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Canadian basketball star R.J. Barrett to jump a year ahead to join Class of 2018

R.J. Barrett, 17, outside his home in Mississauga, Ont., on Thursday, July 20, 2017.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Whether it was starring for Canada, or at the prestigious Nike Hoop Summit and the Basketball Without Borders game at the NBA's all-star weekend, R.J. Barrett has proven he can more than hold his own against players years older.

Now, the 17-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., is leaping ahead a year to join the Class of 2018.

Barrett, who was the top-ranked player for 2019, announced Monday that he was reclassifying on his blog – "RJ's World" – on USA Today, making for both an intriguing 2019 NBA draft, and a busy couple of months of university visits for the young player.

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"I've been thinking about it for some time now, just talking to my family about it, just came to this decision," Barrett said in a phone interview from Las Vegas. "The World Cup helped, I played well and the team did well, but (reclassifying) has been an idea. The World Cup was definitely a confidence booster, but it was just one of the things that led to this decision."

Barrett is academically on pace to graduate next May, and reclassifying makes him eligible for the 2019 draft where he could become the third Canadian after Anthony Bennett (2013) and Andrew Wiggins ('14) to go No. 1 overall.

Video: At home with basketball star R.J. Barrett and his parents (The Canadian Press)

Barrett, who is in Vegas to work with Pure Sweat Basketball trainer and founder Drew Hanlen, said he's "very excited" about choosing a college, and listed Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Oregon, Texas and UCLA as the schools showing the most interest.

The news comes three weeks after Barrett led Canada to gold at the FIBA U19 World Cup in Cairo, the country's first basketball world title at any age level. The six-foot-six wing was outstanding in wins over France and the United States, averaging 21.6 points and 8.3 rebounds to earn MVP honours, despite being one of the tournament's youngest players.

He's starred countless times alongside older players. As a 14-year-old, he led Canada's U16 team to a silver medal at the FIBA Americas tournament. He earned MVP honours as one of the youngest players in the Basketball Without Borders game last February in New Orleans, and was the fourth youngest player in the history of the Nike Hoop Summit, which pits a world high school select team against the best high schoolers in the U.S.

It's been a few frantic weeks for Barrett since Canada's World Cup win, with a flurry of appearances and interviews. On a recent evening at their suburban Mississauga home, Barrett recounted how he'd done three interviews that day, worked out twice, and managed to squeeze in a hair cut. A crew from Slam magazine was setting up in his dining room for one last interview before he called it a night.

His decision to reclassify was just the latest major life choice for Barrett, whose parents – dad Rowan and mom Kesha – have made a point of letting him pave his own path.

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Kesha, whose sister Dahlia Duhaney ran on Jamaica's 4x100 relay team that won gold at the 1991 world championships, was a sprinter and jumper at St. John's where she met Rowan. She laughed about how they'd tried to nudge R.J. toward various sports.

"We had a toy room were we put all the other balls from different sports, and we hid the basketball, and he would run around and search for the basketball," Kesha said. "He always loved basketball."

R.J. played soccer, ran the 100 metres, did high jump. He's also fluent in French, as is his 13-year-old brother Nathan.

"It's always going to be better when you choose it, when you love it," said Rowan, who played for Canada's basketball team at the Sydney Olympics. "Then you can actually get behind it and in the difficult days, you'll know and remember 'I chose this. This is what I wanted to do."' "My wife used to try to guilt me into training him, like 'This would be a travesty if you didn't train him. Look at him, he loves it.' I said 'Honey, it's a long road, I'm not going to push him."' R.J. made the decision at around 12 to focus on basketball. He'd arrived home upset after a game, Rowan said.

"He was in tears, he was hugging his mother. I said 'What's wrong, man? We were just in the car, everything was fine. What's going on?"' Rowan said. "He said 'I'm not happy, I didn't make any shots.' I said 'What do you want to do?' He said 'I want to get better. . . ' I said 'Well, to do that, you've got to train.' And he said 'I want to do it now.' He said 'I don't want to play soccer anymore, I don't want to miss any more of my basketball tournaments.' "I was always ready. . . but he had to choose it, and once he chose it, off we went."

Barrett, who follows in the footsteps of Wiggins, who also reclassified to play at Kansas a year early, hasn't played since the World Cup, opting for two-a-day workouts and skill work in Vegas ahead of his final year at Montverde Academy in Montverde, Fla. The family also had a vacation planned before Barrett returns to school on Aug. 21.

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