How RJ Barrett ranks against former NBA Top 5 picks

Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Compared to other professional sports, the NBA Draft is as top-heavy as it gets. The second round hardly ever produces more than bench players. It can even be hard to find value with later first-round selections. As such, when teams manage to secure a top-5 pick, it’s crucial that they get them right. RJ Barrett may have played a key role in Duke’s success this season, but is he truly the franchise player teams are looking for?

Barrett in 2018

  • Barrett teamed up with fellow top-five recruits Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish on the Duke Blue Devils, collecting a No. 1 seed before falling to Michigan State in the Elite Eight — thanks in part to a big faux pas by Barrett.
  • While Duke struggled when Williamson went down with an injury, Barrett still played a big role on the team, scoring 22.6 points per game, good for 15th-best in the country.
  • Despite being overshadowed by Williamson for much of the season, Barrett won a number of awards for his performances, including USA Today’s Player of the Year and the Jerry West Award for the top shooting guard.

The criticisms: While Barrett may have had a stellar 2018 season, NBA scouts remain critical about select aspects of his game.

  • As is the territory that comes with being the best player in college basketball, Barrett gained a reputation as being selfish with the basketball by not passing to Williamson. He has a tendency to lock in on his defenders and will try to beat them individually, rather than passing the ball.
  • With a dominant left hand, Barrett’s ball-handling is fairly one-sided, and his right hand needs improvement to be successful at the next level. He also has a lack of passing vision, and can get sloppy trying to push the ball.
  • Shot selection is another area where Barrett can improve, including long jump shots. His ability to finish in the paint isn’t polished yet, and his free-throw percent was also poor in 2018.

The good news for NBA teams evaluating Barrett’s ability is that they have years of players and data to compare him to.

In the past five NBA drafts, 20 college basketball players have been selected in the top five, and comparing them to Barrett shows the true potential of the former Blue Devil.

The numbers don’t lie: Barrett put up better numbers than the average top-5 pick.

  • The past 20 top-5 picks combined to average 17.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.
  • In 2018, Barrett averaged 22.6 points per game, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. His college stats place him above the likes of Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown.
  • Even the most obvious knock on Barrett, his 66.5% free-throw shooting, isn’t far from the average of 69.5% among the top-five draftees.

The flip side: While Barrett’s totals may be impressive, efficiency statistics paint a different picture.

  • He may have averaged 22.6 points per game, but Barrett took 18.5 shots per game, a big jump from the average of 12. He converted those opportunities at a much lower rate than expected, shooting just 45.4% compared to the average of 51.2%.
  • The same story repeated itself from three-point range, with three more attempts than average, and a drop from the status quo of 34.8% to his 30.8% clip.
  • Additionally, Barrett was sloppy with the ball in college, turning it over 3.2 times per game, 0.6 greater than the baseline top pick.

A fair comparison: Barrett stacks up well against Jayson Tatum’s college days

  • Both Tatum and Barrett went one-and-done at Duke, and are similarly built. Barrett stands at 6-foot-7 and 202 pounds, and Tatum is 6-foot-8 and 208 pounds.
  • The two players both shot 45% from the floor, and while Tatum sunk his three-pointers and free throws at a better rate than Barrett, his assists and rebounds didn’t stack up to Barrett in college.
  • A consistent contributor for the Boston Celtics, Tatum has averaged 14.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. Teams drafting Barrett could expect similar numbers, if not better, depending on volume.

The verdict: While RJ Barrett is not without weaknesses, nothing about his year at Duke suggests he will be a bust. Placed against previous top-five picks, Barrett holds his own in many ways, and projects to be a great asset to whichever NBA team selects him.