Knicks rising junior wing RJ Barrett stepped up huge in year two, finding improvements across nearly every area of his game.
R.J. Barrett began his second season in the NBA with a laundry list of perceived defects. Unlike his fellow top draft picks, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, Barrett enjoyed little fanfare. Even mild compliments were difficult to find outside the New York City area. A reflection of this poor perception was captured when less deserving players such as Terence Davis, Coby White, and Eric Paschall received All-Rookie honors over him.
Before proceeding any further, now is the proper time to mention that Barrett’s rookie season was not an unmitigated disaster. Barrett played 56 games and finished top-five among rookies in total points, rebounds, and assists, and sixth in total steals. The warts in his game resided in the percentages. He shot 40.1% from the floor (66th among rookies), 32.0% (46th), and worst of all, 61.4% from the free throw line (79th).
The lackluster percentages raised questions as to whether Barrett could become a solid starter, let alone a star player. If you find that to be an exaggeration, again, Terence Davis was named to an All-Rookie team over him.
What that meant for the Knicks is the possibility of another failed rebuild. Barrett is the highest draft selection the franchise has made since Patrick Ewing, and landing a top-three pick is no easy task unless you are the Cleveland Cavaliers or Minnesota Timberwolves. Chances are Barrett is the highest selection the Knicks would make barring more seasons of sub-20 wins.
That is why Barrett came with the reasonable expectations of a third overall pick; chief among them, evolving into one of the pillars of the franchise’s future. Following an abrupt end to his rookie season and the All-Rookie snub, there was some reason to question Barrett’s ceiling as an above-average impact player.
The expectations bestowed upon him, and the perception that he was not among the 10 best rookies last season, were not overlooked by Barrett.
“It bothered me a lot,” Barrett said of the snub at the start of training camp. “Not going to lie, it bothered me a lot. I really don’t understand why I wasn’t on it. But it was motivation, motivation for next season. It was good to have an extra chip on my shoulder and just prove myself even more.”
In hindsight, the snub might have been the best thing to come out of the rookie season. Barrett’s appeal pre-draft was his mature understanding of the business of basketball. Barrett was well aware that he was selected to lead, not simply take part.
“My son is going to give everything he has on the court,” Rowan Barrett Sr. told Knicks fans about his son on draft night. “He’s a competitor. He plays to win, all the time, every time. He’s going to work in the offseason, he’s going to get bigger, he’s going to get stronger, he’s going to get more skilled. And, we’re just scratching the surface of [who] he is going to be and hopefully who he’ll be for New York.”
Barrett made good on his father’s words in his first offseason. He returned for his sophomore season bigger, stronger, and more skilled.
The transformation began around the same time the NBA’s bubble started up in Orlando. Barrett held an Orlando bubble of his own, only his included himself and the exonerated Drew Hanlen. Hanlen is Barrett’s trainer and drew ire from fans for Barrett’s poor shooting as a rookie. It turns out David Fizdale was the true culprit.
Hanlen helped Barrett refine his shooting form heading into his rookie season, going with a nontraditional approach of sticking his elbow out beyond his shoulder, rather than the traditional form of having the elbow line up with the shoulder and hand. The coaching staff nixed that adjustment once Barrett arrived at camp, and the results were some icy shooting percentages (40.2 FG%, 32.0 3P%, 61.4 FT%).
With Fizdale and his staff out of the picture, Barrett and Hanlen got to work in Orlando for five weeks of training. The results paid off substantially: Barrett showed up to team workouts in September bigger, stronger, and more skilled.
Tom Thibodeau was impressed with Barrett following the first team practice last September. Barrett started working individually with associate head coach Johnnie Bryant, who has had success in working with star players in Utah, Donovan Mitchell and Gordon Hayward, and is close with Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard.
With the team’s tools at his disposal and a strong work ethic, Barrett took major steps forward in his game that have silenced a large chunk of skeptics and renewed confidence in New York City that the face of Canadian basketball can also be the face of the New York Knicks.
Had Barrett not played next to the runaway Most Improved Player of the Year, he would have secured more than a couple of third-place votes. Alongside Randle, Barrett assumed the no. 2 role, made easier by his improved shooting across the board.
The largest difference between 2019–20 and 2020–21 Barrett was his ability to be an effective three-level scorer. There were periods where he struggled mightily—the worst coming in a 10-game stretch where Barrett shot 33.1% from the floor and 12.8% from deep—but in the end, he showed significant progress as a scorer. Overall, Barrett responded with the added responsibility Thibodeau gave him. He improved his points per game to 17.6 on more shot attempts.
He notched his first 30-point game of his career and is just the seventh player in league history to rack up 800 points, 250 rebounds, 100 assists, and 50 made three-pointers before turning 20. The other names on the list include strong company.
Today is RJ Barrett's 20th birthday.
Barrett one of just 7 players in NBA history to tally at least 800 points, 250 rebs, 100 assists, and 50 made 3PT's before turning 20.
The other six are:
Luka Doncic and
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) June 14, 2020
Barrett’s maturity was the catalyst for the improvement. He found what he was best at and adjusted his shot selection accordingly.
Free Throw Shooting
The number one area Barrett had to improve was at the free throw line. His 61.4% as a rookie was not going to cut it. Barrett knew that as well as anyone and improved his percentage considerably to 74.6%.
The missed opportunities were far and few, and his confidence grew. The seminal moment came in an April 9th matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, the game that started the nine-game win streak.
With the Knicks down by three with fewer than 40 seconds left in regulation, Barrett went to the line with the opportunity to tie the game. He sank all three free throws to send the game into overtime and would go on to seal the game later in another area of sharp improvement—from beyond the arc.
