Flash back to the 2019 NBA Draft lottery. The Knicks had a 14 percent chance of landing the top pick, tied for the best odds with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns. But the top two picks ended up going to the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies, respectively.
And in a draft that seemed like it had two potential superstars at the top in Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, it looked like the Knicks had just missed out on landing a star.
The Knicks, then, took RJ Barrett with the third pick. After one year at Duke, Barrett was the consensus third-best player in the draft, though he didn’t pack the star power of Williamson or Morant.
Even with a shortened rookie season, Barrett is now just about one full 82-game season into his pro career, so let’s take a deeper look into the shooting guard’s start in the NBA …
What Barrett’s done well
The one thing you’ve always been able to point to about Barrett is his maturity, and while that may not necessarily be a trait that’s going to wow fans, it’s clearly important. Just look at all the past lottery picks in the NBA who flamed out because they weren’t ready to be a professional.
Making his NBA debut as a 19-year-old after a one-and-done season at Duke, Barrett’s maturity level goes well beyond his years. Barrett was placed into the starting lineup right away for the Knicks, and while the team had a lot of moving parts around him, including a head coaching change from David Fizdale to interim head coach Mike Miller, Barrett was a steadying force as a rookie. He averaged 14.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.6 assists, yet was inexcusably snubbed from both All-Rookie teams.
But he seemed to be up for everything thrown his way, and that’s helped him transition into a strong second year. Under the direction of new head coach Tom Thibodeau, Barrett has taken a big step forward in his second season, upping his numbers across the board to 17.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.4 assists.
But even more so than just his pure numbers, Barrett looks more confident in almost every way. His jump-shooting still isn’t exactly where it needs to be (we’ll come back to that later), but he seems much more willing to rise up and take shots in rhythm this season, which is huge for his development.
Thibodeau has called Julius Randle “the engine” of this Knicks team, as much of the offense has been run through the big man, but Barrett has been just as vital. Like Randle, Barrett can do a little bit of everything. He’s defending well, he’s not afraid to rebound, he drives to the basket and is getting to the line. And he’s getting his teammates involved as well.
Overall, it’s hard to ask for a lot more out of a 20-year-old, second-year pro.
Room for improvement
One area where Barrett needs to get better is in his shooting efficiency. While he’s done a good job of improving his free-throw shooting, going from 61.4 percent at the charity stripe as a rookie to 74.4 percent now, he’s still struggling with his jump shot. Having confidence to shoot is great, but you have to make your shots.
Barrett shot 32.0 percent from three-point range as a rookie, and that’s dipped even lower to 28.0 percent in his second year. The NBA game is becoming more and more reliant on shooting threes, but Barrett’s game, in that aspect, just isn’t where it needs to be.
Under Thibodeau, the Knicks have been playing swarming defense, but when it comes to the offensive end, they just don’t have a consistent three-point threat right now. Reggie Bullock has been hot and cold, Alec Burks has been good but injured, and Kevin Knox seems to have cooled off after a great start.
There’s not a lot of three-point options on the Knicks right now, so if Barrett could tick his percentage up, even if it’s just in the 32-33 percent range, that would be a huge help. Teams have often gone to zone defenses against the Knicks, so if New York is hitting their threes, they’re pretty tough to beat.
Barrett could be a huge asset if he gets his shooting stroke going. He’s attempting 3.9 threes per game, which is an increase from his 3.5 last season, and again, the confidence is there. He just needs to make a few more than he is right now.
The buzz on Barrett
From an NBA Scout, via SNY's Ian Begley:
For the most part, he’s making good reads on his drives lately – that’s one thing I noticed. The shot is hit or miss but he looks more comfortable from behind the arc, repeating the same mechanics more often ... I like what he’s done in the mid-range ... I’m still not sure about the shot, though … I’m not telling you anything you don’t know but the outside shot will determine a lot for him
Barrett may not have come out of college with the same superstar potential as a Williamson or a Morant, but he’s proven himself to be an important asset for what the Knicks hope to be.
Under Thibodeau, the Knicks’ identity is forming into a hard-nosed, defense-first team that wants to slow down the tempo and physically outlast opponents. And Barrett fits that mold well.
His shooting numbers need to improve. There’s no doubting that. But he’s at least shown a willingness to keep shooting and looks more confident in doing so. When it comes to creating for himself off the dribble, he’s still a work in progress, but he’s got all the tools to be a versatile, do-it-all-type player, much like Jimmy Butler was under Thibodeau previously.
He may not be very flashy, but Barrett can do it all, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t keep improving as he gets older. He’s only 20, but he already looks like a leader on the team and an important part of what the Knicks are building.