#15 on the PB Big Board
G/F – Duke
Freshman, 6’7, 202 pounds
What he does well:
While Barrett’s scoring outputs jump off of the page, his real value came acting as the creator in Duke’s offense. As we mentioned with Zion Williamson, Duke was one of the worst shooting teams in college basketball this year. Spacing was incredibly limited when the Blue Devils had the ball in the half-court.
Despite that, Barrett was able to effectively drive the ball to develop scoring chances for himself and for his teammates.
As a freshman, Barrett led the ACC in usage rate, with just four major conference players using a higher percentage of their teams’ possessions this season. In a minute we’ll explore whether that was a good thing for a team with Zion Williamson on it (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t), but for now we need to credit Barrett. At 18 years old, he was the most frequent contributor to a top 10 offense in college basketball.
He did so with a bevvy of ways to score in the paint (again, more on that in a minute), a confident (if not inconsistent) shooting stroke, and an eye for open passing lanes.
In fact, Barrett’s passing this season was frustratingly effective. Freshman wings don’t post more than 4 assists or an assist rate over 23 percent frequently. In the last nine seasons, just three other freshman scored 20 points and tossed 4 dimes per game, with an assist rate over 20 percent. RJ Cole did it for Howard in the worst conference in college basketball last season. The other two players to do so were both point guards and top 5 draft picks, Trae Young and (deep sigh) Markelle Fultz.
When you compare Barrett to his peers on the wing, his passing is what sets him apart. Here are his numbers contrasted with those of other wings in their freshman seasons, who will be picked in this year’s lottery or in recent drafts.
Barrett’s passing numbers are in a class of their own. He averaged more than twice as many assists as any other player listed there, save for Josh Jackson, and no other freshman wing posted within five percentage points of Barrett’s assist rate.
Playing with Zion Williamson makes passing a little easier, but the rest of Duke’s team struggled to shoot all year long. Barrett has the nose to find the right spot on the floor and the easy, sensible pass to lead to a bucket from there.
If a team is looking for a primary scoring option, Barrett is more than willing to be that kind of player. Barrett attempted 18.5 field goal attempts per game, looking to score from all three levels. In his freshman season, Barrett took 39 percent of his shots at the rim, 34 percent from beyond the arc, and 37 percent in the mid-range. With the ball in his hands as Duke’s offensive initiator, Barrett was comfortable taking pull-up threes, penetrating all the way to the cup, or finding a floater or jumper between the two when available.
He saw mixed success at each of the three levels, but to even be able to score each of those ways makes him unique among players his age and in this draft class.
For a player who struggles with tunnel vision at times, Barrett is still fully capable of stuffing the stat sheet in a variety of ways. As a freshman, he proved to be a valuable rebounder for Coach K’s club. He grabbed more than 12 rebounds on six different occasions this season, a remarkable feat for a 6-foot-7 freshman playing on the perimeter.
Barrett is athletically gifted, especially compared to peers his age, and he’s already figured out how to use his body to his advantage in traffic. With a nose for the ball, Barrett will be able to rebound his position in the pros, making him a prime candidate to post double-doubles, or even triple-doubles, regularly.
Where he struggles:
Understanding his role
RJ Barrett is an excellent passer. His assist numbers speak for themselves. He is clearly able to find teammates in a position to score.
And yet, his decision making really left something to be desired. Zion Williamson was National Player of the Year, exhibiting an arsenal of skills rarely seen in college basketball. He was the best player in college basketball by a comfortable margin.
So why then, did Barrett attempt 5.3 more shots per game than Williamson? Why, when Williamson was seemingly unstoppable, did Barrett take 33 percent of Duke’s shots when he was on the floor?
The problem extends beyond Williamson’s impact.
Barrett shot 237 threes, more than 6 per game, and made under 31 percent of those attempts. He was one of just six players in all of college hoops to shoot more than 230 threes and make that low a percentage from outside. None of the other players on that list played in a power conference, or have Barrett’s talents inside the arc.
This blunder-filled shot selection pattern led Barrett to be a strong volume scorer, but one of the least efficient scorers in major college basketball. When again compared to his fellow freshman wing players, Barrett’s inefficiency stands out like a sore thumb.
Even if he scored a ton this year, counting stats aren’t always what they seem. His volume of shooting raises a ton of questions about his own understanding of his game.
Barrett also led the Blue Devils in turnovers, with more than three per game, nearly matching his assists. In Duke’s fatal final loss, Barrett coughed up the ball seven times against Michigan State.
As displayed above, Barrett is not a sharpshooter. His 31 percent from outside the arc, on a significant sample size of attempts, is alarming.
Many draft experts have pointed to college free throw rate as a better indicator of a player’s shooting stroke. Free throw percentage is a more pure form of shooting the basketball and has been a direct connection to future 3-point shooting success.
Barrett managed just 66.5 percent from the charity stripe this season. Against Wake Forest, he attempted his highest number of foul shots, earning 14 free throws, but he made just 6 of those 14 attempts.
From outside the arc, Barrett’s shot was even more inconsistent. Facing Syracuse’s zone, Barrett hoisted 17 (!) threes, sinking only 4 of those shots. Over an eight game stretch that including that Syracuse loss, Barrett shot 15 of 60 from outside the arc, good for just 25 percent.
If Barrett can’t effectively shoot from the college 3-point line, he stands less of a chance from NBA range. Without the threat of an outside shot, Barrett’s offensive attack is less potent.
Finishing in the paint
RJ Barrett has the athletic ability to play with NBA athletes in the paint, yet time and time again this season, he finished his drives in the paint with below-the-rim moves. Either in an effort to find the separation to get a shot off or to avoid a rim protector, Barrett was prone to trying difficult shots in the paint, many of which will not translate to scoring chances in the pros.
How his game translates to the NBA:
Barrett’s even distribution of scoring isn’t something seen often in today’s NBA. The league’s most efficient scorers their heavy lifting from long range and right around the rim.
This season, Barrett shot 64.4 percent on 270 attempts around the rim, per Hoop-Math.com, including all layups, dunks, and tips. The NBA tracks shooting within 5 feet (a bit further away from Hoop-Math’s “around the rim” classification). Even against lesser competition and only counting shot even closer to the bucket, Barrett’s shooting percentage from in close would rank 38th among the 96 players who attempted at least 270 shots from within 5 feet.
From outside the arc, Barrett’s work this season would track far worse at the next level. He attempted more than 6 threes attempted per game this season and shot under 31 percent from outside the arc. Only one player in the entire NBA posted such a dismal shooting effort this season – Kyle Kuzma of the Lakers.
The right coach and situation could steer Barrett’s skills in the right direction, if he’s willing to change. Coach K is a legend, but only had 30 games with Barrett. It’s almost, almost, like Barrett has superpowers and just needs someone to convince him to use them for good (sharp passing, crisp offense, winning!) instead of taking advantage of them for evil (long 2-point jumpers, selfish scoring!).
- DeMar DeRozan
- Jaylen Brown
- Terrance Ross
- Rudy Gay
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.