A couple hundred sets of eyes were on R.J. Barrett on Tuesday morning when the Duke rookie and Canadian basketball phenom started his run from the far end of the court.
The 18-year-old from Mississauga leapt from just inside the free-throw line to throw down a huge dunk, and the fans – most wearing Blue Devils paraphernalia – erupted in delighted roar.
But fellow rookie Zion Williamson then followed up Barrett’s effort with a jaw-dropping dunk from outside the free-throw line.
“He’s ridiculous, I don’t understand,” Barrett said of Williamson. “He’s my roommate, so we talk a lot, we’re together all the time, so it’s becoming less ... naw, I can’t say that, every time he steps on the court I’m like, ‘This guy is crazy.’ So I try to keep up with him.”
Duke’s faithful were treated to a showcase from two of basketball’s brightest young stars as the Blue Devils practised at Paramount Fine Foods Centre (formerly The Hershey Centre) on the eve of their sold-out preseason game against the Ryerson Rams.
Barrett is the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NBA draft next spring, and ESPN’s top-ranked player in this freshman class. His teammates Williamson and Cam Reddish are ranked Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, in what is considered one of the most talented collections of freshmen in recent history.
Williamson is intriguing because of an extraordinary athleticism that belies his size. He’s a monstrous 6 foot 6 and 280 pounds, and set the school record in the vertical jump at team testing, leaping 45 inches. Vince Carter’s best was 43. A photo of Canadian Andrew Wiggins ahead of the 2014 draft showed him hitting 44 inches.
The 6-foot-8 Barrett said sharing the spotlight with a couple of other superstars on the rise has helped him ease into his new high-profile role in one of the NCAA’s most storied programs.
“It’s great, I always played with high-level competition my whole life, but to be on a team with Zion, Cam, Tre [Jones], guys of that calibre, we all kind of get it, we’re all kind of going through the same thing so it’s great to have guys like that to help you out,” Barrett said. “We can all relate to each other, we all have a great time.”
The couple of hundred Duke alumni that took in Tuesday’s practice had a great time as well, treated to a two-hour practice. Barrett and Basketball Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski lingered after the showcase to sign autographs and pose for selfies.
The Blue Devils face a Ryerson team on Wednesday night that finished second in USports’ Final Eight last season, knocking off the perennial champion Carleton Ravens in the semi-finals.
“What an exciting opportunity and test for our guys to play an iconic program with a legendary coach which features one of the great Canadian youth players of all time,” Ryerson head coach Roy Rana said. “It will be a special moment in our program’s evolution.”
The game marks a rare time Barrett and Rana have been on opposite ends of the floor. The teenager led Canada’s U19 team, coached by Rana, to a historic gold medal at the 2017 world championships in Egypt.
“I know how [Rana] coaches, so I guess I have an advantage against him,” Barrett said with a laugh.
Duke is on its first international tour in more than a decade because of Krzyzewski’s commitments with the U.S. national team. He said the trip is as much about team-building as basketball plays. Duke took a boat cruise on Lake Ontario on Monday night.
He said his staff hadn’t reviewed tape of any of their Canadian opponents, but that “we respect everybody."
“We haven’t played, so our guys will be nervous and excited. We are going to try and play everybody, too. We are not in regular-season conditioning. We don’t have a whole system in. We are just going to see how hard we can play with the lights on and in front of a crowd,” Krzyzewski said.
“We are going to have a great crowd. They have done an unbelievable job of branding the events ... it will be a neat environment and maybe we will see something in our kids, or in an individual kid, that we wouldn’t have seen if he were just in summer school.”