Should the Knicks fail to obtain the first overall pick, they’ll have a conundrum deciding who to pick after Zion’s coronation. Where do Jarrett Culver and R.J. Barrett fall on the spectrum, and why do they spark debate?

The Knicks Wall is setting a spotlight on the top prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft. Follow along with weekly features on the draft and players. Next is a debate between Mike Cortez and Harley Geffner on the merits of swingmen R.J. Barrett and Jarrett Culver.

It is time. For the better part of four months, we have put up with truly appalling basketball. Our salvation? The future. The draft lottery has been the light at the end of tunnel. On May 14th, we will get a clearer view of the Knicks’ future.

Zion Williamson has sucked all the air out of the discussion for top pick. If Patrick Ewing is able to deliver some good juju on the dais, the pick at one will be Williamson. But what about after?

There are three contenders to go second overall. For the Knicks, it’s really down to two guys: R.J. Barrett or Jarrett Culver.

Barrett, once hailed as the crowned jewel of a thin class, had an impressive season at Duke co-starring with Williamson. Culver, meanwhile, shined in Duke’s massive shadow and had his national coming out party in the tournament.

Should the gods remain cruel to the Knicks and drop them to two, one of these guys will be the pick. Arguing on behalf of Culver is TKW’s own Harley Geffner, while Mike Cortez steps up on his soapbox for Barrett.

The debate itself is too large to digest all at once—which is why we will break it up into four smaller debates.

On-ball Offense

Harley Geffner: The thing that stands out most to me about Culver is his basketball I.Q. and feel for the game. It shows itself in almost everything he does on the floor, and there are tons of evidence with how much he played on-ball as the primary initiator for Texas Tech this season. It’s also one of the starkest differences between his game and R.J.’s.

On offense, Culver’s intelligence shines though his passing vision and execution, decision-making, and finishing. It’s also apparent in his defensive anticipation and positioning (more on that later). Culver has made great reads all season, both off motion and out of pre-drawn half-court sets. He reacts really well to what defenses give him and waits for plays to develop.

(h/t Jackson Frank for the compilation)

The first step is reading and reacting. The next step of development is learning how to manipulate defenses. Culver is already there with his reads and understanding of how defenses bend, so I’m confident he’ll continue to develop and make even more advanced reads with some practice at the next level.

R.J., on the other hand, often looks lost in the woods when he gets into the paint, and it feels like he decides whether he’s going to pass or shoot before he starts his drives. Some of that may be alleviated with extra spacing at the next level, but he has a long way to go in understanding of defensive schemes. I will say that R.J. does flash some vision, but he’s been reluctant to use it at the correct times at Duke.

Mike Cortez: That look of desperation when R.J. is in the paint with nowhere to go is the byproduct of Coach K’s failure to recruit shooters. Barrett played the most minutes (1,341) for Duke by a considerable margin—the second closest was Tre Jones at 1,230 minutes.

Sure, a lot of those minutes were with Zion and Cam Reddish. But a lot of those minutes were also spent with the likes of Jack White (27.8% from deep), Marques Bolden, and Jones (26.2% three-point shooter). Lack of shooting takes away would-be assists. Sharing the floor with bad shooters breeds forced shots. The floor shrinks, and Barrett is forced to take on the world, leading to ugly performances like the Elite Eight game and the Maui final against Gonzaga.

Barrett’s I.Q. is every bit as solid as anyone’s in the draft, Culver included. His performance in Syracuse showcased this. Without Zion, and Reddish being Reddish, Barrett had to get every drip of value from his guys. He had his pulse on that game the full 40 minutes—and made some beautiful reads.

He flashed similar vision with Zion:

His decision-making will look better when his teammates are knocking down shots. Steve Nash’s presence in Barrett’s life gives me unwavering confidence that reading the floor will not be a flaw in his godson’s career.

The area he needs to focus on is his handle. Barrett is a better playmaker when he is off the ball. It gives him a chance to read the floor and decide his method of attack.

When he decides he’s driving to the rim, R.J. makes straight-line takes with little flair. Occasionally he’ll run an up-and-under if he’s feeling fancy.

He’s not the contortionist Culver is at the rim, but does possess the strength to bail him out of bad situations:

Harley: Barrett will have more options at the next level for sure, and he has made some good reads this year (mostly out of a standstill and rarely on his drives), but he misses very basic opportunities to get better shots—multiple times per game—when he puts his head down. Even in that last clip, the best read was clearly to the left corner when that defender fell asleep. That’s a hard pass to make, but I’m almost positive Culver would have made it.

