After earning Bronze at the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Canada has put the basketball world on notice. But it’s only the beginning for a country that has aspirations of becoming a global powerhouse in the sport. In preparation for the 2024 Olympics in France, I take a look at some of the individual journeys of the eccentric personalities that comprise Canada’s Men’s Basketball team. You can find the rest of the series here.
Destiny can be a terrifying thought. The idea that despite our best efforts, despite our actions or reactions, we are bound to a preordained path, unable to escape what lies ahead for us in life. But to a certain extent, destiny exists. In the end, we all have our predispositions. We’re born in a specific country, raised by a certain family, bestowed certain values, and for the most part, are forced to work with the deck of cards we have. Swim in the lane that’s been provided for us.
In that sense, RJ Barrett, or Rowan Barrett Junior’s path was set out for him before he even knew what basketball was. Son to a track-and-field athlete mother and an Olympic basketball player father, it was almost a certainty that RJ would grow up with the pressure to, one day, follow in their footsteps.
“When you’re young images are everything, right?” said the now-senior Rowan Barrett as I talked to the GM of Canada’s Men’s Basketball team about his son on Zoom. “You have your images of your favorite players, maybe your favorite singer, and he (RJ) grew up with a jersey of his dad on the wall and the magazines with me on the cover of them. So I think he always was thinking, ‘When my time comes, when it’s my chance – I want to do that, too.’”
Those were lofty aspirations to have and big shoes to fill. In the end, his father was a pioneer of sorts in Canadian Basketball. Before RJ and Canada’s Men’s Basketball team qualified for the Olympics just this summer, it was Rowan who was the do-it-all forward for Canada in their last Olympic berth in 2000 – a tournament where they just narrowly missed out on a medal, losing to France, and where world was introduced to the exploits of a young Canadian guard by the name of Steve Nash. Rowan went on to have a long professional playing career well after that and inevitably has become a massive part of building out the men’s side of the Canadian program since he joined management in 2012.
For RJ, a young kid growing up in Mississauga, idolizing his athletic parents – it’s only natural that he too would develop an intense love and passion for hoops, especially on an international stage.
“I think he’s always had that kind of kin, you know, that Canadian blood flowing through his veins. And I think he also has within him, a desire to be better than his father, which I support,” Rowan told me with admiration in his voice.
After all, Barrett’s son has been a foundational piece of Canada’s program for quite some time. He led Canada to Silver at the FIBA America’s U-16 Championship in Argentina before winning Gold in the 2017 U-19 FIBA World Cup. And while the journey to a medal as a senior had been more difficult, until recently, RJ played a massive part in the 2023 FIBA World Cup alongside other Canadian stars like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dillon Brooks – including 23 points and 7 rebounds against Team USA in the game that clinched Canada a Bronze medal.
“The number of my teammates that called me when we won crying – we had grown men out there crying… to see my son be a part of that is a very prideful moment,” Rowan said. And he’s been lucky enough to have many chances to be proud of what his son has done with his career outside of Canadian hoops thus far.
RJ’s story is well-documented. A young, high-school phenom destined to be the next Canadian great because of his upbringing. He was highly recruited, playing for the legendary Montverde Academy before becoming a blue blood in college, playing alongside Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish with the Duke Blue Devils. There’s no higher-esteem path than that.
‘StaRJ’ or ‘Maple Mamba’ was the third-overall pick in the 2019 draft to the New York Knicks, and for the last four seasons and counting has gradually but continually developed into a very important starter for a formidable playoff team.
“It’s hard for me ever to see him as anything other than my son, you know?” Rowan said. “But there are moments when you’re sitting in the stadium, and they’re chanting R-J BARE-ET and there’s like, 18,000 people screaming – you get weird feelings.” Pride is that feeling, I imagine – the kind that almost bursts your chest.
When I spoke with Rowan about RJ’s time in New York, he commended his son for his ability to adapt to his role and for playing under the intense pressure that comes with balling in The Mecca. But he also was quick to tell me that development isn’t linear and that everyone has their path, their own route to their own destiny.
While RJ hasn’t yet developed into the superstar many expected him to be, he’s still only 23 years old – which made both me and Rowan laugh when we realized how young he still is.
“He’s been pretty unflappable for his age,” said Rowan. “He just keeps going and you can see pretty much each year he’s been able to get better and better. Right?”
RJ is playing the best basketball of his career this season with the Knicks – averaging a career-high in usage rate, true shooting percentage, and 3-point percentage – all while showing tangible growth as a decision-maker on both ends of the floor. It’s cliche, but the game has markedly slowed down for Barrett in his fifth season with the Knicks.
There’s a common theme in international basketball, especially among Americans who play with Team USA for one summer and then come back to the NBA with a refined game. You can’t help but think that the success Barrett found this summer has helped translate to a much more well-rounded game with the Knicks.
“The dimensions of the sport are different. With the 3-point line being closer, these long athletes have less space to move around. And so your decisions have to be quicker, the holes that you’re trying to go through, they’re smaller,” said Rowan when I asked him about his own experience playing FIBA basketball. “All of these things increase your decision-making – they make you a better player.”
When the Knicks came to Toronto, I asked Head Coach Tom Thibodeau, who himself has had his fair share of experience coaching internationally, if he had noticed any growth from RJ this season:
“I think the mental part. The confidence that he gained. I thought he played well for Canada, and I think that helped him get off to a fast start now. He’s been rolling pretty well, and he’s shooting the ball great. And the consistency in the shot is vastly improved. I noticed a lot of work put into it, but I think those experiences are great. I think he got a lot out of it.”
The constant desire to improve is something that has kept RJ from stagnating in his career. By all accounts, from his teammates, his coaches, past and present – he is a workhorse, a gym rat who is tirelessly working to improve around the margins.
“It’s this yearning. He wants his jersey on the wall right now,” said RJ’s father. “He said ‘Well, Dad, your son’s got one now. I think that we should move your jersey down and put my jersey up.’ How’s that? This is my house,” he chuckled to himself as he said this. “But it’s that kind of yearning. To kind of stand in his own place.”
It’s evident from RJ’s story, that it’s not enough to just be destined for something. You have to actively seek it out. To earn it. To become an active participant in your journey, otherwise, you may never reach that final destination.
In that sense, destiny can be somewhat liberating. Knowing that there is an end goal in mind for you, modulated by your preset circumstances, that you’re free to reach if you so choose.
And while RJ was destined to help return relevance to Canada’s Men’s Basketball team – his active decision to seek that out has helped, in large part, bring about a Golden Era of hoops in Canada with him as one of its foundational players – heading into an all-important 2024 Olympics in France.
Much like his father helped build the foundation on which RJ lays his feet, Junior is cementing that foundation for the generation that comes after him.
Like father, like son.