PORTLAND, ORE–For much of the interview, it seems like Jamelle Barrett has an answer for everything. Maybe it’s because I’m asking him a few soft questions to start with. Did you watch the NBA Draft and if so, where? And How far off do you think you are?
Regardless of the question, Barrett isn’t at a loss for words and I don’t mean this in a bad way–he’s articulate, and has a great personality. His answers aren’t scripted like you might expect from an elite athlete. (And since I’m the one conducting the interview, I’m glad that’s the case.)
Barry Rawlyk, Barrett’s head coach during his two years at the University of Saskatchewan, tells me that he’s “a very personable young man” and this much is obvious in the interview. That’s just who he is.
But let’s start this with what Jamelle Barrett isn’t. He’s not a bowler, and he’ll say so himself. “I wouldn’t say that I’m a bowler, but I will bowl.”
So, he’s not a bowler. However, on the evening of June 28, 2012, as 60 young men heard their name called by David Stern, Barrett was at a bowling alley in Portland where he watched the 2012 NBA Draft and hung out with his girlfriend. Call that the good life.
He’s not a bowler–he’s a basketball player rather. A pretty gifted one, too, but I’ll get back to that.
On June 19, 2012, Barrett signed a one-year contract with SAM Basket Massagno in Switzerland, which finished last season with a 3-21 record. The 23-year-old from Rancho Cordova, Calif., also worked out for the Sacramento Kings in the days leading up to the draft–it might not have amounted to anything just yet, but Barrett is still hopeful. “I don’t think I’m far off at all,” he says. “I actually think I have a good chance with the feedback that I got.”
If he’s so close to the NBA, it’s because he’s a rather gifted basketball player. Barrett was an ESPN Top 150 player at Mount Zion Christian high school, then moved on to Consumes River Community College. At that point, he had remained in the United States and still only knew so much about Canada–he never had a clue that that’s where he would one day play university basketball.
It changed after his time at junior college because yes, Barrett is a basketball player who played in Canada–at the University of Saskatchewan for two seasons, where he was twice named to a CIS First Team All-Canadian and twice the most valuable player of the competitive Canada West conference. This quick transition isn’t surprising because his only hobbies other than playing basketball are working out and playing videogames–“all the sport games, really.” he says.
Success arrived early for him in Canada as the Saskatchewan Huskies qualified for the CIS Final 8 in Barrett’s first season. His 25-point-per-game average was good for second in the entire league (CIS) and he also contributed 6.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game. “He came in right away,” Rawlyk says, “ and he had a very positive impact for us on the court.”
The encore wasn’t quite up to par for the Huskie, but Barrett still shined and averaged 21 points, 6.9 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.0 steals despite suffering a broken right hand which, he complained, is what prompted NPH to drop him in its player rankings.
“It was tough,” he says, for sure talking about the injury and not the drop in the rankings (i.e. he’s now ranked No. 18). “But I knew I had to play through it.”
Whatever you think about Barrett, you can’t say that he’s not consistent and tough. There it is. Jamelle Barrett is a gifted, tough and consistent basketball player who has played in Canada–that should do it, right?
Nope. Not even close.
Barrett brought this consistency to the University of Saskatchewan and he has meant a lot to the school. “In the two years that he was (at Saskatchewan), we were legitimately a force nationally,” Rawlyk says. “Anytime you can add a player of Jamelle’s quality and level of commitment and work ethic,” he says, “it certainly helps your program.”
Of course, Saskatchewan had been a good CIS program for some time now–Rawlyk says that Barrett wasn’t the first elite player, only the latest for Saskatchewan. Someone like Showron Glover, whom Barrett replaced, was already pretty great. Working with elite-level players isn’t “foreign” to the Huskie head coach. “It challenges you to expand your thinking,” he says.
Likewise, the Huskies hold a special place in Barrett’s heart because his two years in Canada came when he didn’t have many other options. There was a time when top Division I schools were recruiting him, but because of transfer credits, most of the schools pulled out their offer. And Saskatchewan was the best option then–the school was there when others weren’t. Rawlyk thinks that Barrett liked “what he saw (at Saskatchewan) in terms of the community and regarding our program.”
And so he came. That’s what makes Barrett’s case such a compelling one to examine. It’s that he’s a gifted, tough and consistent point guard from California who has taken the road less traveled and played in Canada. “The school was great for me,” he says. “I had to mature and I witnessed a lot of things that I never had before.”
Rarely will you see CIS players make it to the NBA–if and when Canadians do, it’s usually because they shined at a strong Division I NCAA school. Just as unlikely is the scenario where a gifted American player travels to Canada to play university basketball and, eventually, professionally.
But Barrett made the transition to Canada, and made it well, and now he’s knocking on the doors of the NBA. He admits that despite the contract with SAM Basket Massagno, his hope is to stick around in America. “I’m trying to get on a summer league team or even in the D-League,” Barrett says. “Going to Europe is a real big change.”
Much bigger than going to Canada, he says. Barrett encountered one notable difference between the U.S. and Canada. “Everyone is just so nice in Canada,” he says. Beyond that, Barrett’s success could help shed the stereotype that Canada is lagging so far behind. Rawlyk says that this is a stereotype that feeds itself–great Canadian players get lured to the U.S. rather than staying home to help the rise of Canadian basketball and so, the rise never happens fully.
That’s not what would happen if this were an ideal world. “We do a very good job of developing players and of putting players in situations where they can succeed,” Rawlyk says. “Basketball is played at a very high level and it is coached at a very high level in Canada.”
Barrett himself says that he hopes it will change people’s mentality about Canada and the level of play in the CIS. “It can make people think that it’s okay to go to Canada to achieve their dreams,” he says.
“There’s a lot of really good basketball played in Canada, but not many people know about it. I feel like it’s on the rise, and I’m glad I had a hand in this.”
Add ambassador to the sport in Canada to the list.
Fittingly, it’s only near the end of the interview that Barrett will be hesitant as to how he should answer a question–it’s when I ask him what is one thing that others might find surprising about him. “I don’t know. I’ve never been asked that question,” he says.
Get used to it, Jamelle. Get used to it. You’re a professional basketball player now–and all of that other stuff as well.