Can RJ Barrett be better than his NBA godfather?
While growing up in Canada, the projected top-five pick was inspired by Steve Nash
Steve Nash is a two-time MVP and eight-time All-Star. He is a Basketball Hall of Famer and one of the greatest point guards of all time. He is also the godfather of a player he believes can be as good as if not better than him in the NBA.
Nash’s godson is former Duke star and fellow Canadian RJ Barrett, who is projected to be a top-five pick in Thursday’s NBA draft.
“You realize that where I got is hard to project on anyone,” Nash told The Undefeated. “But he has every chance to be as good as a player or better. Will he win two MVPs? That is not a fair thing to say, because so much of that is on circumstance and situation. You never know. But can he be a guy that plays in eight All-Star Games?
Barrett, who just celebrated his 19th birthday, was born in Toronto. Nicknamed “Maple Mamba,” he is a member of Canada’s national basketball team and rooted hard for his Toronto Raptors as they became 2019 NBA champs.
He comes from an athletic family. His father, Rowan Barrett Sr., played for St. John’s in college and professionally in Spain, Argentina, Venezuela, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, France and Italy. His mother, Kesha, was a star sprinter and long jumper at St. John’s.
Barrett credits his father, who is currently executive vice president and assistant general manager of Canada Basketball, for teaching him how to shoot, dribble and pass at a very young age. He also said his Canadian roots from his father and Jamaican roots from his mother helped shape him.
“My grandparents were born and raised in Jamaica. Mom was born in Jamaica,” said Barrett, who hopes to visit Jamaica one day to learn more about his mother’s roots. “It’s really been instilled in me at a young age, that kind of culture, that kind of hard work, and really what Jamaica is all about. I am very proud to say I am Jamaican and a Canadian.”
Barrett’s father and Nash were teammates and close friends while playing for Canada’s national team. After RJ was born, Nash gave the family a crib for the baby. The Barretts, meanwhile, asked the then-26-year-old Nash to be their son’s godfather. The budding NBA star gladly said yes and recalls getting to know a young RJ primarily while he attended Canada’s national team camps with his father.
“I do remember being asked to be [his] godfather, but the memory is kind of vague now. But obviously, I was thrilled,” Nash said. “At the time, we were still relatively young. So to be asked that at that age was like, ‘Holy s—! It is getting real out here.’ Obviously, you’re thrilled. I love kids.
“I didn’t get to spend as much time with him as I wanted because I was busy and he was busy. They were in Europe. And when they were back from Europe, [RJ] was getting into this crazy high school AAU circuit. But it has been a thrill and a pleasure to watch him emerge and continue to grow and grow and grow.”
In 2010, RJ Barrett and his father attended the Western Conference finals as Nash and the Phoenix Suns lost to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. It was while watching that up-tempo playoff series that Barrett said he was motivated to become a basketball star. He was also inspired by Nash’s work ethic.
“I remember watching him play in the playoffs, they were playing against the Lakers,” Barrett said. “And, man, from that day forward definitely I was like, ‘I really want to be here. This is how I want to play.’ And just [Nash] encouraging me growing up was great.”
Nash, unquestionably the greatest Canadian basketball player of all time, said he realized that Barrett had a chance to be a special basketball player while watching him in his early teens.
“You can start thinking about at 14 years old the things he did naturally on the basketball court,” Nash said. “He could already at 14, being a tall, long kid, pass the ball, dribble the ball, penetrate and finish. You think, ‘If he can project out? Wow.’ ”
Canada currently has several players in the NBA, including Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Kelly Olynyk, Cory Joseph and Shai-Gilgeous Alexander. But Nash and former NBA center Jamaal Magloire are the only Canadians to make an NBA All-Star Game.
Murray, who flashed All-Star potential this past season for the Denver Nuggets, believes that Barrett will not only become an NBA star but also surpass Zion Williamson to eventually become the best player in the Class of 2019.
“Zion has definitely overshadowed RJ because of the hype,” Murray told The Undefeated. “But I think RJ is more of a complete player in terms of what you are looking for. Zion is going to sell tickets. But if it was up to me, I would still take RJ.”
When Barrett was asked if he agreed with his fellow Canadian’s take, he told The Undefeated: “For sure. I worked my butt off, so definitely.”
Barrett actually entered the 2018-19 season projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft before Williamson wowed college basketball and became the consensus top prospect. The 2018 Morgan Wootten National Player of the Year as a high schooler, Barrett had his own notable success with the Blue Devils, averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4 assists per game as a freshman.
Despite Williamson taking much of the spotlight, Barrett doesn’t regret his college experience. He said he loved playing for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski because he treated him like a man and pushed him to become better daily. He also said playing alongside Williamson helped him prepare for the NBA and adapt to playing with other stars.
“Once you get to the NBA, everybody’s good, so you’re going to have to learn how to play with people like that. You really [learn] the media stuff,” Barrett said. “Duke, we got attention this year. So being able to translate that into the pro level, I hope it will be easier.”
Williamson is expected to be drafted No. 1 overall by the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday, followed by Murray State guard Ja Morant to the Memphis Grizzlies at No. 2. Much to Barrett’s delight, he will likely be selected third overall by the New York Knicks, barring a trade. (Keep in mind, however, that Memphis hasn’t completely committed to drafting Morant and is still considering Barrett. Barrett, however, has declined to visit the Grizzlies.)
Barrett has actually played in the Knicks’ historic home of Madison Square Garden before, scoring 16 points to lead Duke to a 69-58 victory over Texas Tech on Dec. 20. Knicks president Steve Mills, assistant general manager Allan Houston and players Kevin Knox and Emmanuel Mudiay attended that game.
Knicks general manager Scott Perry also saw Barrett play in person four times at Duke, a source said.
The 6-foot-7 guard also recently visited the Knicks and told the local media at their practice facility that “this is the place I want to be.”
It has been said that if you can make it New York, you can make it anywhere. Barrett would love to have the challenge, on and off the court, of playing for a franchise that hasn’t won a title since 1973, and he could be a major player in the upcoming free-agent market.
“That would be great playing in the Garden every night. I’ve lots of family in New York, so you know it would be lots of fun,” Barrett said. “Definitely, the Knicks have a lot of history. Playing in the bright lights of New York City, that would be amazing.”
Nash will be in New York City on Wednesday to take part in his annual Steve Nash Foundation soccer game at Sara D. Roosevelt Park. But he won’t be able to stay in the area to see his godson get drafted in Brooklyn the next day since he needs to return to Los Angeles for the pending birth of his second child with his wife, Lilla Frederick. (Nash also has three children from his first marriage.)
Nash, however, will still be a proud godfather when he watches RJ Barrett get drafted from afar.
“It’s amazing now to look back on it,” Nash said. “It’s like news. You can never predict anyone would have the trajectory he has had. It is kind of bizarre.”