NBA Draft Prospects: RJ Barrett

Despite many concerns surfacing in RJ Barrett's game, he proved that he is still a top prospect through his scoring instincts, athleticism, and pure competitiveness.

Imagine setting the ACC freshman single-season scoring record while averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists a game. Now imagine that statistical wonder of a season being viewed as disappointing. While you have the luxury of imagining that frustrating scenario, that was RJ Barrett’s reality this season.

Coming into this season, Barrett was the consensus number one recruit and had all the expectations of being the number one pick in the upcoming draft. As the season progressed, the shine of Barrett’s potential gradually dulled as he was routinely overshadowed by his fellow freshman Zion Williamson. As Williamson’s game engendered excitement and promise, Barrett’s spawned criticism and concern.

In any other situation, Barrett would have been celebrated for what he did this season. He was a victim of his own hype, poor shot selection, and the shadow of Zion, but he is still one of the best prospects in this draft.

Main Selling Point

With his 6’7", 202-pound frame, Barrett is one of the most impressive scorers we’ve seen in recent years. The combination of his size and athleticism make him NBA ready from day one, and extremely difficult to deal with. Barrett will fit nicely into a roster that continues to move towards position-less basketball. He has the potential to be a primary ball handler that can set up his teammates or score at will. Last season Barrett averaged 4.3 assists per game, had an assist percentage of 23.5, and a turnover percentage of just 13.2 (Ja Morant was at 20.5). In the NBA, these numbers should rise for Barrett as he is surrounded by better shooters and players that have a post presence instead of a team that shot 30.8 percent from three and lacked a true center. Barrett’s scoring instincts produced the most prolific scoring season from a freshman in ACC history as he scored 860 points, passing the long-standing record of Kenny Anderson set in 1990 with 721 points. His instincts and IQ make him a strong rebounder and deadly in transition. When opponents try to stop him in transition, he makes a well-timed pass to set up his teammates for an easy bucket. Barrett has a well-developed offensive game that will make an impact from day one.

Scoring

Barrett’s scoring ability is second-to-none in this draft, but he does it in a more traditional fashion. Barrett has shown some capacity to score off jump shots (.907 points per possession), but he thrives when he is attacking and finding his way to the rim (1.290 points per possession). He brutalizes smaller opponents by bullying them with his strength and he baffles larger opponents with his agile footwork. Regardless of the situation, Barrett is great at identifying driving lanes and manipulating the opponent’s momentum.

In the below clip we see Barrett attack his defender with a mixture of skill and power. Barrett begins to drive hard towards the paint, but the defender does a great job of cutting him off. Instead of backing out or trying to force his way through, Barrett executes a well-timed behind the back dribble to immediately change direction. This creates a just enough of a lane for Barrett to attack the rim. The defender does a nice job recovering, but it is too late as Barrett is nearly impossible to stop once he finds a direct lane to the hoop. Barrett finishes through the contact and avoids the help-side defender.

 

Barrett has an incredible talent at not being affected by contact. This comes from his pure competitiveness and his NBA ready body, giving him a clear advantage when he attacks the rim. Smaller opponents don’t stand a chance at stopping him and he has every intention of humiliating bigger opponents that have the gall to try and stop him. When he lowers his shoulder and decides that he’s getting to the rim, he is likely going to get to the rim. The concern with this mindset for a lot of players is the tendency to lose control and commit offensive fouls and turnovers. Barrett, however, does a great job of picking his way to the rim and protecting the ball. He uses his strength to shield the ball and make it nearly impossible for defenders to poke it loose.

As we can see in the below clips, Barrett has no issue using his strength and fighting through contact. Instead of trying to change his shot to avoid contact, he invites it and views it as a game of chicken that he will not lose. When opponents try to reach in, Barrett is unaffected and dispatches them like an annoying little brother.

 

What sets Barrett’s driving ability apart though is his understanding of when to switch up his driving tendencies. One possession he’ll drive through an opponent’s chest like a charging buffalo and on the next, he’ll leave them in the dust like a fleeing jackrabbit.

In the below clip we see how Barrett manipulates the defender with his ballhandling and footwork. Barrett starts the drive with a strong dribble towards the left side of the lane. The way Barrett is protecting the ball and beginning to lower his shoulder hints at the likelihood he is about to rely on his strength. Instead, Barrett waits for the defender to fully commit to cutting off his driving lane. Once the defender recovers, Barrett uses a swift spin move to change directions. The defender’s momentum has already taken him too far to appropriately recover and Barrett has a clear lane to the rim.

