Entering his second season in the NBA, RJ Barrett had room to improve significantly in several areas.
After a scattershot rookie campaign that saw the former No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft left off the NBA’s All-Rookie first and second teams, Barrett came in with tepid expectations.
Barrett has become an integral piece to the Knicks’ surprising success in the first half of this season, in which the team is currently fifth in the Eastern Conference with a 19-18 record.
Barrett is second on the team in scoring with 16.5 points per game. He’s also averaging 6.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 37 games. He hasn’t improved dramatically in any specific area, but he’s taken steps forward in all facets of his game. Shooting, playmaking and scoring have all been areas where he’s made progress.
Perimeter shooting was the big question with Barrett when he first entered the NBA. He shot 30.8 percent from three in his lone season at Duke University and shot just 32 percent in his rookie campaign. After nailing all three of his treys in New York’s season opener against the Indiana Pacers, Barrett missed 21 straight threes over the next four games.
But Barrett has now found his groove as a marksman, shooting 47.6 percent from three since the start of February. At the halfway point of the season, Barrett sits at 35 percent from three, which is just below the league average of 36.8 percent.
The key to Barrett’s improvement is shot selection. Barrett has opted to drive more often and take midrange jump shots that the defense is willing to concede to him. He’s rarely taking long distance attempts off the dribble, when compared to his rookie season.
Most of Barrett’s three-point attempts this season are when he’s set up and open. According to the NBA Stats page, 114 of Barrett’s 122 three-point attempts (93.4 percent) have been either wide open (the closest defender is six-plus feet away from Barrett) or open (closest defender is four-to-six feet away).
Also, he’s become enamored with the corner three. 43.9 percent of Barrett’s three-point attempts have come from the corners after only 29.9 percent came from there in his rookie season, per Basketball Reference.
However, despite his improved shooting, Barrett’s still not drawing attention off the ball. But if he can continue to improve his outside shot, he could open up space in the paint for New York’s offense down the road.
Playmaking has become a strength for Barrett at times. Though he’s not averaging a boundless amount of assists, he’s finding teammates for efficient looks from the three-point line and in the paint. Of Barrett’s 109 assists, 95 (88.7 percent) have led to a made three-pointer or a shot at the rim, per PBPstats.com.
Barrett has also improved his finishing in the paint on drives. He’s made shots around the rim, but a concern was his declining free-throw rate from his rookie season. He’s improved his free-throw shooting this season as well, sitting at 73.1 percent compared to 61.4 percent last season. It would make sense for him to capitalize on that and create more points at the charity stripe.
Defensively, Barrett has also made strides. He’s done a good job in isolation, covering All-Star players like Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard. He’s shown a significant level of commitment at that end and has utilized his 6-foot-6, 214-pound frame to hold up. With a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he can bother opposing wings and make an impact.
Early on in the season, Barrett was one of the leaders in the NBA in minutes per game. However, in the past 20 games, Barrett is averaging only 29.9 minutes per game. With several other perimeter options like Alec Burks, Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley, head coach Tom Thibodeau has alternative options that he has trusted down the stretch of close games.
The Knicks will need Barrett to continue to develop as they compete against a very tough schedule in the second half of the season. His ability to get into the paint and create shots will be crucial as they attempt to clinch the team’s first playoff appearance in eight years.
Though he hasn’t taken a massive leap from his rookie year, Barrett is slowly coming along and showing that he can be a difference maker to a winning team.
Viewed as a core piece of the Knicks' rebuild, he has emerged as the second scoring option on a winning team, which seems like a complete 180 from his role as an inefficient rookie on a cellar dweller last season. It’s important for New York to give the 20-year old the reps to continue his ascent.