Barrett emerges as the key to Duke’s season

Freshman is Coach K’s general on the floor

Duke forward R.J. Barrett (5) made his Blue Devils' debut in a preseason exhibition game Wednesday against Ryerson University at Paramount Fine Foods Centre. (Dan Hamilton / USA TODAY Sports)

Duke basketball gave a three-game preview of what to expect next season during the Blue Devils’ exhibition tour of Canada. One of the things that the trio of lopsided wins showed is that the team’s most exciting player may not be its most important.

Zion Williamson is a top NBA prospect and quickly caught the attention of social media by dunking from the free-throw line in the team’s first Canadian practice. At 285 pounds, his ability to soar has professional scouts excited.

“To be that size and be able to jump that high,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “So darn good. … And he’s a good basketball player, too.”

Williamson didn’t disappoint on the court either, finishing the Canadian tour with 89 points, 10 assists and team highs in rebounds (34), blocks (5) and steals (7).

While Williamson is a superstar, future NBA force and key component to this year’s team, Duke’s fortunes will depend most heavily on his slender classmate — freshman R.J. Barrett.

The five-star prospect from Canada was the only player to outscore Williamson on the trip, ringing up 92 points and leading the team in the box score two of the three games. He also had 15 assists, five more than any other player on the team, although point guard Tre Jones sat out, recovering from a hip injury.

If he wasn’t such a prolific scorer, Barrett would be described as a “glue guy” — doing all the little things that help a team win.

“The thing that’s impressed me is that he’s kind of old-school,” Krzyzewski said. “He has such a winning mentality, and it translated to the guys playing with him. Obviously, he’s talented and can play all over the court. I love his strong face and how he leads the team. He just looks older and in command.”

In other words, Krzyzewski, a West Pointer, has an on-court general for this year’s team. 

Barrett’s skills as a leader and role model were apparent, even in the brief Canadian tour. Krzyzewski singled out Williamson for diving for three loose balls during the team’s second game, something the coach thought Barrett’s influence would cause, even before the team left for the Great White North.

“The whole freshman class has that attitude right now,” he said after six practices with Barrett. “It kind of permeates throughout our whole team right now. It’s more of a team attitude, and they have fun. They have fun together, but they want to win. I think it will translate really well during the year on the defensive end of the court, in how hard and how well we will play on defense.”

With Jones and fellow freshman Cam Reddish sitting out the games, and sophomore Alex O’Connell suffering an eye injury three minutes into the first game that kept him off the court the remainder of the trip, Barrett had to take on a bigger role in distributing the ball to teammates and running the offense, all while still leading the team in scoring.

“It’s just the ability to read the game,” he said. “They were trying to take away from me scoring. (They) were trying to limit my scoring, which left my teammates open, and I was able to find them.”

“Me and R.J. have a really good chemistry,” Williamson said. “We were roommates over the summer, so we developed a very good brotherly bond. Me and him have a connection on the court that we can both know what we’re about to do with the ball.”

As impressive as Barrett’s scoring and passing were, Krzyzewski rarely talks about the freshman’s on-court skills.

“I don’t think he’s a kid that ever gets nervous,” he said after one game. “He’s never afraid. I thought he played really well, but he’ll play even better as this moves along. He’s a winner and a team player. He’s a real team player.”

“Every day he shows his maturity with how he handles things,” the coach said later in the trip. “His relationships with the coaches and with me are great. He’s comfortable and he’s a man. He’s so mature in his relationships and that makes it good for everyone. He does it every day. He’s just a fun guy to be with and a winner. He’s a special kid and a special player.”

“He’s great in all aspects,” Krzyzewski said after the third game. “When we recruit a kid, we look for talent, a good student and character. He’s off the charts in all three.”

So, while Zion Williamson will own the headlines and highlights, make no mistake — the 2018-19 Blue Devils are R.J. Barrett’s team, and they’ll go as far as he takes them.