SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — At first look, the nation’s top prospect RJ Barrett didn’t appear spectacular for No. 1 Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.) in its narrow win over No. 11 Simeon (Chicago) Saturday at the Spalding HoopHall Classic.
SCHEDULE: 2018 Spalding Hoophall Classic
There were few moments where Barrett looked remarkable, but by the time the final horn went off, he had put together a complete body of work at both ends of the court that pushed his team ahead of tenacious Simeon for a 62-60 win.
Barrett was a silent killer throughout the game, but brought out a level of tenacity and persistence in crunch time that was the difference maker.
“It’s my third time at HoopHall,” Barrett told USA Today. “So I love big games.”
Barrett finished with 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting and a huge steal in crunch time to help secure the game. Barrett ran the offense consistently, balancing when to attack the rim and when to kick out to an open shooter. But for the Duke commit, it was all about finally getting a stop on Simeon’s scoring dynamo Talen Horton-Tucker.
“They’re a scrappy Chicago team and they play really well defensively, but we were able to pull it out,” Barrett said. “Just really get a stop. We knew we were going to score, so just get a stop.”
Simeon closed the gap when Horton-Tucker buried a difficult step-back three with 37 seconds left. Barrett came back by drawing a foul at the rim after a controversial no-call when he pushed over a defender on the perimeter. Barrett would go 1-for-2 from the line to set up one final play for Simeon, down one.
Horton-Tucker tried to pull off the same move on Barrett. RJ kept him smothered, poking for a steal while maintaining his balance to stay in front of him. Eventually, he wore the Simeon star down and snatched the ball away.
“He definitely made some tough shots,” said Barrett. “We just tried to keep him from getting to the basket. But there’s nothing you can do when he’s shooting the ball like that.”
Barrett again missed a free throw, but Simeon couldn’t score and Montverde escaped with a win. The top prospect may have blown a few free throws, but he did just about everything imaginable to see this one through.
“That’s my favorite moment of the game, the end,” he said. “You have to win the game for the team. I made two free throws (out of four). I should’ve made more, but we won.”
In a game in which he had six turnovers, Barrett was able to keep the offense afloat by scoring on each possession in the final five minutes. He needed it to keep up with Horton-Tucker, who scored 15 points in the second half after spending the first two quarters throwing up airballs.
It’s the kind of leadership Barrett is looking to bring to Duke next season.
“I mean, just go in and do most of the same things I’m doing here. Be a leader, just play my game really. That’s something they really want me to do.”
Barrett credits the Montverde program and his teammates for preparing him well for Duke and eventually, the NBA.
“Definitely right now, like I said, we’re 22-0. So those practices are like a game every day. We’re calm, we’re used to it. Fil (Petrusev) hit a big three. It’s just what we do and definitely prepares you for the next level. That’s what it’s going to be going up against Cam Reddish every day at practices, so that’s what it’s going to be from here on out.”
Barrett’s decision to go to Duke wasn’t easy, as he’s said. He deliberated heavily up until the day before he announced his decision. But the preparation he has received at Montverde is preparing him for the bigger stage, where his composure and steady hand will be more important to his success than ever. He wanted to go to Duke because it would give him the continuity he needs to thrive.
“Mostly, it’s like Montverde Academy. It allows me more stuff off the court with the school and the students. On the court, a great coach like we’ve got here. It’s just similar in a lot of ways.
He’s starting to get used to the idea that he is a star, but his teammates help keep him grounded.
“Going to Montverde helps, because we have everybody in our starting lineup is committed to Division 1,” Barrett said. “So it helps me when we go out and I get attention from everybody, my teammates remind me I’m number one in the country.”
He reminded everyone why he is No. 1 in the country Saturday. He’ll get a chance to do it all over again Monday at 1 p.m. ET when Montverde takes on Bol Bol’s Mater Dei.