Throughout all the Knicks’ turmoil through three seasons, RJ Barrett has remained rock-solid. What’s next for the young wing?
The New York Knicks finished a measly 37-45 last season, good enough for 11th place in the Eastern Conference and the 11th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. It wasn’t a very impressive season, finishing in the NBA’s most dreadful realm: purgatory.
As a franchise, you either want to be in the hunt for an NBA Title or among the unfortunate teams at the bottom of the totem pole with a chance at landing the league’s next star. The Knicks were neither. Furthermore, after failing to acquire the New York-born Donovan Mitchell, their most significant acquisition was . . . Jalen Brunson?
As currently constructed, it’s hard to imagine this team winning more than 42-45 games this season, which would have been good enough for the 7th seed last year at best, or still no better than the 11th seed at worst. With a healthier Brooklyn, stronger teams in Atlanta and Cleveland, and a Philadelphia team with a fully healthy James Harden, the East should be even tougher this season than last season.
In many ways, it almost feels as if the Knicks didn’t get much better on paper. However, the one thing we couldn’t measure over the summer is the transition of potential into reality by the coveted pack of youngsters that Leon Rose was unwilling to part with. If the Knicks take a giant leap forward, it starts with the pack leader: RJ Barrett.
Take a second to think about an RJ Barrett moment last season. Any moment! Can you see it vividly? Was it the game-winner over Jayson Tatum? Think of another RJ Barrett moment. How about one more? Hell, look on YouTube at a random game against whatever team you’d like. Do you know what you’ll see? A collection of tough shots. The 2021-22 New York Knicks finished 26th in PPG, 29th in pace, and their offensive rating was good for 22nd in the league. They were simply bad offensively, and their lack of a quality point guard throughout Barrett’s young career has made his life a living hell.
The 6-foot-6 wing, highly touted as the future of the franchise, by now must be accustomed to creating something out of absolutely nothing, attacking the rim relentlessly, and attempting to bail his team out when nobody else is willing to or is even able to. This is the role Barrett has had to bear, improving his PPG from 14.3 to 17.6 to 20.0 over his first three seasons. The progression is an optimistic one. However, his shooting splits are of concern, having shot a measly 41% from the floor last season, 34% from three, and 71% from the charity stripe.
While lackluster free throw shooting is entirely on him, I expect his FG% to be closer to 45% this season than 40%, mainly because of Jalen Brunson. Adding a downhill, aggressive guard will give the Knicks an entirely different feel this season, and nobody will benefit more than Barrett. Brunson’s presence as a facilitator will relieve Julius Randle of all his ball-handling duties from last season, allowing for a barrage of dribble hand-offs, on-ball screening, and getting to the elbows. Randle playing more comfortably and Brunson keeping the defense on its toes should allow Barrett to score as needed rather than when it hits the fan.
“Making the right read is so important,” said Barrett on Knicks Content Day. “Being able to be a better player, in general, is what I’m striving for.”
Barrett already turns corners exceptionally well, leveraging his strength and size as he makes his way to his dominant left hand when attacking the rim. Expect him to have more success in doing so, with a better-spaced floor and more players capable of attacking the rim. An overall increased pace, with the Knicks looking to push the ball more often, will also play to Barrett’s advantage. His concerning splits are tied to volume and poor shot quality rather than an actual inability to finish at the rim or shoot from deep. With the addition of Brunson, expect the game to come a lot easier and for Barrett to move the needle.