Here's how red-hot RJ Barrett has become Knicks' lead dog

·4 min read
RJ Barrett treated art in white jersey with MSG crowd in background 2022
RJ Barrett treated art in white jersey with MSG crowd in background 2022

The 2021-2022 Knicks continue to inconsistently weave between being the defensive stalwarts they were last season and the mediocre, effortless shell of the team we’ve seen this year.

It seems that whenever a couple of core guys find their groove, two others hit a slump or injury, and Julius Randle hasn't been able to find his scoring throughout.

Luckily, New York has had a new alpha emerge in 2022: RJ Barrett.

When he strung together some big games earlier in the season, it looked like he made a real leap to a true No. 2 option, displacing the newly acquired Evan Fournier despite his years of experience. That streak fizzled out, but his tear since the turn of the calendar seems like an entirely new step forward to being the Knicks’ lead dog.

Since Jan. 1, Barrett has led the Knicks in scoring with 22.4 points per game, with the next closest player being Randle at 16.8. He’s done so on increased efficiency: 45.3 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from deep, which would be career-highs, by way of some career nights.

Barrett put up three 30-point games in a little over a week, helping the Knicks maintain a .500 record in the new year, which was sadly an improvement over their overall record.

What’s changed for Barrett? It was clear somebody needed to step up with Randle still struggling from the field and other offensive options in Derrick Rose and Kemba Walker missing time. Whether someone had to tell Barrett to be that guy is unknown, but he’s played like it.

There’s a new demand for the ball and aggression in Barrett’s offensive game. Much of Randle’s load has gone by the wayside in favor of him decoying for Barrett coming off a pistol action or just letting him work the high pick-and-roll. Barrett leads the team in usage rate at 27.8 percent in 2022, with Randle coming in at 24.9 percent after he led RJ 27.1 percent to 23 percent before Jan. 1.

But Barrett isn’t just doing more of the same. After much frustration with his attacking game lacking creativity or only displaying it in spurts, he settled on a few go-to counter moves to stop defenders from overplaying his straight-line drive.

Jan 15, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) shoots past Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) in the first quarter at State Farm Arena.
Jan 15, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) shoots past Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) in the first quarter at State Farm Arena.

His little turnaround fading eight-footer looks natural, and he’s now utilizing his pivots and upfakes with consistency whenever he doesn’t like the initial look. We’re seeing more of the euro-step and floater game used with confidence, keeping defenders on their toes even if the shots aren’t always falling.

There’s more to this fake-it-'til-you-make-it approach from Barrett. He’s still not a great ball-handler or finisher with his off hand, but overplay him that way and he’ll use that opening to compromise the defense, either creating for others or getting to his left when it’s least expected. His pacing on drives reflects this, too, as he lets himself decelerate at times to make help defenses think while he reads the floor, instead of seemingly going with his first thought.

Speaking of drives, Barrett is better utilizing his strength on them. It certainly helps that officials appear to be giving him better whistles when he creates contact, but Barrett deserves much of the credit for getting into people’s bodies and selling the call. He’s taking 8.1 free throws per 100 possessions in 2022, up from 5.7 in 2021, though he's not converting as well as he should.

With all this added scoring comes added attention, allowing Barrett to leverage his passing game. His assist rate is up to 16.6 percent in 2022 from 12 percent prior, with a much smaller uptick in turnovers.

It may have taken the team’s best player forgetting how to score and a losing record to do it, but Barrett seems to be turning the many flashes we’ve seen of his game into something more concrete in Year 3.

This may just be another spurt that transitions into a cold streak, but at no point in the last two years did it look apparent that Barrett could lead a team with his offense. That’s changed.