Knicks RJ Barrett eyes medal as Canada enters Olympic qualifying

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No rest for the weary.

In his second NBA season, RJ Barrett played in all 72 games for the Knicks, then all five games in their first-round playoff series vs. Atlanta that ended June 2.

Less than a month later, the Knicks’ No. 3 pick in 2019 will be back on the court Tuesday as the starting shooting guard for Team Canada as it faces Greece (minus Giannis Antetokounmpo) in Victoria, British Columbia.

Canada is hosting a six-team Olympic qualifying tournament for the rights to enter the Tokyo Olympics in late July, with all the games airing on ESPN+. Only one country will advance.

Barrett’s Canadian squad will also face China Wednesday before the next round against either Turkey, Czech Republic or Uruguay.

Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse, who coaches the Raptors, was impressed by Barrett’s growth in his second season.

“He’s playing in a major market at a very young age and he just kept plugging away at it,” Nurse said on Zoom last week. “I just keep saying, ‘He’s 21.’ Anything’s possible for this guy where he’s at right now. He made a huge leap this year. There’s some pretty good grown men playing in the league that he’s playing in. So to make a leap like that says a lot about him.”

Training camp began in Tampa last week. Barrett was holed up in his hotel on his 21st birthday on June 14 awaiting camp.

“That was annoying,” Barrett told Canadian reporters on a Zoom call last week with a laugh. “No, it was cool. I was just on the phone with everybody, family and stuff. Everybody made me feel special so it wasn’t too bad.”

Barrett grew up on the outskirts of Toronto – in Mississauga. His father Rowan, the former St. John’s standout, is Team Canada’s GM.

Yes, this means plenty to Barrett. Team Canada hasn’t made the Olympics since the Sydney, Australia Games in 2000 – but has eight NBA players on the squad, including Andrew Wiggins, Dwight Powell, Trey Lyles and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Barrett has played for two flagship basketball entities in Duke and the Knicks. But he admitted this was “the most special” event in his career.

“I always cherish that,” Barrett said. “No one can ever take that away from me and no one can ever take that away from my country. I say that with great pride. It’s also why I’m here right now. I’m trying to bring that feeling back to Canada, bring a medal back home. I think this is perfect timing, I think we’ll be good.”

Improving his 3-point shooting from 32 percent to 40.1 percent, Barrett averaged 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and three assists in his second season, but had a disappointing playoffs. Despite averaging 14.4 points vs. Atlanta, he shot just 38.8 percent overall – 28 percent from 3.

The Knicks are excited about this experience for Barrett on another big-time stage – no matter how long it lasts.

“He’s picking up everything just like that,” Nurse said. “He’s got kind of an infectious energy that he practices with. He’s been really active and energetic and focused, concentrated, and smart.”

FIBA rules allow for more physical contact than the NBA, but Barrett isn’t worried.

“Playing in the NBA, I feel like I understand just a little bit more about the game of basketball,” Barrett said. “Even concepts, I’m able to pick up on things faster, I’m able to see a little bit more.”

Barrett isn’t the Knicks’ only Olympian. While Julius Randle wasn’t chosen for Team USA’s roster, Frank Ntilikina is back on Team France, which has already qualified and begun training camp.

In addition, new Knicks point guard signee Luca Vildoza is in Las Vegas with the Argentinean Olympic team. Argentina is holding its training camp in Vegas because COVID-19 rates are higher in that country.

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