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NBA scouts all seem to have the same prospect atop their board in October.
Bleacher Report polled evaluators across the league for predictions of who’ll go first in the 2019 NBA draft. The results were nearly unanimous. Duke freshman RJ Barrett is the consensus early favorite ahead of teammate Zion Williamson, while others like North Carolina’s Nassir Little and France’s Sekou Doumbouya were merely mentioned in passing.
While Barrett has yet to play a college game, scouts have seen plenty dating back to 2015 at the U16 Americas Championship. Since then, his resume of accomplishments during scout-credentialed events includes:
- 18.4 points per game at 2016 U17 World Cup
- MVP of 2016 Jordan Classic International Game
- MVP and gold medalist at 2017 U19 World Cup (38 points against USA)
- 26 points at 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game
- 20 points, nine rebounds and six assists at 2018 Nike Hoop Summit
Barrett recently did what he was supposed to this summer during Duke’s preseason tour in Canada by averaging 31.0 points through three games against inferior opponents.
A smooth athlete, instinctual scorer and consistently the best player on the floor, Barrett comes off as the safe, easy answer when projecting No. 1.
But it’s also worth noting that scouts aren’t thrilled with the field of names they’re looking at for 2019. “This draft is really weak,” one executive told Bleacher Report. “McDonald’s Game and practices were the worst I’ve seen in 10 years or more.”
Still, there will always be high demand for a two-way scoring wing like Barrett. Based on his history and role with Duke in Canada, he’ll inevitably have the production to back up the potential NBA franchises will assess and covet.
It’s also tough to imagine any red flags will pop up as they did for previous No. 1 picks.
There won’t be questions about his alpha-dog mentality like there were with Andrew Wiggins, who appeared passive at times in college. Barrett isn’t shy. He won’t stop shooting after consecutive misses or hesitate to take the game into his hands.
Duke could be a Final Four contender, meaning in all likelihood he’ll also avoid the criticism that Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz had to face for not leading their teams to impressive wins and records.
Unlike Deandre Ayton, Barrett also won’t have the pressure to block shots or anchor a defense—areas where Ayton wasn’t convincing at Arizona. Quick and long at 6’7″, Barrett figures to fare fine defensively and even earn praise for his knack to compete and ability to guard positions 2 through 4.
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His jumper will likely take the most heat under the NBA’s scouting lens. The team that wins the lottery will want Barrett to become an elite scoring weapon, further emphasizing the importance of outside shooting for a wing.
In 24 games documented by RealGM.com dating back to 2015, he’s shot 33.3 percent on 66 three-point attempts and 65.5 percent on 168 free throws. Barrett shot 31.2 percent from three and 58.2 percent at the line during 2017 EYBL action, and he finished up Duke’s Canada tour a combined 6-of-21 from behind the arc.
At this stage, Barrett still demonstrates too much shot-making skill from each level for scouts to express concern that would jeopardize his standing as the nation’s top prospect. He’s going to knock down enough jumpers—off the catch, the dribble and screens—that evaluators can overlook so-so shooting percentages.
He’ll be a constant in the scoring column, mostly with his automatic transition game, slashing and unteachable improvisation in the lane with various runners, floaters and adaptable finishing ability.
He remains the safe, early prediction to go first. The question is whether he’ll generate enough excitement to hold off challengers and finish as a strong No. 1 overall option since there are other prospects with superior size, bounce and versatility.
Specifically, his teammate Williamson possesses an unheard-of mix of power and explosiveness. If it’s effective in college and paired with developing skills that appear translatable, it’s easy to see why a team could view Williamson as the more enticing, higher-upside prospect. He averaged 30.0 points of his own during Duke’s three exhibition games, proving to be more than a leaper by demonstrating off-the-dribble maneuvering and outside touch that some may not have anticipated.
As of now, it’s not clear what position Williamson is or how he fits on an NBA floor as a 6’7″, 285-pound forward. Barrett’s fit is clear, and the potential for his game and success to translate is more believable.
With so many opportunities to scout him throughout high school, it’s reasonable to assume we know what we’re about to get and see. He isn’t a sure thing to go No. 1, but it’s going to take a surprising, persuasive year from someone else to change minds and the top of draft boards. To start the season, scouts view Barrett as 2019’s prize.