RJ Barrett inherited a Canada that Vince Carter built

DURHAM, N.C. -- North Carolina and Duke have always had a tense rivalry. But if the Blue Devils win a national championship this season, they might owe a former Tar Heels star some of the credit for their spoils -- because the paths of Vince Carter, the longtime NBA standout and former UNC star, and RJ Barrett, Duke's freshman phenom, are connected.

Barrett, whose 22.9 points per game leads all Duke players, is the face of a generation of Canadian players who grew up revering Carter, a former Toronto Raptors superstar who is now a reserve with the Atlanta Hawks. Carter's between-the-legs slam at the 2000 NBA dunk contest -- four months before Barrett was born -- remains one of the all-time highlights of the event, which also featured then-teammate Tracy McGrady.

"Vince and Tracy McGrady, they more inspired us taller, long, athletic guys," Barrett told ESPN. "OK, [Carter] is one of the best players in the league. 'Why can't I be that too? I look just like him.' That's where Andrew Wiggins comes from. And then just other guys following his footsteps."

The country's basketball fascination started before the Raptors arrived in 1995. But Carter's arrival as an exciting American hero, drafted in 1998, introduced Canadian basketball fans to a SportsCenter-worthy star who influenced youngsters in a country where one-fifth of the population consists of immigrants who may be more likely to embrace basketball and soccer over hockey, the nation's pastime. (A 2014 study by a Toronto-based research firm showed that basketball is the second-most popular sport behind soccer for youths ages 3-17 born outside of Canada.)

"I can recall walking down the streets of Toronto and you wouldn't see a kid dribbling a basketball as we would see in the United States, and that's a normal thing and you probably think nothing of it," Carter said. "And then years, two to three years later, particularly after that [2000] dunk contest, now you start seeing kids walking around with basketballs in their hands, dribbling a basketball. You start to see more basketball courts popping up around the city, more guys going to play pickup basketball, just the whole nine."

Before 2000, eight Canadians had been selected in the NBA draft. Since 2000, 19 Canadians have been drafted -- eight of them lottery picks. Four Canadians -- Barrett, Gonzaga's Brandon Clarke, Arizona State's Luguentz Dort and Virginia Tech's Nickeil Alexander-Walker -- are projected first-round picks in ESPN's latest mock draft.

Other Canadians are lighting up the courts, too, and could lead their teams to league titles and NCAA tournament runs. Iggy Brazdeikis is Michigan's leading scorer. Oshae Brissett is averaging nearly a double-double at Syracuse. Lindell Wigginton and Marial Shayok are key players for an Iowa State team chasing an at-large berth and a Big 12 title.

It's Barrett, though, who has elevated the nation's global profile, a profile enlarged by predecessors like his godfather, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash; the Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray, currently averaging 18.4 PPG; and Wiggins, who just reached 7,000 points in the NBA.

Last summer, Barrett led Canada's Under-19 squad to a gold medal in the world championships, the country's first in a FIBA event. He's also the starting shooting guard on a men's national team aiming for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

"I don't know if anyone saw it coming to this level," one former NBA executive said of Canada's rise. "It kind of exploded."

And on Tuesday, Carter will return to the place it all began for him in a road game against the Raptors -- the same night Barrett's Blue Devils play at Wake Forest (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

"Vince Carter has, without a shadow of a doubt, been the most important, influential and transcending basketball player our country has ever seen," said Peter Yannopoulos, a former UMass assistant and a TV and radio analyst in Canada. "We are witnessing before our eyes the golden generation of Canadian basketball. Several have played an integral role, Steve Nash being a prominent one, but Vince is the reason our AAU teams started winning tournaments in the United States and why we have produced so many lottery and No. 1 overall NBA draft picks. Carter gave everyone the swag and confidence to rep not only Toronto, but all of Canada."

At a recent shootaround with his younger Hawks teammates, Carter didn't look his age -- 41, as a reminder -- as he took part in 3-point shooting drills.

"I've been fortunate to be around some good people," said rookie Trae Young, who credits the veteran with guiding him through his first pro season.

"Air Canada" has influenced a multitude of players as one of a handful of candidates filling a void created when the stars of the 1990s retired -- and as the bridge between Canada's two eras of basketball.

In 1891, Canadian James Naismith invented the game of basketball while teaching at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. But his role in the game's history did not interrupt his country's immense love for hockey. That's not surprising, considering Canada's men's hockey team won six of the first seven gold medals at the Winter Olympics, between 1920 and 1952, and three of the past five. Beginning with the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Canada's women's hockey team won four consecutive gold medals.

So, entering the 1990s, Naismith's sport had a lot of ground to cover to attract a fraction of the attention hockey had enjoyed in Canada.

Basketball was growing in popularity that decade, though. Damon Stoudamire, the 1995-96 rookie of the year, led the Raptors before Carter was drafted. The Vancouver Grizzlies had arrived with the Raptors during the 1995-96 season. Bill Wennington (Montreal) won three NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls in the mid-'90s, and Rick Fox (Toronto) won three rings with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles a few years later.

