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Lewenberg: Cory Joseph confident fellow Canadian RJ Barrett will flourish with Toronto Raptors | TSN

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TORONTO – As the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1 and the calendar officially turned to 2024, RJ Barrett was already in bed.

He wasn’t staying with his family, who were less than a 20-minute drive from downtown Toronto and where he could have been enjoying home-cooked meals prior to one of the biggest days of his life – his Raptors debut. Instead, he opted to reside at a hotel around the corner from the team’s practice facility. That’s where he’ll be until he’s able to get settled on his own, and with his new club about to play 13 of its next 18 games on the road, he could be there for a while.

It’s the first of many business decisions he’ll have to make now that he’s playing in his hometown. Barrett, who was born in Toronto and raised in nearby Mississauga, was traded to the Raptors over the weekend. It’s a dream come true for the 23-year-old, a lifetime fan, who grew up attending games at Scotiabank Arena – then Air Canada Centre – and remembers watching Jose Calderon throw entry passes to Chris Bosh. He had just turned 12 when the team traded for Kyle Lowry.

“To come here and put this jersey on, this is going to be great,” said Barrett, hours before he was introduced to a rousing ovation from the crowd and scored 19 points in his first game as a Raptor, a win over Cleveland on New Year’s Day. “I mean, who doesn’t want to come home?”

Truth be told, it’s not for everyone. Barrett becomes the eighth Canadian to play for Canada’s team, joining a list that primarily includes role players and backups, guys who made brief pit stops in Toronto early in or at the tail end of their careers. Barrett has the chance to be its first hometown star.

It’s a big opportunity, and one that Barrett doesn’t take lightly. But it also comes with pressure and some inherent challenges that most professional athletes don’t have to worry about.

“If you don’t handle it right it can be a lot at certain times,” Toronto native and former Raptors guard Cory Joseph said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “It’s definitely more of a responsibility, or at least [it] feels that way. And there’s no problem with that, you just have to feel out your own type of routine.”

Joseph, who’s in his 13th NBA campaign and first with the Golden State Warriors, was also 23 and at a similar stage of his career when he signed with Toronto in 2015. Initially, the biggest challenge was learning how to manage his schedule, between community appearances, speaking engagements, ticket requests and other demands on his time.

He credits the strong support system that he had around him – something he and Barrett have in common – for helping him figure it out quickly. His immediate family would come to every game, while his close friends were on a rotating schedule, and his business manager took care of other ticket requests. As for events in the community, he would try to do as much as he could without getting too burnt out ahead of games. His focus was on the job, but he knew the responsibility was bigger than that.

“For me, I was doing more. I wanted to, I felt like I needed to,” Joseph said. “Outside of basketball, it’s just adjusting to playing in the city you grew up in, knowing a lot more people in that city, and wanting to do more in the community because you’re from there.”

That Joseph spent his first four seasons in San Antonio and already had a regular game day routine down pat when he got to Toronto helped ease the transition. Barrett should have the same advantage. With four years of NBA experience under his belt, all of it coming under the bright lights of New York City, he’s better prepared than he would have been had he been drafted by the Raptors.

“I think this is happening at the right time,” Barrett said. “Maybe if I came here at 19 it would have been a little more difficult but having grown up a little bit, I understand how I need to work and what I need to do.”

In many ways, Barrett has been preparing for an opportunity like this since he was a kid. His father, Rowan, played professionally overseas and starred for Canada at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the year Barrett was born. In his formative years, Barrett would tag along to national team practices. That’s where he met Joseph, his eventual teammate with Team Canada.

Joseph has known Barrett and his family for a decade and a half and has little doubt that the young guard/forward is ready for the opportunity, and everything that comes with it.

“I think he’s going to flourish in this situation, to be honest with you,” he said. “Obviously, his dad, Rowan, is going to help him a lot. He’s going to keep him grounded and keep him focused on basketball but at the same time making an impact on the community. And I think that RJ already has that personality, where he’s going to be out there having fun and inspiring the youth to do bigger and better things. And I also think he’s going to flourish on the court too, so that’s going to go hand in hand.”

Joseph hasn’t spoken to Barrett since the trade – he wanted to give him some space and the time to process everything – but plans to reach out soon. When he does, his message to the 23-year-old will be to take things as they come, to be himself, and to just enjoy the ride.

“He’s going to have some of the best years of his life coming up,” Joseph said. “They were for me. It’s what you dream of as a kid, playing in your hometown.”

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