The Good, the Bad, and the Inefficient: Finding Ways for Duke Freshman RJ Barrett to Maximize His Potential

All stats are updated through the games of February 17. For up-to-the-minute coverage of this week’s college basketball action, visit us on Twitter and follow @PalestraBack.

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Entering this season, RJ Barrett was the most talked about college freshman and sat solidly atop every NBA mock draft. The Canadian swingman looked like the prototypical top pick. He has the body and the skills to be talked about as a future NBA star.

More than three months into his year at Duke and the numbers would seem to suggest that nothing has changed. Barrett is scoring 23 points per game for a team ranked near the top of the polls. All seems right with the world.

A little digging and examination reveal a different story.

Clearly, Barrett has been outshined by his teammate, Zion Williamson. What Barrett lacks in eye-popping athleticism, Zion has that and then some. Williamson has athleticism in every ounce of his massive body to the point that it might start leaking out of his eyeballs. Williamson makes the flashier highlight plays that get people talking. Beyond that, however, Williamson has shown himself to be a more efficient and more complete player than Barrett.

This season, Barrett leads the Blue Devils in scoring, but has been wildly inefficient. Barrett scores 22.7 points per game, on 18.5 field goal attempts. Compare that to Williamson, who is averaging 22.4 points per game on just 12.8 field goal attempts. Barrett has been somewhat of a black hole. He leads the ACC in percentage of team shots attempted and is second in usage rate in the conference.

Barrett is one of just seven players in all of college basketball attempting at least 18.5 field goals per game. Of that group, he scores the second fewest points on those shots. It’s also worth noting that all of those players are the best player on their team and do not get to share the court with Zion Williamson. Barrett’s shot selection has been suspect to say the least. He has taken 155 threes this season, but shoots below the national average of 34 percent from beyond the arc. His numbers have been buoyed by a recent hot streak, making 11 of his last 22 threes over a four game stretch.  Barrett’s jump shot is palatable, but clearly unworthy of six attempts from beyond the arc per game.

It almost feels unfathomable for Barrett to take as many shots as he has, especially at the expense of offensive looks for Williamson.

These numbers would suggest that Barrett is an all-out chucker, with blinders on as he creates on offense. That hasn’t actually been the case. His assist rate is above 20 percent and he dishes out 4.5 dimes per 40 minutes. If anything all of these numbers coalesce to show just how active Barrett is as part of the Duke offense. His usage rate reflects how aggressive he’s been all season. Once the ball gets into his hands, Barrett is attacking, either with a shot or a creation for a teammate. To date, Duke has had enough talent to outweigh how inefficient Barrett’s offense has been at times.

College basketball is a fickle reality, where a flaw like this could damn the Dukies to a tournament exit earlier than they’d like. Because Barrett carries so much of Duke’s offensive production on his back, one night of forcing too many shots or extra cold shooting by Barrett could spell serious trouble. In an overtime loss, Barrett shot 17 (!!) threes over the Syracuse zone, making just four of them. Texas Tech played Duke close for 40 minutes, thanks in part to an 0 for 7 night from Barrett outside the arc (and he added six turnovers in that game). In Duke’s other loss to Gonzaga, Barrett managed just 23 points on 25 field goal attempts. Against any elite team, a performance like that would put the Blue Devils in a bind.

RJ Barrett is a good basketball player. His inefficient performance this season, however, raises some key questions for the Blue Devils and his future.

Should Barrett be less involved in the Duke offense?

The wording of this question results in a surprising answer, given the first 500 words of this blog post.

No, Barrett should continue to be a major focal point in the Duke scoring attack. He gets to the line, finishes at the rim, and, most importantly, finds his teammates for buckets. The problem is not with Barrett having the ball in his hands, it’s his shot selection. Too often, he settles for a semi-contested three, versus attacking into the paint. In three games against Syracuse and Virginia, teams famous for defenses that pack the paint and allow long jump shots, Barrett took 33 longballs, playing right into the defensive strategy.

Many of his best performances have come when he has been more focused on attacking the rim and creating for others. This weekend, against NC State, Barrett recorded a triple-double and only attempted four 3-pointers. His downhill driving ability is what makes him a weapon for Coach K.

What has this season done for Barrett’s draft stock?

Unquestionably, Barrett will not be the top pick in the NBA Draft like some thought he might before the season. Zion Williamson will be the first name called in June, barring cataclysmic medical disaster. Even something like a torn ACL or Achilles’ probably wouldn’t scare teams away from Zion.

Barrett, though, is still cited by most as a top three prospect. Clearly, I have some reservations about that designation. His jump shot leaves plenty to be desired. His free throw stroke, often an even more accurate indicator of future 3-point shooting success, is also flawed. Barrett converts under 70 percent from the charity stripe.

Although he isn’t a knockdown shooter, I’m not tagging Barrett as a potential bust. He’s got plenty of talents that will translate to the NBA really well and has tons of upside at his age. I compared him to a recent group of swingmen who were drafted early in the NBA Draft. Among their freshman year statistics, Barrett stands out in certain ways:

Barrett is a volume shooter and scores because of that, yet does so inefficiently when compared to this peer group. He stands out as a rebounder and especially as a passer. None of these freshman could create for others on the same level that Barrett has this season. Some of that comes with Barrett’s role as the primary attacker in a fast tempo, high octane Duke offense. Compared to the freshman seasons of other potential lottery picks this year, and his production looks eye-popping.

I should note that Culver and Hunter are both now sophomores and each has made a major stride this season. That goes to show just how effective Barrett has been as a freshman. It’s hard to imagine how dangerous Barrett would be in a second year at Duke. Even if he shot just a few percentage points better from beyond the arc and from the free throw line, Barrett as a sophomore would be dominant.

That’s an academic hypothetical considering the money and opportunity that will be presented to him at season’s end. But for an NBA team, it’s key to project how Barrett’s game can grow and evolve.

(I should mention, at least parenthetically, that Barrett is the worst defender in this group and among the worst of the group above. We’re mostly here to talk about offense, but I’d be doing you a disservice not pointing that out.)

So what’s your point?

Great question.

For Duke, it’s key that Barrett’s shooting doesn’t supersede the Blue Devils’ larger offensive goals. If the opposing defense is allowing Barrett one-on-one looks, he can take advantage with his ability to penetrate and finish. If he can focus his 3-point shooting efforts on only attempting open shots when in rhythm, Barrett can prioritize what he does well.

For Barrett, he can really show how he can be a star at the next level if he can attack more efficiently. His ability to pass as he drives and find his open teammates is what really makes him different from other slashing forwards. With a host of crucial games coming up down the stretch and in the postseason, he can solidify himself as the second best player in this June’s draft class by scoring intelligently and showing himself to be an elite offensive weapon. Taking difficult shots won’t accomplish anything for him or Duke.

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Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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