After receiving criticism for his performance in Hawaii—especially after missing five shots in the final minute in the loss to Gonzaga—R.J. Barrett has turned in two highly efficient performances while taking care of the ball and getting his teammates involved.
In the Maui Invitational, Barrett needed 59 shots to score 61 points and shot no better than 36 percent from the field over the three contests. Additionally, he struggled from deep, connecting on just 25 percent of his 12 attempts, and had six turnovers to 10 assists.
However, the freshman has seemed to improve dramatically over the last two games—albeit against lesser competition—and has shown the country that his efficiency can mirror that of teammate Zion Williamson, who is shooting an otherworldly 67.7 percent from the field.
“It has been amazing to watch him [Barrett] do that. Not that it is a huge thing but I am especially happy for him after copping some criticism,” junior captain Jack White said. “He has been responding in a great way. He has been a better leader for us out there along with making great plays offensively and defensively.”
Barrett had 27 points on just 14 shots against Hartford, and led the Blue Devils in the first half while the rest of the team was struggling to score. He had 10 points on 50 percent shooting while knocking down the anemic Duke offense’s only two triples of the half.
“I have been just letting the game come to me and not really forcing it,” Barrett said. “Our defense always leads to our offense. Whenever Tre starts pressuring the ball and we can get steals, it’s a wrap.”
He finished the game 10-for-14 and 3-for-4 from deep and registered his first double-double with 15 rebounds. Barrett took high-percentage looks around the rim instead of long twos or contested pullups, none more memorable than an alley-oop with Williamson passing the ball off the backboard.
“I always tell this to R.J, ‘if you’re running with me and there’s only one defender, I will throw it off the backboard.’ I’m not afraid to do it,” said Williamson. “He had given me the pass before so I thought it was only right I give it back. And he said, ‘Zion!’ so I thought this was the one, and I threw it off the backboard for him.”
“That was fun. I just yelled his name and he just threw it. I did not know what he was going to do, he just threw it,” Barrett said.
This builds off of promising performances against Stetson and Indiana. Against the Hoosiers in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge last Tuesday, Barrett connected on half of his 18 shots from the field—then-tied for his best shooting performance since the dominating season opening win over Kentucky. Saturday—in the blowout of the Hatters—the Mississauga, Ontario, native had his best career shooting performance, scoring 26 points on 85.7 percent shooting in just 17 minutes of play.
Not only has Barrett improved his scoring efficiency, but he also developed in other aspects of his game. The 6-foot-7 wing has pulled down an average of 10.1 rebounds over the past three contests, pulling up his season average to 6.3 boards per game. Meanwhile, he has had 11 assists to just two turnovers during the past two games, showing NBA scouts that he can get his teammates involved and is not a me-first player.
“He has been all over the floor, especially rebounding a lot better. He has been getting in the right spots defensively, talking more and getting outside of himself,” White said. “It is really cool to see a guy that talented and young start maturing that way.”
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Improvement is the key to the Blue Devils success this year. As with most freshman-heavy teams, play in November and December is very different than March and April. If Barrett can show such progress after just nine games, his performance come tournament time may be even more lethal.
“I love to win. And it’s part of the reason why I came to Duke," Barrett said. "You can see everybody, no matter the ups-and-downs, we play to win.”