim. For a player, you’ve got to be able to move your feet, trust that your help-side is going to come over and kind of help you alter his shot when he gets it up at the rim. That’s something we didn’t do too well at tonight.”
MORE: What we learned in destruction by Duke
It wasn’t surprising Barrett was successful driving the ball, that he was able to convert 10 of 19 on 2-pointers and earn eight free throws. It was surprising he was this dominant, that he produced 20 points and 3 assists in the first half alone.
It was not far from stunning, though, for those who’d followed Barrett’s career as a developing prospect at Montverde Academy in Florida and with the Canada junior national team in events such as the FIBA U-19 World Cup, that he shot the basketball so adeptly from long range.
Though always in small sample sizes, Barrett repeatedly failed to demonstrate he could be a proficient long-range shooter. In the 2017 Nike EYBL regular season, he hit .312 on 3s. At the U19 Worlds last summer, when he led Canada to its first gold medal and was named MVP, he finished at .238 from long distance. On Duke’s short summer playing trip to Canada in August, he wound up at .285.
Against Kentucky, he went 3-of-7. He said he will be impressed when he can “do it on a regular basis.”
“He’s really shooting well in practice,” Krzyzewski told SN. “It doesn’t surprise me. He’s really tight on his shot, even though he’s a movement player. You get that combination, it’s dangerous.”
Kentucky will not recover easily from what occurred in this game, but it can be rescued. Remember, Connecticut was embarrassed by Louisville on the final day of the regular season in 2014 and then won the NCAA title less than a month later. Coach John Calipari looked at Duke’s four turnovers and reasoned that either the Devils are the greatest ball-handling team ever, or the Wildcats aren’t disruptive enough to force turnovers.
He told the Wildcats, “I got out-coached; you got outplayed.” Neither of the two was quite ready for what RJ Barrett unleashed in his first college game. The rest of Division I has been warned. It seems, with the memory of his brilliance here so fresh, that might not help at all.
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