 

Barrett is clearly a great driver and very comfortable with his left hand. He is confident in his abilities but is still not comfortable with his right hand. He avoids using it as much as possible and his finishing numbers are drastically different based on what side of the rim he attacks. When Barrett drives to the left, he scores a preposterous 1.786 points per possession. Just to hammer home the impressiveness of this, that ranks him second in the country and first among major schools by almost .3 points. Unfortunately, these dominating results are not mirrored when he drives to the right. When Barrett drives to the right he scores just .882 points per possession (30th percentile). Barrett is a lefty which would explain some drop-off, but the results shouldn’t be night and day. If Barrett doesn’t improve his touch and comfort level with his right hand, he will become very easy to game plan against.

Inconsistent Shooting

While Barrett is effective when he attacks the rim, his shooting has left a lot to be desired and created the most concerns surrounding Barrett’s future. This season Barrett shot just 30.2 percent from three on 6.2 attempts per game. For an elite scorer in the NBA, these numbers are unacceptable.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with Barrett’s form. As we can see below, he has a smooth shooting form when he is able to step into it in rhythm.

 

The fact that his mechanics are consistent and fluid but still produce lousy results really sounds the alarm. This last season Barrett scored .952 points per possession on catch-and-shoot attempts and just .859 points per possession on jump shots off the dribble. It didn’t matter what situation Barrett was shooting in, the results were disappointing across the board.

A big reason for the lack of consistency and accuracy was Barrett’s overall shot selection being really poor. This is the biggest concern with Barrett moving forward. If he is unable to improve his shot selection, he will just be an inefficient, high volume scorer on teams that don’t have much success.

We covered how Barrett is a great driver, but for some reason, he frequently gave up on drives and settled for a contested mid-range jumper. In the clip below we see Barrett take a bad pull-up jumper for no reason. He starts the play by catching it behind the arc with the defender sagging off quite a bit. Even though he isn’t a great three-point shooter, I’d rather see him take the three instead of what he proceeds to do. After the catch, Barrett takes one dribble, gives up on the drive, and pulls up for a heavily contested jumper against a smaller opponent early in the shot clock that clangs off the back of the rim.

 

The decision Barrett ended up making was about the worst one he could have picked. He would have been better off taking the three or trying to use his strength and size to overpower the smaller defender. The space the defender was giving Barrett opened numerous driving possibilities. Situations like this are where Barrett needs to take better notice of the game situation and realize that he isn’t on the playground going up against inferior opponents.

Below we see a few more examples of Barrett’s poor shot selection. He struggles to create space and just has poor overall decision making. When he gets cut off on drives, he will try to bail himself out with a wild shot attempt or errant pass. He plays like he is a sharpshooter when in reality he shoots like a below average stretch four.

 

Defensive concerns

With Barrett’s size and athleticism, the defense shouldn’t be a concern. His size and length should allow him to guard multiple positions so teams that frequently switch would be thrilled with his physical profile. Unfortunately, the awareness and interest just don’t seem to be there for Barrett on defense.

As an on-ball defender, Barrett can be competent as he views it as a personal challenge. In isolation situations, he allowed just .551 points per possession (81st percentile). He clearly has the physical tools to lock down opponents, but his competitiveness is what should take him to the next level.

The major drop-off comes with Barrett’s off-ball and team defense. He routinely gets caught ball watching, missing rotations, struggling to communicate, and in general just not trying. The below clip is just a disaster from start to finish for Barrett. As the play develops, Barrett is playing too high and watching more of the ball than his man. Barrett’s man sees the easy opportunity for the back-cut and bolts to the rim. Barrett is easily beat, but the ball handler doesn’t make the pass despite Barrett lackadaisically recovering. As Barrett’s man is cutting, another player is rotating over from the strong-side of the floor to fill the space that was just vacated. While this isn’t entirely Barrett’s fault, he still should have recognized the open player rotating and communicated to switch. Instead, Barrett makes it all the way to the paint before realizing that there was an open man that he should have switched onto who is able to knock down a wide-open three.

Going Forward

Coming into this season I was all in on Barrett and maybe these high expectations are why I was left wanting more. Even though it seems like I just spent this whole article ripping on Barrett, I still like his potential and wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up having the best career out of this draft. His driving ability and scoring instincts are better than those of a lot of NBA veterans. His physical profile will be ready for the NBA from day one.

My concerns over his shot selection and defensive effort remain but are things that can be corrected. Barrett has shown that he can improve his overall game. Team Canada has invested a lot into Barrett’s development and Barrett has made a ton of strides over the last few years. He has a very high work ethic and is insanely competitive. Therefore, my issues with his current game remain just concerns and not indictments.

Multiple All-Star games are not out of the question for R.J. Barrett’s future. He has a great foundation of skills and natural abilities that should give him a long NBA career. With that said, I am in full belief that where Barrett ends up will likely determine how successful that career will be. If he goes to a team that gives him legitimate coaching and can tame his wild tendencies, his growth rate could be astronomical. However, if he ends up going to a team that gives him free rein to do what he wants, his full potential may never be reached.

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