The improvement of RJ Barrett is a key development for the Knicks. The second-year standout has firmly entrenched himself as a building block for the future.
This season has been a breath of fresh air for New York Knicks fans, who have endured hell over the better part of the past two decades. Although the Knicks’ 21-22 record isn’t terrific, it is a vast improvement from years past. They finally seem to be building a strong foundation for future success.
Julius Randle has been the highlight of the Knicks’ season. He is having a career year and has played a huge part in bringing the Knicks back to relevance. Tom Thibodeau and Leon Rose have done an excellent job in the personnel and development departments, bringing respectability and an edge back to the ‘Bockers.
Then there is R.J. Barrett. The second-year wing isn’t frequently mentioned when talking about the 2020–21 Knicks season, but he has been an integral part of their success. He has been excellent this season, particularly in his last 10 games, averaging 21.1 points per game, per NBA Stats. Barrett has looked much more comfortable this season and has improved in almost all statistical categories from his rookie year, which was very solid. He has cemented himself as the Knicks’ second option and has made doubters eat their words.
Under the Radar
Barrett, thus far in his career, has been significantly overshadowed by recent draft counterparts. If you look at the top three picks from the last two seasons, (Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and Barrett in 2019; Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman, and LaMelo Ball in 2020) you could argue that Barrett is the fifth or sixth most discussed player in that bunch. Williamson is a generational, face-of-the-league player who is already receiving star-level treatment from the media. Morant is an electric point guard, who frequently finds himself on highlight reels and is one of the most promising young floor generals in the game. Edwards and Ball are extraordinarily flashy as well and have been the two most exciting and productive rookies in the league this season.
Very little about Barrett’s game is flashy, and his personality reflects that, as he is relatively unassuming. Even in a big market like New York City, he simply doesn’t get the attention he deserves, and that leads to the belief that he has been unfairly criticized. His impressive start to his career has been discounted by some folks.
However, Barrett wasn’t always overlooked. He was the highest-ranked high school basketball player in the class of 2019, ahead of Williamson, and played at basketball powerhouse Duke.
It’s safe to say the 20-year-old’s talent and production have far exceeded the amount of recognition he receives. There is a confidence that Barrett’s play will continue to do the talking and he will begin to gain more respect and publicity as the Knicks continue to regain relevance in the basketball world.
you are watching a master at work
32 points (12/21 shooting; 3/6 3PT)
Rowan Barrett Jr. 🚀🚀🚀pic.twitter.com/jZAyyLWELL
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) March 14, 2021
Expectations for Next Season
Improvement. All Knicks fans want is to see Barrett continue to get better year over year.
We’ve seen him step up his game this year in many different aspects. Barrett has increased his scoring output from 14.3 points per game to 17.3 points per game and has also bumped up his shooting percentage from 40.2% to 45.3%, per Basketball-Reference. His assists per game and rebounds per game have also gone up as well. Sure, these aren’t quantum leaps in production, but if Barrett keeps building year over year, he will be a star in this league.
At the beginning of next year, Barrett will still be only 21 years old, with nearly two full seasons of NBA experience under his belt. Due to the coronavirus-caused shortened seasons, Barrett had some game experience taken away from him—but unprecedented times have not derailed his ability to improve.
Realistic goals for Barrett next season are to average at least 20 points per game, get his three-point percentage up into the 38-40% range, become more confident as an offensive player, and more of a defensive stopper. Defense isn’t the end all be all—many stars are liabilities defensively—but Barrett has the size and the perfect teacher in Tom Thibodeau to become more than adequate on that end of the floor.
These goals, particularly the scoring, might not be attainable if the Knicks bring in another offensive player like a Victor Oladipo, who would take more touches away from Barrett. If the overall construction of the team remains the same—and I believe it will—these goals should be realistic.
Beyond Next Season
For a franchise that hasn’t had success with their top 10 picks in recent memory, Barrett has been a clear bright spot and could be a home run. When picking third in the draft, you expect to land a guy who can be a franchise cornerstone and is frequently discussed in the All-Star conversation. Being that Barrett is only 20 years old, he isn’t either of those things yet, but I do expect him to work his way into the conversation as one of the best players in the East.
Achieving All-Star status isn’t easy, especially in today’s NBA that features so many talented players. Not being an All-Star doesn’t mean you aren’t an effective player or qualify as a bust, but to fully live up to being picked third, All-Star appearances have to be part of your overall résumé.
Looking back on previous third overall picks, the list is stacked. Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Bradley Beal, and Luka Doncic are all outstanding star players picked third in the last decade. Barrett has the work ethic, the talent, and the drive to be on that level eventually, even though he isn’t as good as any of those guys quite yet.
It will be interesting to see where the Knicks go in the future, as they continue to claw their way out from the pit of atrocity back to success. Will they sign a star, or will they roll with what they got a build through the draft? Regardless, R.J. seems like he has a place on this team for years to come.