Duke Basketball: How R.J. Barrett handles criticism vital to team success

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

It speaks to Duke basketball freshman R.J. Barrett’s fearlessness that he wanted the ball in his hands at the end of a close game, but it will speak to his character and care for the team’s success if he responds to critics of his shortcomings with maturity.

R.J. Barrett’s five missed shots — without even once looking to pass — during the final minute of the No. 1 Duke basketball team’s 89-87 loss to No. 3 Gonzaga on Wednesday won’t define his season.

What could define the season for the Blue Devils, though, is the alpha-male freshman’s reaction to criticism this week from fans, pundits, and, most importantly, his coaches and teammates.

Selfish. Hero ball. Predictable. Concerning.

More from Ball Durham

Those are the most common words — in addition to a few profane ones — that fans on Twitter and in forums used to describe Barrett’s last-minute plays from the championship game in Maui.

But the criticism isn’t limited to that single minute. Similar harsh words accompany summaries of his stats from the six games the 5-1 Blue Devils have played.

Of Duke’s four freshmen starters, Barrett — the consensus No. 1 recruit in the 2019 class — has played the most minutes (194) yet has the least number of steals (four). He has the most turnovers (15). He has the worst field goal percentage (.408) yet has by far the most attempts (125 compared to Zion Williamson’s second-most 75).

His accuracy from beyond the arc (.316) is the worst on the team among players who have more than 10 attempts. His free throw percentage (.622) is far less than desirable.

But that’s OK. It’s only November. There are still months to improve until the games that matter most.

That being said, the issue with guys who seem to seek the role of top dog on any team is that they often become cancers in the locker room when they fall short of achieving that status while others start calling them out for their seemingly selfish play. They often respond to criticism in ways that prove detrimental to the team.

For instance, if Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski tells Barrett not to shoot as much, Barrett could shut down and not shoot at all. Or he could start lashing out at his teammates when he sees them take ill-advised shots. Or he could start shooting literally every time he touches the ball, leaving Coach K no choice but to eventually bench him.

On the other hand, Barrett could show his maturity by acknowledging with his mouth and his play that he is not the only talented scorer on the squad. He could revert to displaying the same humility that was evident in episodes of Duke Blue Planet prior to the start of the season as he repeatedly pounded the chest of Williamson while expressing his awe for his athleticism and overall game.

In other words, Barrett could ultimately be the hero of this team just from the way he acts. And that could possibly include his realization and acknowledgment that he is not the best option to single-handedly take over at the end of Duke’s future close games.

In my opinion, the best option is Williamson. I think the freakishly gifted freshman should actually be taking more shots per game than Barrett. I think he has more court awareness than Barrett, a greater chance at drawing a foul due to his physique, and a harder-to-stop array of shots inside the paint — whether it be his emphatic dunks, sweet scoop shots, or turnaround bank shots.

Others think that fellow freshman Tre Jones, as the point guard, should naturally be in charge of directing the offense at the end of close games. Some wish the other freshman starter, Cam Reddish — the most accurate outside shooter for the team thus far — would have had the chance to take a three-pointer to possibly beat Gonzaga on the final play.

Whoever the right guy for the job is, there’s little doubt Coach K will ultimately be able to accurately identify him. What’s likely the right answer, though, is that all four are equally worthy to take the shots in the final minutes of close games and that the ball should go to whoever is most open or most in the zone at the moment.

But it appeared as if the 39th-year coach for the Blue Devils thought Barrett was the lone right guy for the job against Gonzaga.

As a Duke fan, though, I worry what will happen to the team chemistry that has seemed so perfect thus far if Krzyzewski doesn’t put the same confidence in Barrett in the future. And I also worry what will happen if he does keep calling plays for Barrett in favor of Williamson, Jones, and Reddish, but Barrett continues missing as losses continue mounting.

I worry that tension between the players will arise, leading to this becoming the fourth freshmen-laden squad in a row to come up short of lofty expectations (the 28 combined losses between the past three teams is the most in a three-year span for the program in more than two decades).

But I’m a worrywart who has a tough time coming to terms with any losses from any Duke teams. So, I’ll save you from having to read any more of my worries — at least for now — by ending this article with a hopeful prediction:

When the Duke basketball team takes the court in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Tuesday night at 9:30 p.m. against Indiana in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Barrett will be anything but selfish. At the same time, though, he still won’t be shy about taking shots. He’ll simply be a better version of himself. And his teammates will feed off his positive vibes and put on a show against the Hoosiers that will prove that they used the loss to Gonzaga as nothing but a positive learning experience.

Next. Top five shooting guards of the Coach K era. dark

Expect the start of a dominant, smile-filled winning streak that will prove worries were unnecessary.