Culver lacks a big burst on his first step like R.J., which is a major sticking point for a lot of scouts, but this isn’t the biggest problem if you’re drafting Culver to play more as a secondary or tertiary creator (more on that in the off-ball section). Heck, Luka Doncic is thriving on-ball without an explosive first-step. Culver, like Doncic, has really strong second and third steps that allow him to change pace or get downhill in a hurry. His handle is a little bit high, but he uses craftiness, lower body strength, and great patience to snake his way into the lane on drives, with strong spin moves or hip checks. These are bolstered by his wide array of step-backs and hesitations. Patience is something R.J. still lacks at this moment, though he is two years younger.

Culver’s lower body strength is incredible and allows him to create force at angles other guys can’t, and combined with his soft touch, Culver is an excellent finisher at the rim:

Look at how he burrows under his guy here. He shot 69% at the rim on more than 200+ attempts coming into title weekend. For context, R.J. shot 53% at the rim. Sorry to use your own tweet against you, but this touch is wild.

He gets to the rim with those crafty second and third steps, but also uses his length and bulky shoulders to create extra separation from his defender. His rhythm is off-beat and lets him catch defenders off guard by releasing a second early or late (think Tony Parker around the rim, or more recently, Caris LeVert navigating the midrange with herky-jerk moves and defenders on his hip).

He takes contact from bigs and adjusts well with strong body control and a range of counters, but he does have a tendency to try to finish through and out-muscle big guys in the middle. He’s been okay with that in college, but it won’t work as well in the NBA. He’s much more effective when finding ways to slip a shot around.

Mike: Using my clips against me, you monster.

On that Barrett clip where he missed White in the corner—more of that is lack of trust in his teammate. Too often Barrett, and ultimately Zion during the tournament, felt they had to be the one to shoot. In a theoretical (Ed. note: very theoretical) world where Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are on the floor with Barrett, I think he makes that pass without hesitation, as he did with that feed to Zion in the corner.

You hit the nail on the head with Barrett’s lack of patience. In the closing moments of games, he has the tendency to do too much too fast. This bad habit shows itself in his pull-up game.

Barrett shot an underwhelming 30.8% from three at Duke. I am willing to bet a lion’s share of those misfires looked like this.

He made the shot in that case, but that was because he was patient. Other times Barrett will rush his release, not gathering himself or squaring to the rim. Increased reps and more playmakers on the floor can correct this issue, but if he’s expected to be the top guy, which is possible in New York, it will be a vital area of his development.

Harley: Inconsistency can be a problem with Culver’s shot too, as his release point changes situationally too often.

But when the game is on the line, things seem to slow down for Culver. Per @dribblehandoff: “Since the start of conference play, Culver has shot 56% from the field in clutch time (two-possession game and under five minutes). He accounts for 25% of Texas Tech’s overall points, yet 47% (!) of the Red Raiders’ points in clutch time.”

And it showed itself in the Final Four against Michigan State. In a game where he was mightily struggling with his shot, he kept his composure and turned it up in the last minute of the game, stepping into a confident three-point dagger, using his body to protect the ball on a go-ahead bucket, and coming up with a huge rebound to seal the game.

What encouraged me even more than that final minute was how Culver found ways to affect the game even when his shot wasn’t falling. He made quick and decisive moves, probed, and would dish to a whirring teammate if there wasn’t much there—and his defense never wavered. When R.J. is struggling, the offense comes to standstill with an onslaught of contested mid-range jumpers.

Culver’s jump shot is definitely still a work in progress, but it must be pointed out that he shot a better percentage from nearly every area the floor than Barrett this year and showed significant improvement between years one and two. He basically re-worked his entire shot over the summer, and his free-throw percentage jumped six points. His total eFG% went down, but that can be attributed to such a high usage rate in his second year compared to his first, when he was more of an off-ball player. His jumper looks a lot smoother now and has less of a windup, though his load is still a little bit low, and his release can have a small hitch. But he has good foundations and is confident in pulling up with his J. He hit 38% of his three-point attempts his first season when he played in a situation closer to what his NBA role will look like.

