There have been many encouraging signs early on for the Knicks, but the most encouraging of all has been the phenomenal play of RJ Barrett.
It’s a phrase often used when describing what basketball fans see in a young player they feel is destined for greatness. It means that a player has gone from just good to consistently great. It means that they’ve begun to make their mark on a team’s success, and aren’t just impacting their own individual stats.
RJ Barrett is in his fifth year after being picked third overall by the New York Knicks back in 2019 behind phenoms Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. Barrett was thrown into a tumultuous New York franchise at the time of his drafting, between coaching changes, roster turnover, and trying to gel with Julius Randle on the floor for the first time. It took some ups and downs to get here, but only seven games into this season, he appears to be the best Knicks starter on the floor.
Compared to last season, there are obvious areas of improvement: his three-point shooting, his ability to facilitate on plays, and his defense. All three are sustainable jumps for Barrett to make, which should give any fan something to look forward to for the rest of the year. But, will we see some regression from him, especially as teams start to figure him out defensively? Let’s dive into how he’s found success from the three areas above, and how he could keep them up as the season gets tougher for him and the Knicks.
Barrett’s shooting from three might be the most obvious, and positive, change from his game compared to last season. In 2022-23, he shot 31 percent from deep on 5.3 attempts per game, a career low. This season, he’s been on fire, currently shooting 50% from deep on 5.7 attempts per game.
It feels like things have opened up for Barrett on the floor from deep for a variety of reasons, but the main one has to be the way he remains in constant motion compared to last season. He is no longer stone-footed around the perimeter and is instead making defense a living hell for opposing teams who are forced to fight through screens set by Randle, Mitchell Robinson, and Isaiah Hartenstein to close out on Barrett.
In addition to that, Barrett’s overall judgment when it comes to his shot selection has improved, and his three-point shot has flourished as a result. He was often a third or fourth option for the team on offense in the starting lineup, especially with Randle and Jalen Brunson able to create their own offense so proficiently last year. But this year, Barrett’s accuracy and poise from deep has been hard to ignore.
He’s been quick to pull the trigger on his shot, opening up New York’s offense more as they’re able to get him a quicker look on their drives and kick-outs.
If New York manages to keep their offense free-flowing, Barrett will continue to feast. If they go back to more stagnant sets and isolation plays as they did last year, he may see his three-point shooting slip. But, as long as he remains active around the perimeter and keeps moving to keep defenses switching, he should be able to keep getting open looks.
Barrett has always had flashy passing in his arsenal – but he has two weapons at his disposal that he is finally seeing success from utilizing Immanuel Quickley and Hartenstein. Last season, Barrett looked for Randle and Brunson the most on his passes, with Quickley seeing 13 percent of his passes and Hartenstein just 4.9 percent. However, Quickley still shot 43.4 percent from the field off of his looks, while Hartenstein shot 62.5 percent.
This year, the frequency has remained around the same for Randle and Brunson touches from Barrett, but the shot-making from Quickley and Hartenstein has increased significantly off his looks. Quickley is now shooting 57.1 percent from the field off Barrett assists, and Hartenstein is shooting 75 percent. On 3.1 assists per game, Barrett is managing to get both of these pivotal bench players going, which has elevated his impact with the second unit this season.
If Barrett maintains his production alongside the bench unit, we will continue to see success on this end of the floor for him. Opposing teams’ defenses may start to pay more attention to him when he is given main ball-handling responsibilities over Quickley for a few plays, but he could ensure that he won’t regress in this area if he just keeps the ball moving between all the speedy members of the second unit.
Players are shooting 47.5 percent from the field against Barrett this season so far, and he’s looking a lot more spry through screens and in isolation than he did last year. This is the part of Barrett’s game that does not look likely to regress – he is, after all, on a Tom Thibodeau-coached team. Barrett has so far been able to keep shooters in front of him from three-point range and has been rewarded for his efforts, as those players are only shooting 35.9 percent from deep.
One area of improvement for Barrett moving forward if he doesn’t want to revert back to his more foul-prone defense last season would be improving as an off-ball defender. Barrett is great at keeping his opponent in front of him, but he has to become more reliable as a help defender roaming the paint while also prepared to get to the three-point line to defend a shot. He’s managed to do so pretty effectively this season, but there have been moments where he has gotten lost on an assignment and had to sprint out to the three-point line to contest. Improving his reads as a floater on defense will just add even more of a boost to his already impressive start to his year.
Barrett, perhaps behind Randle, is the most polarizing player on this Knicks team. When he excels, Knicks fans see nothing but championship parade potential from this squad. When he’s off, the entire team suffers. Barrett’s sustained success and leap from last season will continue to be crucial as New York looks to gel and as they look to him for more leadership during his rise.