Still, Canada was a country that had emphasized its winter sports over budding activities like basketball. The government devotes millions of dollars to Olympic sports through a program called Own The Podium, launched more than a decade ago. As recently as the 2016 Olympics, the program gave $2.2 million for men's basketball but $5.8 million to its (gold-medal-winning) curling teams.

Since the 1990s, though, cities like Toronto have become melting pots for immigrants, many from the Caribbean and Africa -- and many of whom have come to embrace basketball. Perhaps Ontario-native Barrett -- whose father, Rowan, is the son of Jamaican immigrants -- would have likely emerged as a preeminent talent with or without Carter's arrival.

The genetics are there. Barrett's mother, Kesha, ran track at St. John's and his aunt Dahlia Duhaney won a gold medal in the 4x100 relay with Jamaica in the 1991 world track and field championships. His father averaged 10.4 PPG as a senior at St. John's and played on the international circuit for more than a decade. Rowan also played with Nash, then an NBA All-Star, on Canada's national team, which finished seventh at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Canada's 2000 Olympics run coincided with the exploding popularity of Carter and the Raptors. Rowan retired in 2008, when RJ was 8 years old, and became the executive vice president and assistant general manager of Canada Basketball, the country's national program.

In his effort to find and develop the best talent in Canada, he created the Junior Academy in 2012, an operation that aims to identify and unify the top young players in the country. RJjoined Michigan's Brazdeikis and others in the program, which has access to a world-class training facility.

"We had them in the seventh grade, playing in [The Junior Academy], teaching them how to play, all of that, best on best," said Rowan, who also played with Carter during a brief stretch in training camp with the Raptors in the former All-Star's rookie season. "When I was coming up, I think I first came into the [national] program at 18, 19. Before you knew it, you were in college. The structure has grown. It's all year round, training athletes, ready if somebody needs something. ... We didn't really have that. It was [a] meet up every summer thing. There's much more funding and structure in place now to support the growth of Canadian athletes."

So RJ has been able to reap the benefits of more structured basketball and his father's own connection to the national level. When RJ was 12, Nash put him through rigorous workouts while the national team practiced on the other end of the court. Nash, who bought RJ's first crib when he was a baby, never hesitated when Rowan asked him to be his son's godfather. As teenagers, they'd become friends through their shared nationality, their love for basketball and their common interests.

"Steve is a better person than he was a basketball player," Rowan said.

They both loved Jamaican food, and Rowan admired Nash's "hip vibe" (he was fond of baggy shorts). The 6-foot-3 Nash also downplayed his NBA success. He never took his first-class seat when he played with the national team, instead granting the luxury to his larger teammates.

It all set the stage for RJto emerge as a potential torchbearer for the next wave of Canadian basketball.

At 15, he led Canada to a silver medal in the Under-16 FIBA world championships. He spent his teenage years embarrassing players in American grassroots tournaments and international FIBA events on his way to becoming the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 class.

But some who tried to ignite programs struggled to find the cash to match the growing interest.

"I was trying to get the fans, the kids, the parents, the coaches, all the corporate world, the media to see that there was a lot of potential to go with this basketball thing because we had a lot of kids who were from the Caribbean, from Africa, from Europe, from South America, also from the U.S.," said Ro Russell, who founded his Grassroots Elite program more than 20 years ago. He said he couldn't get any sponsors.

Some tied to the game believe race played a role in the distribution of resources.

"We've had the talent but we've never had the opportunity," said Mike George, an agent who represents Murray, Dillon Brooks and other NBA standouts. "Back in the day, weren't too many brothas playing on the national team. Now obviously, you see the dynamics. It's more of a representation of what our country is. I think we've always had the talent level but we weren't able to get those guys. Now there's no real bias as to where a kid comes from."

All agree that Carter and the Raptors motivated a diverse generation of young athletes to dream of NBA futures and a new day for Canadian basketball's global status.

A Raptors team in the bottom half of attendance at the inception of the franchise enjoyed top-10 numbers in Carter's best years, which included two playoff runs in 2000 and 2001. Players such as the Miami Heat's Kelly Olynyk and Cleveland Cavaliers big man Tristan Thompson, both Canadians, attended Carter's camps in Toronto.

New grassroots programs emerged. Parents hired professional trainers for their hoops-hungry kids. Team Canada invested in programs that aimed to identify prodigies scattered throughout the country. Prep schools popped up and strengthened the brand. Milwaukee Bucks big man Thon Maker and Murray, the Nuggets' rising star, played at Orangeville Prep near Toronto.

"That was the special thing," Carter said. "I for sure didn't realize until later on, like, 'Wow.' We were able to change the game and the way hockey kids thought. Yes, we know the Toronto Maple Leafs. They're the kings. We just wanted to be respected. But it took on a life of its own."

Russell, the AAU coach who couldn't find private money to run his program, found plenty of sponsors (and players) as the Raptors became Canadian icons. He credits Carter.

"He had corporate people saying, 'There's a product I think we can endorse,'" Russell said. "Vince created the buzz that basketball is an exciting sport."

