The FIBA U19 World Cup this month was widely expected to be a showcase of American talent, a coronation of John Calipari’s squad that featured two Kentucky Wildcats and several other players on UK’s recruiting radar.
Instead, a kid from Canada — one who had just turned 17 years old a couple of weeks earlier — stole the show.
R.J. Barrett — the No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2019 — was already well known in recruiting circles, but his performances at the World Cup in Egypt, specifically his showing against Calipari’s Team USA squad, catapulted him into the consciousness of a wider group of fans.
The UK faithful who watched Barrett decimate the Americans — going for 38 points and 13 rebounds in a shocking 99-87 victory for Canada — surely hope he eventually ends up with the Wildcats.
Calipari surely hopes he never has to coach against him again.
“R.J. had it going,” he said after the U.S. loss Saturday. “I told the team after the game, I needed to try some different things — go zone, trap pick and roll, trap him. I kind of rode it because I thought we would figure out something, and that is my mistake.”
Barrett — a 6-foot-7 shooting guard from Ontario — makes it easy for opponents to make mistakes. He averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists during the U19 World Cup, earning MVP honors for the event and leading Canada to its first national team basketball gold medal at any level.
“R.J. Barrett is an explosive scorer,” Scout.com’s Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader this week. “Anybody that watched his performance in the under-19s knows that. He led them to a gold medal, and that’s impressive for a kid that’s 17 years old.
“He’s got good size, length, athletic ability. And he’s equipped to score the ball in a variety of ways.
“The scary thing with him is that he’s not a great shooter yet. So there are still areas for improvement. And he’s a kid with a strong work ethic and a lot of upside. He’s the clear No. 1 in the 2019 class right now.”
Barrett is not expected to hold that ranking for much longer.
Daniels said he expects the rising star to reclassify to the 2018 class, a move that would make Barrett a senior in high school this coming season — he attends Montverde Academy in Florida — and put him one step closer to his college career.
Barrett and his father have both spoken to the Herald-Leader recently and acknowledged that reclassification is very much a possibility. That decision is expected to come next month, and Daniels said a move to 2018 could put Barrett in the No. 2 spot in the rankings behind only Marvin Bagley, a UK target who Daniels described as the clear No. 1 prospect in the class.
In recent interviews, Barrett and his father — former St. John’s standout Rowan Barrett — have praised Calipari and the Kentucky program. R.J. is also friends with fellow Canadian players Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who will be a freshman at UK this season, and Jamal Murray, who starred for the Wildcats a couple of seasons ago.
Those relationships can’t hurt Kentucky’s chances in Barrett’s recruitment, but it’s too early to say where exactly the Cats stand.
Daniels mentioned UK, Duke, Kansas and Arizona as a few teams to watch, though any talk of a favorite at this point would be guesswork.
“They keep their cards pretty close to the vest,” Daniels said. “Those are the heavy hitters — they’re all in the mix — but he’s not talking.”