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Are we ruling out R.J. Barrett too early in the draft process for the Suns?

Zion Williamson, Ja Morant or trade the pick. Wait, should Phoenix add another name to that list?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Michigan State vs Duke Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly two years ago, R.J. Barrett broke out onto the scene with a historic performance for Team Canada in the FIBA U19 Semifinal against Team USA. On his way to pouring in 38 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists on 12-of-24 shooting, Barrett established himself as the No. 1 prospect for the 2018 recruiting class ahead of even the enigma that is Zion Williamson.

Ironically enough, Barrett ended up forming his own superteam of sorts during his one year at Duke University when Williamson and Cam Reddish joined him as the top three recruits nationwide. The thing is, Barrett quickly fell off that pedestal of No. 1 prospect once Williamson had logged five or so minutes in Duke’s season opener and you realized how truly special he was.

Even though Barrett took a backseat to Williamson from a publicity standpoint, the Canadian wing still ended up averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.4/30.8/66.5 shooting splits this season. Those numbers weren’t produced without some trials and tribulations along the way, though.

Barrett was more of a high-usage ball-stopper than he was a smooth fit with his teammates, in my opinion. Attempting 18.5 shots per game, including 5.9 free throws, Barrett was shooting the ball usually over 20-plus times. 36.3 percent of the games he played for Duke, the 6’7” wing attempted at least 20 shots (4/12 were without Williamson on the floor). Not many players in the Sports-Reference database even come close to the offensive profile Barrett produced from a usage and efficiency point of view either.

Even though Barrett produced in the box score, his absurdly high 32.2 USG% doesn’t correlate with an average 53.2 TS%. Truly, he’s such an interesting case study not only from the Suns’ perspective but also from a pure scouting angle as well.

The comparisons for Barrett I’ve seen are all over the place. Some call him a lankier James Harden with his 6’10” wingspan. Others label him as the next Andrew Wiggins. Honestly, I have no idea where to place Barrett in that spectrum either after diving in on more film of him from Team Canada, Montrose Academy and Duke.

Below, I’m going to tackle Barrett’s fit in Phoenix from all angles. Why he would and wouldn’t fit, plus what would happen to the roster if Barrett ends up donning a Suns hat on draft night.

Why he doesn’t fit

If the Suns are in a position where Williamson and Ja Morant are off the board — and Barrett is the best player available — don’t be stunned if they select him. However, if we’re talking purely from the negative side for a moment, Barrett has shown he might not be comfortable taking a backseat as an alpha offensively. Barrett would take away countless touches from Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, and he could clash stylistically with the Suns’ 22-year-old star.

When Phoenix has the ball with less than five minutes to go on the clock, everyone knows that’s Booker time. However, on countless occasions, Barrett displayed low awareness on what the right decision to make was. Two glaring examples stand out to me from Gonzaga and Michigan State, and both relate to Barrett missing an easy read that would’ve won them the game.

On both of these occasions, Barrett inexplicably decides to try to finish through multiple bodies instead of making the easy dump-off pass to the cutters on the left side (Javin Delaurier - Gonzaga; Zion Williamson - Michigan State). When Barrett received the ball both times, I knew he wasn’t passing it and neither did opposing defenses. Both Gonzaga and Michigan State stonewalled Barrett at the rim leading to one of the rare losses for Duke.

What’s going to happen if Barrett gets the ball with 15 seconds left on the clock if he’s in Phoenix? Will he decide it’s “R.J. Barrett Time” or will he make the correct reads to an open Booker or Ayton? That’s one of the big concerns I have with Barrett.

This seems like a small thing to nitpick over but I’ve been burned with ignoring this trait in previous drafts. Speaking of Wiggins, I bought completely into the Maple Jordan hype five years ago. The thing is, he was just an athlete who lacked high BBIQ and didn’t have the requisite motor to take the leap to true stardom. Instead of progressing, Wiggins kind of stagnating once he reached the NBA level.

Don’t get me wrong, Barrett has the mentality that Wiggins didn’t. You see him wear his emotions on his sleeve during games, but you can tell he’s not used to having to sharing the floor with others who can actually get their own buckets.

Another area that brings me pause with saying Barrett will be a star is his inconsistency on defense. He was engaged during on-ball sequences, but off-ball he floated often which led to him being slightly out of position when shooters were running off screens.

