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The college basketball world was officially introduced to the internet-breaking Duke Blue Devils last night. Leading the way was freshman sensation R.J. Barrett with 33 points in 32 minutes— a Blue Devils record for most points by a freshman in their debut.
However for those fans who kept a watchful eye on Barrett while he was still in high school, Tuesday’s performance was more of the same.
I was fortunate enough to receive a front row seat to Barrett’s brilliance back in March at the 2018 GEICO Nationals.
At that point, Barrett had already secured numerous accolades including the No. 1 player in the nation, the 2018 Gatorade Player of the Year and a gold medal with Team Canada— however there was still one coveted prize that he had not yet attained, a high school national championship.
In that decisive championship game, Barrett blitzed through the competition showcasing an ability to get to the basket whenever he wanted. He sliced through the lane with poetic ease and finished at the rim with thundering authority and strength. Duke fans saw much of the same in Tuesday’s smackdown against Kentucky.
It’s special to watch a player when they come to the realization that they're unstoppable. And that’s exactly what I witnessed as Barrett poured in 25 points and 15 rebounds to lead Montverde Academy to its fourth national championship.
ESPN NBA analyst Brian Windhorst uses a specific analogy for when a player comes to this realization: ‘The Matrix Moment.’
In the science fiction classic The Matrix, there’s an iconic scene in which Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) realizes that he can control everything around him. A stream of bullets are fired at him, but Neo stops the bullets mid-air. Next, a suited agent attacks him, but Neo easily dispatches the aggressor and later disintegrates the agent. Bottom Line: Neo realizes that he can control everything in The Matrix.
In a recent appearance on The Bill Simmons Podcast, Brian Windhorst referenced this scene when discussing the moments in which NBA stars come to terms with their own dominance.
“LeBron had that moment in 2007 against the Pistons. Curry kind of had that moment at Madison Square Garden at a game I was at when he hit 11 threes… Anthony Davis had ‘The Matrix Moment' last year when Cousins went down… And he just had this realization that ‘I'm going to be Russell Westbrook and takeover.'”
“I always call it The Matrix Moment,” Windhorst said.
Remember when @StephenCurry30 put up 54 at MSG in 2013?!
— NBA (@NBA) March 5, 2017
While R.J. Barrett's performance in the GEICO Nationals was magnificent, his ‘Matrix Moment' actually happened even before that time.
Just over a year ago, Barrett had his “Matrix Moment in a semi-final victory during the 2017 U-19 FIBA World Cup. In this historic win for Team Canada, Barrett slammed the door on the United States with an amazing 38 points and 13 rebounds.
One day later, Barrett stole the show again in the championship game against Italy by notching 18 points and 12 rebounds to give Canada its first ever basketball gold medal. Barrett was tabbed as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player for his efforts.
On paper, Canada had no business competing with the United States in that game. The U.S. roster was comprised of three future NBA players and three players that are currently on the Naismith Trophy Watch List: Hamidou Diallo (OKC Thunder), Josh Okogie (LA Clippers), Kevin Huerter (Atlanta Hawks), Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Cameron Reddish (Duke) and P.J. Washington (Kentucky).
In comparison, Canada only possessed one other Top 100 player on its roster in point guard Lindell Wigginton (now at Iowa State).
The dream of beating the United States seemed especially unlikely after Wigginton sustained a concussion which prevented him from competing. No one gave Canada much of a chance. Barrett would need to play the game of his life for the Canadians to have any hope of victory. And that's exactly what happened:
After the game, Canada head coach Roy Rana said it best,
“These are the moments where players arrive. And he arrived today. He delivered on the biggest stage of his career.”
R.J. Barrett has been a dominant force for quite some time now. Watching him possess the same level of swagger that he carried as a high schooler, but now as freshman at Duke— that's bad news for the rest of college basketball.
Barrett is an unstoppable force. And he knows it.