Culver is presently listed as 6’5″ and 190 pounds, which was measured almost two years ago and is the same as UVA’s Ty Jerome. If you watched the title game, Culver looked about four times as large as Jerome on the floor. I’m expecting him to check in at the combine around 6’7″ and 220 lbs. with a 6’11” or 7′ wingspan. And since he’s clearly grown in the last 19 months, there’s reason to believe he’ll continue to sprout. That size and strength should make him a post-up threat, as he can dig in and shoot over smaller defenders in a pinch. On a small sample size, he was in the 73rd percentile on post-up efficiency this year.

Off-ball Offense

Mike: Off the ball is where R.J. can shine from day one, and a part of his game I wanted to see more at Duke. He looks considerably more comfortable shooting off a feed versus having to create the shot himself.

Clips like that get me to buy in on the Michael Redd player comparison. Which reminds me, did you know Redd and R.J. had identical shooting numbers? Redd shot 30.3% from three and 61.6% from the free throw. That gives me hope that a good shooter lies within R.J.

Shooting is a skill that can be refined by tireless work. Barrett’s work ethic is well documented; there is a future in which R.J. can shoot 35% from three and become a respectable free throw shooter.

The more immediate step for Barrett as a rookie will be utilizing the corners. Barrett was typically initiating the offense at the top, resulting in a shit ton of above-the-break threes, but not many looks like this:

If Barrett is fortunate enough to share the floor with Irving or Durant, he will be forced to find refuge in these shots. But in refuge he can also sharpen his mechanics and cut down on the bad shots.

Harley: As of January 15th (I don’t have Synergy so I can’t access his full-season stats), R.J. was in the 25th percentile in college basketball on catch-and-shoots and the 19th percentile on unguarded catch-and-shoots, per @SKPearlman.

Off-ball is definitely the best place for both R.J. and Culver to start their careers, but I fear it won’t be the case with R.J., which will hurt his development and reinforce bad habits. If KD and Kyrie are Knicks next season, then this is not a worry, but I’m as hardened a fan as they come and I’m operating under the assumption that we run it back with the young guys for now.

Both would be best served spending a whole year shoring up their shooting mechanics and learning all the intricacies of defending at the NBA level first and foremost. It would be the same route players like Paul George and Kawhi Leonard took in their development, as opposed to that of Brandon Ingram, who was forced to be a primary playmaker with the ball in his hands from day one.

As previously stated, Culver didn’t play as much off-ball this year as he did in his first, but he was still in the 76th percentile in shooting coming around screens. R.J. was in the 20th percentile shooting off screens, though the sample size was only 83 shots between the two of them.

Culver has great footwork in setting his feet coming around screens, and he says he’s been studying Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Jayson Tatum’s footwork for inspiration. He’s shown smarts in slicing to the rim at the right times, but that was often a result of a drawn up play rather than improvisation. Smart players are usually smart cutters, though, and I.Q. translates, so there’s reason to believe he will be able to impact the game with his motion next year too.

It’s easy to envision Culver in a Joe Ingles role. He saunters and springs around screens and is able to take it off the dribble with a dangerously tricky triple threat off the catch. He can change pace, kick out at the right moments a step ahead of rotating defenses, and keep the offense moving smoothly at all times with good decision-making.

Jarrett has been good at relocating to find his spots in half-court sets, and his strong balance and lower body flexibility help him slip his shoulder around defenders, which will come in handy attacking closeouts. He’ll need to hit a respectable percentage from three in order to open up all these other options, but I’m confident his mechanics will translate with some work, given we’ve already seen improvement.

Mike: It’s a shame that both guys were not able to play off the ball as much. They were the lifeblood of their offenses, posting identical usage rates of 32.2. Their jarring disparity shooting off screens could do with spacing—Texas Tech was a better built team with shooters Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney.

Barrett did not enjoy such spacing. If Zion was not on the floor, Barrett was the sole focus of the defense, limiting him as a decoy. Most of Barrett’s off-ball highlights came in transition.

He showed that he can fill the lane properly, allowing his athleticism to take over.

Unfortunately his slashing in the halfcourt was held to a minimum due to the lack of threats around him. As a rookie, he will not be on the defense’s mind nearly as much, even if Dennis Smith Jr. is the best player he shares the floor with.

That can allow him to fill in properly as he did in the open court. I’ll admit it’s a bit of a cop out to play the “wait and see” card, but I believe the tools are there with Barrett to flash parts of his game that had to be suppressed at Duke.


Harley: Defense and I.Q. are the areas where the largest gaps between the two prospects lie for me. R.J. straight up does not try on defense. Almost not at all. It’s astonishing how little he seems to care on that end. Below is one clip from a thread of five plays from one SINGLE game in which Barrett gives up on a play the exact moment he gets beat. It’s really alarming.

