By: Holly MacKenzie, Photo: Alex D'Addese
TORONTO, Ont. (November 28, 2019) - New York Knicks rookie RJ Barrett has had the team’s first road trip to Toronto circled on his calendar since the season began.
While the final score in a lopsided 126-98 Toronto Raptors victory isn’t likely to be remembered, Barrett’s homecoming — the 16-point, five-rebound, four-assist performance while wearing red and white sneakers emblazoned with the Canadian flag and Toronto skyline, “Made in Canada” written on the side — is a moment he won’t soon forget.
The shoes were an appropriate touch for a day that began with Barrett holding court following Knicks morning shootaround to speak with local and visiting reporters. In addition to discussing his return to his hometown, Barrett also joined fellow Canadians Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker who recently committed to playing for Team Canada next summer in a FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C. for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“100 percent,” Barrett said of his commitment. “Definitely plan on playing for my country this summer and I’m very proud to say that. I try to play every summer, as much as I can, so I’m 100 percent planning on playing.”
Though the 19-year-old was expected to suit up for Canada in this past summer’s FIBA Basketball World Cup, he was sidelined due to injury. With Wednesday marking his first trip to Toronto to play in front of family and friends in an NBA uniform, he said ticket requests had been rolling in and he estimated that there were around 300 members of friends and family in the stands on hand to watch his homecoming. A loud ovation from the crowd when he was announced during the Knicks starting lineup intros made it clear that the entire Scotiabank Arena crowd was welcoming him home.
Barrett has grown up around the venue. He smiled fondly when asked of his earliest memories visiting the arena with his father, Rowan. “When I think about coming back here and playing my first game, coming to the arena just now for shootaround, I think about all of the times my dad took me to a playoff game or that I was able to come watch LeBron play, or I was able to sit courtside and watch the Hawks play one time,” he said. “Just to see all that and now be to playing this game well, it means a lot to me.”
Though he’s a member of the New York Knicks now, Barrett was right there with the rest of Canada last spring, watching as the Raptors went on their run to become NBA Champions. “It was great,” he said. “I was watching them win a championship. Just to see how Canada has been on the rise, especially since I’ve been growing up, I’ve really watched it and seen, it’s really my friends that are growing the game in this country and now to see the Raptors be as good as they are, it’s just been amazing to grow up in.
“Sometimes when I’m on the court I literally just stop and say, ‘Wow, you’re here.’ For me it’s been everything to me. It’s been the world to me.”
Since being selected third overall by the Knicks in the 2019 NBA Draft, things have been a basketball whirlwind for Barrett. After achieving on-court success in high school and in his freshman season at Duke University, Barrett now finds himself on a team that is rebuilding and looking up at the standings. He understands that entering the NBA is just the first part of the dream. “When you get drafted, you have a great night, you think about everything that happened, but now I’m starting from the bottom all over again,” he said. “The work has just got 100 percent more, 100 percent harder. You’ve got to keep going. Every day.”
Barrett has impressed coaches and teammates with his ability to handle new challenges as they come. He is averaging 15.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game for the Knicks. Head coach David Fizdale calls it refreshing to see a young player who is so open to getting better and learning each day.
“His maturity [is impressive],” Fizdale said. “He’s a very steady kid. One thing I take from guys is when you tell them something and they apply it right away, that’s usually a guy that’s pretty special. He’s one of those guys. If you show him something, he’s got it. You’ve got to have a certain kind of focus and maturity to do that and he’s got that.”
Near the end of the first quarter, the Raptors aired a presentation on the jumbotron welcoming Barrett and fellow Canadian teammate Ignas Brazdeikis home. Barrett, locked in on Fizdale’s message during the timeout, didn’t get to see the video, but said he heard their names being addressed. Though he didn’t leave with a win in his first game against the hometown team, Barrett felt the love.
“It was great to be back in Toronto,” he said.