Rookie swingman RJ Barrett is far from a finished product, but the Knicks have to address improving the Canadian in order to build around him.
After one year of R.J. Barrett on the New York Knicks, there is no question the first-year Canadian shooting guard is a player you want to have. He is 19. He has significant flaws but can contribute positively to games despite them. He says the right things and behaves like a true professional.
This year Barrett was a below-average rotation piece. That is not discouraging. If you have heard it once you have heard it a million times: he is a teenager. What, then, have the Knicks acquired?
Barrett’s career likely will amount to something between, at worst, a good rotation piece, and, at best, a very good All-Star. The flaws he displayed this year could prevent him from doing so, but those warts are not set in stone.
To what degree Barrett achieves his potential will have an enormous impact on the Knicks’ future. Addressing those weaknesses will help immensely as Barrett tries to reach his potential.
This season, Barrett shot 53.4% from the restricted area. While that is less than desirable, it is not overly concerning. Shots will fall as he gets more accustomed to playing against the size and speed of the NBA. Even as a 19-year-old, Barrett demonstrated above-average ability to create good looks when attacking the rim.
One area of concern, however, is the looks Barrett generates when attacking toward his weak hand. When he goes right, he moves slightly slower and drives with much less purpose. His directional discomfort is problematic for two reasons.
Barrett, for good reason, is still not confident in his ability to finish with his right hand. He is almost always looking for a way to get a shot off with his left. To get a clean look with your dominant hand while driving toward your weak hand, you either need almost a full step on your defender or you need to create space and fade away.
Barrett does not have the drive-right, fade-away in his arsenal. Instead, he tries his best to get a step and finish between his defender and the rim so he can use his left hand. The results are less than desirable:
Unfortunately, this tendency found its way into NBA scouting reports. In high school and college, when Barrett was much more athletic than his opponents, he could get away with an ineffective tactic like this. Now, defenders simply glue themselves to Barrett’s left hip, knowing even if he gets half a step going right, they can easily alter his shot by preventing him from shooting with his left:
Barrett’s second issue with driving right is that he is much worse at sensing help. When attacking toward his strong hand, Barrett demonstrates an acute awareness of help and combines canny patience and battering strength to finish through his primary defender and avoid help defenders.
The same caution is not exercised when moving away from his strong hand. There are a few reasons for this. His handle going left is passable, but his right-hand dribble is clearly looser, and his head is often down while dribbling that way. He has to concentrate more on the less natural process of finishing going right.
Some of this is not necessarily an issue in a pure one-on-one situation. Barrett is still strong and clever. He knows when it’s beneficial to create space and how to finish through defenders. The problem, however, comes when he attracts help defenders:
I do not blame Barrett for being eager to get shots off (h/t Julius Randle). His season really should have been about finding ways for him to score against NBA defenders. It is also not like his drives pulled value from possessions all the time. By getting into the lane and drawing help defenders, he got opposing bigs way out of position and created easy put back opportunities:
Barrett’s ability to drive and create looks going left was as effective as advertised. When attacking either direction, he created numerous open looks that he just flat-out missed. This can be improved upon quite easily, and his field goal percentage at the rim can expect to rise.
The Knicks coaching staff creatively avoided Barrett’s glaring weak-hand deficiencies by having him receive dribble hand-offs going toward his strong hand or having screens set for him on the left side of the floor. This was effective at helping Barrett avoid making mistakes.
While avoiding mistakes was marginally beneficial (if even that) for the team in the short term, driving right and trying to beat defenders is likely the main way Barrett will improve his awareness, handle, and finishing. He needs to be empowered to make certain kinds of mistakes.
For Barrett to act as one of the main engines of a high-powered NBA offense, he will have to become much more of a threat when attacking right. Until Barrett improves his handling, finishing, and awareness driving right, defenders will have one more tool at their disposal to exploit him.
No one expected Barrett to enter the NBA and be a lights-out shooter. In fact, the 32% he shot from three is a hair higher than a broad anticipation of his perimeter shooting at the beginning of the season. His free throw shooting, on the other hand, was nothing short of a disaster.
In terms of what happened to his free throw shooting, your guess is as good as mine. Of the 18 rookies who played more than 1,000 minutes, Barrett’s 61.4% from the charity stripe only ranked higher than Matisse Thybulle (61%) and Jarrett Culver (46.2%) from the line. Of the 228 players who played more than 1,000 minutes, Barrett was 214 out of 228 in free throw percentage.
There are three levers a player can adjust to alter his free throw shooting: form, routine, and reps. All signs point toward Barrett putting in the necessary work to improve his routine and free throw reps. How, then, is Barrett’s form affecting his shooting at large?
One thing about Barrett’s form stands out: he needs to start with the ball low. Whether this is accomplished by catching the ball low or bringing it down, it is clear that he cannot establish the rhythm of his shot without that starting point.
Is this ideal? No. It’s certainly not what the best shooters in the league do. But it also does not mean he’s unable to get threes off. When shooting from the standstill, Barrett enjoyed a healthy mix of wide-open threes and threes where defenders were closing out on him. With defenders charging at him, he still was able to get shots off without a problem.