And it wasn’t just one game either. This happens multiple times every game. You could say he holds such a large offensive burden that he doesn’t have the energy to try on every possession, but Culver had the exact same usage and still managed to be one of the best defenders in the country.

R.J. has most of the tools (sans wingspan) needed to be a decent defender, like almost every top prospect, but the effort level is super concerning. Even when he’s locked in, he is prone to bad mental mistakes, missing rotations and playing poor team defense, though he’s alright defending one-on-one in a vacuum.

Culver has a really good defensive base. His thighs are like horse necks, and he’ll be able to dig into bigger guys like a P.J. Tucker or Marcus Smart as he continues to fill out his broad-shouldered frame. He takes bumps in the chest really well, and is able to stay with his assignment. Below, he reads the drive perfectly and grabs the strip before finishing in transition, where he excels with 1.17 points per possession:

He also is really good at tracking smaller guys around the perimeter with his lateral agility and active feet, though that’s not his primary strength. He handily projects as a strong multi-positional defender at the next level. With R.J., the defense is all theoretical.

Culver can still get beat by quicker guards, but he does a great job staying down and with his positioning.

His real strength is in his anticipatory instincts, much of which come from his advanced understanding of offensive reads. He baits offenses into throwing passes he knows he can get to, and baits players into taking shots he knows he can swat. He’ll be in position to strip someone on a spin in the lane before they even think about starting the spin, while still taking away the pass to the man he helps off.

All of his defensive acumen on film is backed up in the data. His block and steal percentages are almost double those of R.J.’s, and per The Stepien, “Culver held opponents to 0.63 points per possession in isolation and 0.558 points per possession guarding pick-and-roll possessions. Along with that, opponents scored only 0.675 points per possession on spot-ups with him as the main defender, and only 0.727 points per possession in the post.” Is that good?

Mike: That is very good. Before I took his offensive game more seriously I loved Culver for all the things you mentioned—instincts, length—but also for his versatility at the next level. He gives me heavy Khris Middleton vibes, only I think he is capable of guarding positions 1 through 4.

Culver is listed as an inch shorter than Barrett at 6’6”, which I’m not buying, unless those Clyde Frazier shorts are playing tricks on me. Even if he is truly 6’6”, his wingspan is likely to surpass Barrett’s 6-foot-9.

Barrett’s short arms make it tough for me to project him at anything more than an average defender. He is being listed as a forward on most mock drafts, which I think is a mistake. He will struggle more than Kevin Knox did, corralling the likes of Kawhi, Giannis, or Tatum. The better play is to have Barrett take on guards, and occasionally play out on the wings.

He certainly had his lapses at Duke, mainly off the ball, but I would fight to the death defending his effort. Of the 30-plus games I saw of him this year, I never questioned whether or not he was going all out; the man is a Dothraki screamer.

Now, could he be doing a poor LeBron impression, where he believes he is good enough to rest on defense? That is an argument to make, and for the record he is not good enough to do that.

In that first clip versus Clemson, check the score. In blowout games against lesser opponents it is normal to let your foot off of the gas. I know we expect these guys to be locked in wire-to-wire, but lapses like those in big games are what worries me.

Barrett’s defense in high-stakes moments eases some of my concern. In Duke’s historic comeback versus Louisville, he did a solid job in the full-court press; it fed into his desire to get a steal for a transition bucket. The same can be said during the UCF and Virginia Tech games in the tournament. He isn’t an asset, but he’s not a liability either.

In the halfcourt his size could seriously limit his effectiveness in the league. As mentioned, the lanky Culver is far superior to the short-limbed Barrett and better suited for the position-less lineups.

Barrett is on par with Culver in defensive rebounding. He and Culver had nearly identical defensive rebound percentages this season—Culver narrowly beats him, 17.4 to 17.2.

I’ll keep it real: this portion of the argument belonged to Culver before it started—he’s that good on that side of the ball. Still, if Barrett ends up being the pick, what should we expect? I’d say DeMar DeRozan would be a realistic comparison.


Harley: So much of prospect development to me is situational. And expectations matter. Most teams drafting R.J. would expect him to develop into a DeRozan-type hub of an offense, and I worry that the Knicks (sans Kyrie and KD) would drop him in that role as a trial-by-fire like Brandon Ingram.

