When all is said and done at Thursday’s NBA Draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, it’s a good bet the New York Knicks will wind up with an All-American out of Duke. He’s not the one the fan base hoped for two months ago — that’s Zion Williamson, who is all but certain to go first overall to the New Orleans Pelicans — but at least highly-touted RJ Barrett clearly wants to play his home games at Madison Square Garden.
That’s the scenario that appears most likely in light of the fact that Barrett only worked out with and had discussions with the Knicks, whom the 6-7, 202-pound wing referred to at Wednesday’s media availability in midtown as his "preferred team." Although he could have been an option for the Memphis Grizzlies — who appear poised to select Murray State guard Ja Morant at No. 2 overall — he and his team did their part to make it easier for the Knicks to snag him with the third pick.
"My agent and I and my parents just decided not to [work out with the Grizzlies]," Barrett told reporters at the Grand Hyatt New York. "Not really anything wrong with Memphis."
If everything goes as expected Thursday night, the Knicks will welcome into the fold a versatile player who once was considered tops in his class, before the rise of Blue Devils teammate Williamson. The native of Mississauga, Ontario, completed his high school career at Florida’s Montverde Academy last year, leading his unbeaten team to a national championship while garnering national player of the year honors.
In his lone year under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Barrett played all 38 games while averaging 35.3 minutes for a team that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. With lengthy court time, he averaged 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists and shot a respectable 45.4% from the field. Being well-rounded, as his averages indicate, is important to him.
"I try my best to be a complete player," Barrett said. "I feel I’m solid in every category."
The main concerns from his brief collegiate career are his lackluster outside shooting (30.8%) from the NCAA’s closer 3-point arc and 66.5% rate from the free-throw line. Although Barrett wants to get better in every facet of the game, he’s quick to point out that those issues shooting the ball last season aren’t slowing down his momentum.
"It’s not stopping me from being a top pick, is it?" Barrett asked, rhetorically. "… Numbers are numbers. Look at the playoffs. You can’t tell me everybody shot well. That didn’t mean the [Toronto] Raptors didn’t win [the championship]. It doesn’t matter. You’ve just gotta continue to work and just try to get better. That’s really what matters."
Throughout Wednesday’s half-hour session in front of reporters, Barrett, who turned 19 last week, repeatedly referenced a need to continuously drive himself to improve, as well as to remain humble.
"If the Knicks pick me, just know you’re getting a guy that’s gonna give everything [he’s] got, every game," Barrett said. "I’m just gonna work my butt off and try to get us back on the winning track."
Family of athletes
Barrett comes from a family of athletes with strong ties to New York City. Father Rowan met mother Kesha while they were attending St. John’s in the 1990s. Rowan played four seasons for the Johnnies men’s hoops team before playing abroad professionally as well as representing his native Canada at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, three months after RJ was born. Kesha, who grew up in the city, was a sprinter at the university.
Growing up, Barrett said he visited his family in Brooklyn every summer. Although he grew up in Canada watching the Raptors, whose NBA championship victory last week had him jumping for joy, his late grandfather envisioned him wearing blue and orange when he reached the pros.
"He was the biggest Knicks fan," Barrett said. "He always told me I would play for the Knicks, so it would mean a lot for me to play for the team."
As talented as he and his family are, it’s his godfather Steve Nash who’s achieved the most on the world stage. Barrett said he learned a lot from the way the Hall of Famer and two-time NBA MVP worked to steadily improve his game and become a superstar. He dreams of achieving it all, including joining Nash in Springfield someday.
"I feel like if I work harder than everybody, I should have a chance," Barrett said.
‘This feels like home’
With the likelihood being Barrett begins his professional journey toward that endgame in New York, expectations will be high. The last time the Knicks held a top-three draft selection, they chose Patrick Ewing first overall in 1985. Ewing led a resurgence for the franchise that produced the team’s only two NBA Finals appearances since their most recent championship in 1973.
Barrett knows what he would be walking into with the Knicks, who have rarely been competitive over the 20 years since their last Finals berth. It’s a task he looks forward to attacking.
"That would be a challenge that I would be willing to accept," Barrett said. "I just want to be in the NBA. I want it to be the Knicks, but I don’t really care what team it is."
If both the Grizzlies and Knicks unexpectedly pass on Barrett, it’s likely he would reunite with Williamson in New Orleans. The Pelicans reportedly will acquire the No. 4 overall pick and several more young players and future draft selections from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for perennial All-Star Anthony Davis. The trade cannot be finalized until after Thursday’s draft. It’s a scenario Barrett could find a silver lining in if he misses out on a chance to play in New York. Either way, he’s happy.
"If I play with him, then I get to play with my best friend again," Barrett said of Williamson. "If I go to the Knicks, then I get to play in New York, in the mecca. This feels like home to me."