Barrett’s most surprising leap came from beyond the arc. Heading into the draft, outside shooting was his swing skill, and after year one Barrett swung in the wrong direction. He shot 32.0% from beyond the arc last season, ranking him in the 20th percentile, according to Cleaning The Glass.
This season, however, Barrett made the quantum leap to the 78th percentile at 40.1%. The explanation for this leap is straightforward, with no reason to question whether this season is an outlier.
As a rookie, Barrett would fire up off-the-dribble three-pointers that did not have a prayer of going in. This year, Barrett shot under control, and mainly off the catch. This adjustment shined through on his above-the-break three-point attempts. Last season Barrett hit 30.0% of those attempts, compared to 37.3% this season.
Another key factor has been his relocation to the corners. Last season, Barrett shot 66 three-pointers from the corner and hit 36.4%. This season, Barrett upped those attempts to 140 and hit at 42.9%. As the season progressed, he found a hot spot at home right in front of the Knick bench.
The increase in accuracy has come in handy in clutch moments. Barrett will never be gun shy, but now when he takes big shots, there is reason to feel confident.
Barrett’s mid-range game also progressed, improving from an arctic 27.1% as a rookie to 35.9% this season. In contrast to his three-point shooting improvement, which was predicated on catch-and-shoots, the mid-range improvement focused more on Barrett’s self-creation chops. He found a hot spot near the free throw line and started to rely on that spot as the season went on.
RJ’s mid range pull up 🙌 pic.twitter.com/XagMEGlHHX
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) February 6, 2021
That improved pull-up game created more opportunities for Barrett to put his craftiness in getting to the rim to use. Barrett does not have the burst of Williamson or Morant, yet he does have the potential to become a strong finisher once his touch around the rim improves. He is big enough to body defenders and smart enough to know when he has the advantage.
For those who watched him at Duke, his game-tying bucket on the smaller Morant is a common sight. Barrett was great at shifting gears in transition as a Blue Devil, either crossing the defender with a Euro step or using his strength to bully his way to a bucket.
And that burst might be on its way. Barrett flirted with poster dunks through his first few seasons and finally broke through against the Bucks before his first true poster.
Barrett’s first playoff series was largely forgettable. Baptizing Bogdan Bogdanovic at a filled Madison Square Garden, on the other hand, was unforgettable.
RJ BARRETT JUST DID 𝐓𝐇𝐀𝐓 pic.twitter.com/4LINVWk7nb
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) May 24, 2021
There is still room for improvement—mainly shooting touch at the rim—but craftiness is tougher to teach, and once shots like this become a regular occurrence, Barrett will become a headache for opposing defenses.
RJ with the euro step for the and one🔥😭 pic.twitter.com/hLQxttTroB
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) March 24, 2021
With his all-around scoring game trending in the right direction, Thibodeau can begin to split him and Randle up more. Barrett’s playmaking allows Thibs to deploy him with a wide variety of players. Barrett proved proficient in the stretches he was the de facto point guard. This, paired with his strength, could allow Thibodeau to try Barrett at the 4 as a point-forward.
There were questions about Barrett’s shooting and his defense, but his playmaking was understood as strong, even as a rookie. Barrett’s playmaking was not sacrificed by his improved scoring. It improved.
Barrett’s assists per game saw a bump from 2.6 as a rookie to 3.0 this season, as he dropped 217 dimes in total. While he had a bad habit of making cross-court passes, Barrett did have some sweet looks, developing strong chemistry with Randle.
Tunnel vision in transition flared up throughout the season, but Barrett showed he can find the open man.
A reduction in the cross-court passes and poor decisions in transition will come with experience–and Tom Thibodeau screaming his face off at him. The point is, playmaking will remain a security blanket for Barrett even when everything else may not be in sync.
Strength on the defensive end has been another pleasant surprise for Barrett. Coming out of Duke, he was not viewed as a plus defender with a high defensive ceiling, which is why critics believed poor offense would sink him as a prospect. But under Thibodeau Barrett has shown signs he could develop into a two-way terror.
Barrett did a good job at the point-of-attack, proving he was not afraid of the tougher assignments like checking Kawhi Leonard.
One promising development the Knicks should tap into next season is Barrett’s ability to guard stretch fours like Danilo Gallinari, who had trouble backing down the chiseled Canadian.
Barrett’s ability to guard 1-4 on a given night gives Thibodeau more flexibility with the lineups—perhaps playing five-out with Julius Randle at center, or simply playing Barrett at the 4 for spurts.
The Big Picture
The importance of Barrett panning out cannot be understated. Barrett and Julius Randle have many similarities, but long-term security isn’t one of them yet. No matter what happens with Randle, the Knicks needed Barrett to become the player who attracts other players to come here.
Barrett is already close to averaging 20 points per game and taking quantum leaps in every shooting category. He played every game this season and shouldered the responsibility of being Julius Randle’s co-pilot in each game, some nights being asked to be the man. He played a crucial role in one of the best single-season turnarounds by a team in recent memory—all at 20 years old. At the end of his third season, Barrett will be 22 years old, and should fate keep him on the team for `0 years, he’d only be 29 years old.
10 years equal three lifetimes in this era of the NBA, and the Knicks have yet to sign a draft pick to a second contract since Charlie Ward. Barrett seems to be different. He has made it abundantly clear from day one he wants to be in New York, at the forefront of good times at the Garden.
That feeling has only gotten stronger, as evidenced by Barrett’s lack of satisfaction from a single first-round playoff series appearance.
“We want more”
I will sprint through a wall for RJ Barrett.pic.twitter.com/x4iqEMRRVK
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) April 27, 2021
Barrett always had the mentality to survive in New York City. Now he has the talent to back it up. He is well worth your trust as the Knicks restore a winning culture.