It would significantly stunt his development to play that role out of the gate. The offense would likely turn into an OKC KD-Russ taking turns offense, but with DSJ and R.J.

Barrett is familiar with this model, given the amount of “my turn” contested mid-range shots he chucked up this season after Zion did something superhuman. That’s only going to reinforce his bad habits and make them stick longer.

In this development mold, I see his middle 50-percentile outcome as closer to a more athletic Harrison Barnes than DeMar. And his floor is the type of inefficient player who actively hurts his team (sorry to use the overplayed Wiggins comp).

Developed the right way, focused on working out the kinks of his three-point shot and learning intricacies of zoning and help defense, his ceiling could be something more like a three-point shooting DeMar—though I’m still not confident his three-point shot will ever be great with his two-motion form that’s much more suitable to a mid-range game.

Most teams would draft Culver with the expectation that he’s developing to become a secondary playmaker and put him in that George/Kawhi progression mold. Develop the fundamental skills while working on attacking closeouts, letting the offensive game come more organically. If Culver begins to really excel in this role, it’s not out of question that he eventually takes more on-ball responsibilities and ends up a PG type of player—though that’s a 90th-percentile outcome. While most would argue that R.J.’s ceiling is much higher because he may have a superior ability to create his own shot, this was not really true in college by the numbers, and there are many ways to create a shot other than with a violent first step.

The gap on the defensive side of the ball between these two is way too big to ignore, and I’m of the philosophy that you have to build contenders around two-way players. Culver’s defensive potential is All-NBA, and R.J. would be lucky if his defense didn’t run him off the floor out of the gate. Culver is a much more functional and fluid athlete, with a lower center of gravity and better balance (R.J. can be stiff). He shoots better from basically everywhere on the floor, has a superior touch, is stronger and more flexible, with a litany of truly incredible passing reads in his game tape. Barrett looks like a bull in a China shop, and would need to change the way he approaches the game in order to have a lasting positive impact in the NBA.

It’s definitely possible, but it’s all hypothetical with him right now—the defense, the jump shot, the playmaking.

Culver has shown so many skills that immediately translate to the NBA, and his I.Q. and mentality, as well as his developmental trajectory, make for a much higher floor and ceiling. I like your Khris Middleton comp a lot.

This isn’t a debate for me. I got yelled at on Twitter for this too, but R.J. is not even in my top five, and I would be truly crushed if the Knicks picked him over Culver. There’s an outline of a great player in R.J., and I can definitely see him dropping an inefficient 22-6-5 line by his third year, but I don’t see a player like him contributing to winning basketball anytime soon. He just screams TYREKE EVANS and “overpaid on second contract” at me.

In summary:

Mike: My laptop legitimately started sparking. Not top five!? That’s blasphemy. Twitter has had a great time screaming out his flaws, as the countless clips proved, while whispering his historic season at Duke. If Barrett had the 5-for-22 title-game performance Culver had, it would have been the trending topic.

He and Culver, who is two years older than the 18-year-old Barrett, had nearly identical workloads—yet Barrett still averaged more points (22.6) and shot about the same from three (30.8% to Culver’s 30.4), in a less favorable situation.

Texas Tech was better built with a more defined plan compared to Duke’s intramural-style offense with R.J., Zion, and Cam.

I do agree Culver is the safer pick and does have the higher floor. He found himself in his sophomore year. He is versatile, both physically and mentally. He has mastered having value as just another guy, while still being able to alpha up when the moment comes.

Right now, Barrett is only used to being an alpha. He has excelled at every level he’s played at, most times being one of the two best players on the floor. He took down Team USA at 16 years old. He was Duke’s iron man, appearing in every game and often playing damn near every minute.

Steve Nash, Barrett’s godfather and hopefully his soon-to-be mentor, believes one of the top indicators for success among young players is perseverance. Barrett will not be in a worse personnel situation than he was at Duke. He will have more room at the next level and be armed with better shooters.

The younger player will typically get the nod if two players are close. Despite your scalding take, I believe Culver and Barrett are the top two wings in this class. As you said yourself, it is better to err on the side of caution with regard to free agent plans.

Operating under that assumption, I’d want someone I can pivot to and say, “This is our future.” The 18-year-old standout with tireless work ethic doesn’t sound like a bad pivot to me.


Thank you Harley and Mike for the spirited debate. Full-length profiles on the two prospects will be featured on The Knicks Wall in the coming months before the NBA Draft, be on the look out for those plus our supplementary draft coverage.



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