From a pure catch-and-shoot, floor spacing perspective, this unsavory tendency does not amount to an insurmountable problem. It does significantly lower Barrett’s ceiling as a player, however, because it craters his ability to shoot off the dribble.
When operating off the bounce, players do not have the time to bring the ball and their body down before getting a shot off. Not only can Barrett not bring the ball down and then back up when dribbling, but he also has to be able to get shots off from different body positions and angles. NBA Stats’ shot type data has Barrett at 31.1% on jump shots. Look at how different his form is when he does not catch the ball, bring it down, bend, and then rise up for the shot:
Rather than having a full body shot motion, Barrett needs to be able to quickly put the ball in his shot pocket and release it. His poor shooting from the midrange had ripple effects throughout his game. Opponents could easily duck under screens. They could sag off him, making it easier to force him right and harder for Barrett to get a step. Becoming a viable threat to score regularly from outside the paint will make Barrett’s life as a scorer much easier.
Barrett, of course, was not projected to be a proficient spot-up shooter or mid-range specialist in his first year. For some reason, he was still often relegated to act solely as a floor spacer in lineups that featured too many shots-hungry players who were also bricky from the outside.
A less determined player might have taken this role and lived with it. Barrett did not take this lying down and avoided being forced into taking low percentage shots by showing signs of being a keen cutter as the season progressed.
Truth lies within the narrative that Julius Randle failed to deliver lots of wide-open shots for Barrett, but it is a little tired. Per NBA Stats, the players who had the most assists to Barrett were Randle (40), Elfrid Payton (30), and Frank Ntilikina (16). Do you know when Randle likes to pass? When he is going to get an assist. He hit Barrett on cuts where the odds of him scoring were higher than the 32% Barrett shot from three.
These are not earth-shattering cuts, but it is promising that Barrett was able to take advantage of scenarios where the defense was entirely fixated on Randle. Rather than sulking when Randle did not give him the ball while Barrett waved his arms, wide-open on the perimeter, it was nice to see him create opportunities for himself by moving without the ball.
In an ideal world, Barrett comes into next season as an above-average three-point shooter with form that is conducive to hitting off-the-dribble shots. By moving his shot pocket up and avoiding the need to bring the ball down he will open up the game for himself. In the event that does not happen, it would still be encouraging to see him build on the high basketball I.Q. he showed flashes of this year and improve as a cutter.
I would not blame anyone for wanting to give Barrett a pass for his playmaking this year. He was surrounded by one of the highest usage, lowest efficiency isolation players, no shooting, and was inexplicably denied time with the team’s best player. Even knowing that, however, the numbers are just not where you want them to be.
He ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in efficiency on plays coming off handoffs, as a pick-and-roll ball handler, and in isolation. A few players that averaged more assists per game than Barrett’s 2.6: Andre Drummond (2.7), Frank Ntilikina (3.0), Matthew Dellavedova (3.4), and Andrew Wiggins (3.7). Wiggins, not exactly a beacon of NBA efficiency, actually edges Barrett out in assists, assist-to-turnover ratio, and assist rate despite similar usage rates.
Recall, Wiggins has six seasons of NBA experience under his belt. Barrett is 19. You do not get the feeling that he plays the wrong way. In fact, put him in somewhat more modern NBA offenses and I bet these numbers look a lot different.
There comes a point in all players’ careers, though, where they either take a front seat or back seat in an NBA offense. In the modern NBA, if you do not create, you are not heavily featured on offense. This season, there were 29 players who averaged more than 20 points per game. Only five players averaged more than 20 points per game and less than 3.5 assists per game. Four of those players shot better than 38% from three, and the other was Anthony Davis.
If you can shoot make your teammates better, shoot well, or be Davis, you will be a focal point of an offense. A good example of someone who had to expand his playmaking to remain a focal point in NBA offenses is DeMar DeRozan, who my colleague Dylan Burd aptly compared Barrett to the other week.
One thing Barrett can definitely improve is passing out of the pick-and-roll. Part of the issue this year was condensed spacing; screens were frequently set when Barrett was already inside the three-point line. This was by design, as it made it slightly easier for Barrett to get open looks, but it is incredibly difficult to make passes from this setup.
There is simply no room to work with here. Barrett should receive the screen higher up, giving him more time to get downhill and a more open lane for the screener to take advantage. Barrett actually demonstrated a great deal of patience in the pick-and-roll, and he knows how to get defenders on his back or hip by stopping and then taking advantage of a two-on-one situation.
Rather than defaulting to finishing through players every time, it would be nice to see him try to involve the screener and guys on the perimeter. If he is able to do it with the Knicks’ current roster, he will be able to do it with anyone.
While it might seem like R.J. Barrett has a lot to overcome to become efficient and productive, it is worth recognizing he still brings significant positives to the table: he is good at attacking left, he gets to the line at a good rate, and he defended very well for a rookie. This year, he showed the makings of a very good player. If he can continue to chip away some of the rougher edges, Barrett could wind up being an extremely important part of the Knicks’ future.