But not necessarily one Canada could use to attain global acclaim.

Canada's men's basketball team has not won a medal since 1936, and it has not qualified for the Olympics since 2000. But Leo Rautins, former coach of the men's national team and a TV analyst for the Raptors, said those connected to the sport in Canada could sense the emergence of a new generation of talent.

And that's why Barrett's freshman -- and likely only -- season at Duke involves implications that go beyond his personal ambitions.

Over the past 20 years, the Canadian basketball machine has tried to mold a player who could become something more than a contributor at the next level and lead the next wave of young talent, just as Carter did after he was drafted by the Raptors.

Murray has superstar potential. He entered the week as the No. 2 scorer for Denver, the top team in the Western Conference. Wiggins, a career 33 percent 3-point shooter, is a flawed offensive specimen. Thompson is averaging a double-double but he hasn't lived up to the five-year, $82 million contract he signed in 2015. Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft, is largely viewed as a bust after he averaged 4.4 PPG in a four-year NBA career. Cory Joseph and other Canadians have found comfortable roles (and lucrative deals) in the NBA.

Barrett could surpass them all.

"He's definitely the next one," said Rautins, a Toronto native and a first-round pick in the 1983 NBA draft. "You just look at his class.Iggy Brazdeikisat Michigan. Simisola Shittu at Vanderbilt. You just keep going. He's like 'the one,' but there's a whole bunch coming. And if you look at what Jamal Murray's doing, and Andrew Wiggins is still putting up great numbers. ...RJ's one who certainly has the potential. Not only does he have the talent, he has the motor. He doesn't want to just beat you, he wants to take your lunch on the way out."

During an intrasquad scrimmage in October, Barrett led his team against Zion Williamson's squad.

A few minutes into the contest, Barrett cut through the lane and scored. He flexed his biceps. He screamed. He crumpled his face like a discarded wad of paper. In that game, much like the other collegiate matchups he has played in thus far, the 6-7 versatile threat did whatever he wanted to do.

Those who've tracked his career have come to understand that look as a sign the Canadian prodigy has switched into takeover mode. Through his aggressive performances, he has entered the midway point of the 2018-19 season as a Wooden Award contender.

"I would say he's a dog in all aspects," said Cam Reddish, Barrett's teammate at Duke. "On the court, he's just a dog nonstop."

Mike Krzyzewski paused for a moment in his office as he pondered a question about Barrett: Had he ever had a freshman as polished as Barrett?

"I'm trying to think of anybody," he said. "Not really at this time for a freshman. I don't think there's anybody."

Krzyzewski continued, "Kyrie [Irving]would have been. Kyrie would have been there. Because he had it. Kyrie would be. Again, they're different and then Kyrie got hurt [at the start of the 2010-11 season]. Kyrie, I would put [next to Barrett] as far as being way ahead."

Some critique Barrett for his willingness to attack in the moment. In the final seconds of a loss to Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational in November, he missed a pair of late shots. Some accused him of being selfish.

Folks at the next level did not see it that way. An 18-year-old freshman had just brought his team back from a double-digit deficit against a team that could win the national title.

He had no fear, even though Gonzaga's Clarke and Rui Hachimura, two projected first-round picks, were waiting in the lane. Barrett didn't care.

And the numbers prove Duke -- and any other team he's on -- is better when he has the ball in his hands. Duke averages 121 points per 100 possessions and makes 57.2 percent of its shots inside the arc and 40.5 percent of its 3-pointers when Barrett is on the floor, according to hooplens.com. He has made 66 percent of his shots in transition, per Synergy Sports.

He's not a great 3-point shooter (31 percent) or free-throw shooter (66 percent), but those watching at the next level believe he'll improve.

"He's definitely not falling on my board," said one NBA executive. "I think he's solidly in that No. 2 slot. Barrett is a scorer, not a shooter. ... He'll be in the gym so much working on shot mechanics at our level. He can develop into a more than respectable long-range threat."

A few decades ago, Nash was viewed as the lone Canadian who could compete with the best players in the NBA.

The coming NBA drafts could introduce, however, a new brand of Canadian talent, created in the image of Carter, with athleticism, high-level skills and versatility. Alexander-Walker, the Virginia Tech star, said he hopes the top young players from Canada will one day join forces and compete against the United States in the Olympics.

"I would say it's only a matter of time," said Alexander-Walker, a projected first-rounder from Toronto who is averaging 18.8 PPG and connecting on 47 percent of his 3-point attempts. "We've all been around each other since we were young. We've all seen each other grow as basketball players and it's pretty cool almost to remember we were the same little kids at Team Canada invitationals and development programs and now we're all here."

Barrett seems comfortable with his role as the catalyst for the future and an extension of a movement Carter, his father and godfather have all helped shape over the past 25 years.

Carter knows his own chapter will soon end. But Barrett wonders if he's on the verge of writing his own.

"I love it," he said. "I get to put on for my country and play for a country that I love. Every day that I wake up, I put my hard hat on just knowing I got a country of people. If I keep doing what I'm doing and I'm successful, it's going to inspire a nation."

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