No. 3 Gonzaga led No. 1 Duke by two points entering the final minute of regulation in November’s Maui Invitational.
Four times, RJ Barrett tried to drive to the rim and tie the game. Another, he put up a 3 that would have given the Blue Devils the lead. None of his five shots went in, including the final one at the buzzer, which got blocked in traffic, as Duke lost its first game of the season.
It was a crushing moment for Barrett and the Blue Devils. It is also an example of why Duke associate head coach Jon Scheyer believes Barrett would be just fine handling the New York spotlight if the Knicks draft him with the No. 3 pick later this month.
“I don’t worry about him at all in New York,” Scheyer said Thursday on a conference call. “RJ’s one of those guys, the bigger the game, the bigger the spotlight, that’s where he brings his best. If it [is] New York, RJ’s a guy that can definitely handle that — not only handle that, but thrive in that environment. You look at his year, he had one of the best freshman — not only freshman seasons but seasons ever in Duke history. And he was criticized throughout the year.
“Here he is as a freshman, it’s one of his first games playing against Gonzaga … he wants to make a play at the end of the game and a lot of people criticized him for that. Learning how to handle that and deal with adversity, he went through an entire year, while having one of the best seasons. So I think this year prepared him a lot for it.”
The game did not define Barrett. He went on to average 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists — the first high-major player to average such a stat line — and was Duke’s “rock from beginning to end,” Scheyer said.
At this time last year, the 6-foot-7 Barrett was viewed as the top prospect for the 2019 NBA Draft. Since then, he has taken a backseat to teammate Zion Williamson, who will be the Pelicans’ prize with the No. 1 overall pick. But the way those two played together and still got their big numbers — both broke the program’s freshman scoring record — told Scheyer “a lot” about Barrett’s mentality.
“With Zion, obviously he’s making some incredible plays and impacts the game in a very unique way,” Scheyer said. “RJ’s secure about what he brings to the game, whether it be his passing, rebounding, assists, playmaking or his defense. So he’s going to be great. I think he can be the best player on the team. Also right away, he can be a guy that is feeding off another really good player, which obviously, if you look at the NBA Finals, you need multiple guys to be really good.”
As for his other projected lottery picks, Scheyer is confident Williamson can handle the big expectations attached to him at the next level after consistently meeting them as they mounted across his freshman year. And though there have been more knocks on forward Cam Reddish, Scheyer thinks he just needs time.
“He’s still developing. He’s just not close to the guy he’s going to be,” Scheyer said. “Whatever team gets him, it’s a guy who has a special future.”
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