We’ll get more into this later, but Phoenix would have to retool it’s roster to fit Barrett’s strengths with Booker and Ayton. There’s definitely some actual concerns that give me pause when considering Barrett’s fit with the Suns, but, with Igor Kokoskov’s player development background, I would be curious to see how it all unfolded long-term.

Why he does fit

Talking from a pure talent perspective, Barrett would immediately be an upgrade on Phoenix’s roster. From Day 1, Barrett steps into a significant role where he’s the second or third option offensively.

And from the wing position, pairing Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. with Barrett seems like a much more smoother fit than their current version featuring T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson. Barrett steps into the role Warren and Jackson leave, but the defense really remains the same if you believe Bridges and Oubre Jr. are your workhorses on that end.

Outside of the inconsistencies shown during his one college season, Barrett has more tricks up his sleeve from a scoring perspective than any other wing on the Suns. Especially in transition as the commander, that’s where Barrett shines brightest. Barrett’s aggressive, attacking scoring package might allow him to be one of the league leaders in free throw attempts per game with NBA spacing.

There is also still untapped perimeter shooting potential with Barrett than meets the eye. His mechanics are sound, but repetition has me of the belief he will be a +35% shooter from deep within 2-3 years. Compared to how Jackson’s looked coming out of Kansas, Barrett is way ahead already in that part of his growth process.

Barrett has many layers to his game already, but one that was hyped up we didn’t see much of was his playmaking ability. When I was pounding the table to select Luka Doncic last year to pair with Booker, one of my main reasons was the offensive creativity and the burden he would take off him. With Barrett, that can’t really be said on the same level but you could maybe talk yourself into it after watching a few of his more successful games.

During the NCAA Tournament, Duke finally utilized Barrett how he was with with Team Canada as a jumbo ball handler and it paid dividends. Not only did the Canadian shoot less often, but he seemed more in control of the game while helping get others involved. In Duke’s final three games of the season versus UCF, Virginia Tech and Michigan State, Barrett averaged 7 assists.

Suns GM James Jones might view Barrett in a similar cloth to Doncic as that jumbo playmaker, and, as mentioned, there’s definitely more than met the eye with his role doing this at Duke. The tunnel vision was maddening, but when Barrett locked in as a playmaker, he looked very much legit.

Standing at 6’7” with an aforementioned 6’10” wingspan, Barrett would also bring much-needed size to the floor for Phoenix. If he and Booker were to share playmaking duties in Kokoskov’s system — similar to when Doncic and Goran Dragic led Slovenia to a EuroBasket championship — that forms the league’s biggest backcourt.

Again, from the versatility angle the Suns love to hone in on, Barrett definitely checks that box with emphasis. At his peak, Barrett could be able to guard 1-3 weighing around 220-225 pounds. With his wide shoulders, there’s still plenty of room to put weight onto his frame unlike scrawnier ones such as Bridges and Jackson.

If all goes well, the Suns now have a Big 3 of Booker, Ayton and Barrett with high-end supplementary pieces surrounding them.

What happens if Barrett lands in Phoenix?

If Steve Nash’s godson completes the prophecy of landing back in Phoenix, it’s likely time to say goodbye to two of the Suns’ four wings all age 25 and under. The two most logical choices are Warren and Jackson, shipping both out for an immediate upgrade either at point guard or power forward.

For example, sending Warren, Jackson and the Bucks pick to Cleveland or Orlando for Kevin Love or Aaron Gordon. All of the sudden, Phoenix would now have two high-usage scorers in Booker and Barrett with Ayton as one of the more athletic roll men in the entire league. If Barrett were to master the pick-and-roll with Ayton, it could lead to some deadly possessions where it’s pick your poison between all three of them.

Realistically, here’s how I could see the rotation shaking out during Barrett’s rookie season in Phoenix: Johnson-Booker-Oubre-Gordon/Love-Ayton; Melton/Okobo-Bridges-Barrett-Holmes. That right there is a team that could easily eclipse 30-35 wins next season, if all went well.

Barrett is also a prospect I could see Jones become smitten by during the pre-draft process. Similarly to Bridges with his winning pedigree and desire to be great, Barrett carries those same valuable attributes. If Jones and the rest of the Suns’ restructured front office are about building a winning culture, Barrett would help push that notion forward while also helping the roster improve.

The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery is three weeks away, but how those lottery balls land will help decide the future of this organization during the Booker era. Even though it’s rightfully been a Williamson vs. Morant debate so far, if both are off the board it turns into another interesting decision: draft R.J. Barrett or trade the pick?

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