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Basketball R.J. Barrett powers Canada to gold at under-19 basketball World Cup

R.J. Barrett, left, in action against Italy on Sunday during the FIBA under-19 Basketball World Cup final in Cairo.

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Led by phenom R.J. Barrett, Canada has won gold at the under-19 FIBA men's basketball World Cup, the country's first medal in the tournament.

It was a milestone win for Canada – but the victory was especially big for Barrett, who turned 17 in mid-June and is soaring toward the top of the NBA draft in 2019. Barrett was the tournament's most valuable player and is Canada's best prospect since Andrew Wiggins earlier this decade.

"For a 17-year-old to lead us to the first world championship in our history is something really unique and something unbelievable," coach Roy Rana said after the game. "He's a special, special young talent."

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Barrett, from Mississauga, led the tournament in scoring, with 22 points a game, battling players one and two years older. On Sunday, in the final in Cairo, Barrett led Canada with 18 points and 12 rebounds in a 79-60 gold-medal win over Italy. Canada dominated from the start.

"He is having his way," one announcer said of Barrett early in the game. Abu Kigab of St. Catharines, Ont., who will be a freshman at the University of Oregon in the fall, had 12 points and 10 rebounds.

The bigger and much more unlikely victory came Saturday against the United States in the semi-final. The United States hadn't lost an under-19 game in six years. Barrett poured in 38 points to upset the defending champions 99-87.

While the under-19 gold is significant, it does not necessarily herald an immediate boom for Canadian basketball on the international stage. The last country other than the United States to win under-19 FIBA gold was Lithuania in 2011, when it was led by Jonas Valanciunas. Five years later, at the 2016 Olympics, Lithuania was an also-ran, blown out in the quarter-final.

The under-19 gold ranks highly in the history of Canadian basketball because the country has few international achievements in the sport. Sunday was only the second time Canada played in a final at the FIBA or Olympic level. The last was at the 1936 Olympics, when Canada lost to the United States and James Naismith presented the medals.

Canada didn't qualify for the 2014 FIBA World Cup and fell short of the 2016 Summer Olympics. The next test is the 2019 FIBA World Cup, and qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. It will be up to Wiggins and Canada's other top NBA players, such as Cleveland's Tristan Thompson, to deliver. Barrett would be just 20 in 2020, finishing his rookie NBA season, if his rise continues unabated.

Barrett's showing in Cairo underscores the hype around him. The 6-foot-7 teenager, who is entering his junior year at Florida's powerful Montverde Academy, has long been considered the No. 1 high-school prospect in the 2019 class.

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But he has been so good, he is likely to "reclassify," and graduate early, next spring, as Wiggins did in high school. Barrett's Montverde coach, Kevin Boyle, has coached two of the past seven No. 1 NBA picks, 2011's Kyrie Irving, who now stars for Cleveland, and 2016's Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers prospect.

Boyle believes Barrett will go No. 1. Wiggins went No. 1 in 2014.

Barrett has been recruited by top U.S. colleges, including the University of Kentucky, whose coach John Calipari helmed the U.S. under-19 team. "R.J. had it going," said Calipari, after Canada upended the United States on Saturday.

Barrett has pedigree. His father Rowan Barrett, a Canada Basketball executive, had a long international hoops career and helped lead Canada to the 2000 Summer Olympics, alongside Steve Nash, the last time Canada's men were at the Olympics. Nash, another Canada Basketball executive, is R.J. Barrett's godfather. Barrett's mother and aunt were both elite sprinters.

As a freshman at Montverde in 2015-16, R.J. Barrett was an immediate star. He took on, and was often equal to, the best high school seniors he played against. That group included Lonzo Ball, who was the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft last month after a season of college ball at UCLA.

R.J. Barrett is a fierce competitor, Rowan Barrett said in an interview with The Globe and Mail last year. "Off the court, he loves to laugh," Rowan Barrett said of his son. "On the court, R.J. is a killer."

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