Once the adrenaline wore off and fans sat back and realized that it was indeed real, the Memphis Grizzlies had “won” the 2nd pick in the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery, the debate over who should be that selection for Memphis lasted all of one day.
Reports surfaced that the organization had “locked in” on Murray State’s Ja Morant, and any Twitter poll or search of the pulse of Grizzlies fans online could lead you to a similar conclusion - the heir apparent to Mike Conley, a mix of De’Aaron Fox, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, and Trae Young had fallen in to your lap.
Do not overthink it.
It’s very likely Morant is indeed the 2nd best prospect in this draft, and in a Zion-free world may be heading to New Orleans instead of Memphis on June 20th. But Morant’s game isn’t flawless, and questions about his ability to defend and compete at the NBA level are fair ones...while likely answerable with the impact he will make offensively.
Meanwhile, there’s a prospect that dominated rather consistently at a much higher level of competition in college that has been passed on by Grizzlies fans that is likely to make New York Knicks fans happy in their own right.
RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson’s teammate at Duke, is a scorer. Flat out. He can get buckets, in a variety of ways, and it was Barrett, not Williamson or Morant, who was seen as the presumptive #1 overall pick in this draft just eight months ago. Now of course Morant and Zion have earned through their play the right to be ahead of Barrett, but it isn’t as if Barrett was bad or inconsistent at Duke, like his teammate Cam Reddish was. He was exactly what folks thought he would be - a tremendous scoring wing who can also facilitate offense,
The Grizzlies have needed one of those for a very, very long time.
So while Morant makes sense, to dismiss Barrett completely would be an oversight.
Did I mention Barrett can get buckets?
His offensive game is about as refined as it can get for a player who will only be turning 19 on June 14th. Whether it is as a finisher, in dribble penetration, or as a spot up shooter, Barrett has shown the consistent capacity to fill up the basket and take over games on the offensive end. His general stats - 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game - show a player capable as a wing to not only score, but also help clean the glass and facilitate offense for his teammates. To label him as only a scorer is unfair - he has multiple layers to his game, and again, won’t turn 19 until June 14th.
He did all of this while competing on the national stage on a night in, night out basis, seeing the very best the world of College Basketball has to offer in the ACC. He played against the eventual national champion, Virginia, twice and averaged 28 points a game. He didn’t score in single digits once while at Duke.
He only played less than 25 minutes in a game once, against Stetson (an easy game for the Dukies) and played in 38 games for the Blue Devils, showing an impressive level of durability. He rarely shied away from the moment, and seemed to love being on the big stage. Those types of mentalities are usually reserved for the greats...
Especially offensively, Barrett has the ability to be one of the greats.
Areas of Improvement
Barrett is a bit of an old school scorer in that often times he did it in volume. He only attempted less than 14 shots once while at Duke, and while his shooting percentage (45.4%) is nowhere near awful, the fact is that RJ needed a pretty high usage rate (32.2%) to be as impactful as he was for the Blue Devils. A lot of the offense ran through him, which worked out on most nights, but when Barrett didn’t have it his team suffered tremendously.
Of course, you can say that about any great player, and there were times where Barrett shot well and Duke still lost. But he is dependent on having the ball in his hands more often than not, and while he can be a facilitator he is first and foremost a scorer. Integrating him in to an offense, as opposed to building one around him, could be a challenge early.
He also is a limited prospect defensively. While he should be versatile enough size and athleticism wise to defend multiple positions, his wing span (6’9”) and limited range in terms of playing passing lanes while at Duke are a bit concerning. That in particular, the timing and understanding of lanes and rotations, can be developed over time - remember, Barrett is as of this writing still 18. He probably will never be a two-way impact player, though...and of course, at #2 or #3 overall you’re hopeful to find one of those.
Barrett is worthy of his place in the “not Zion, but still pretty damn good” tier in this draft. While limited as a defensive prospect in some ways, the likelihood of him being a dominant NBA scoring wing in an era where those are a real priority cancels that out and then some. Ja Morant is more explosive, and flashy, and facilitates at a level much high than Barrett, so arguing for him at #2 instead of RJ makes total sense.
Saying it is a no brainer, however, discounts just how good RJ Barrett was at Duke. He was viewed as the best kid in this class a year ago, and has done nothing to take away from that. Zion - and to a lesser extent Ja - just took the spot through their exceptional play.
This draft is called top heavy for a reason. RJ Barrett can play...and should have a pretty productive NBA career.