The monster January campaign by RJ Barrett makes you wonder when, not if, the Knicks will hand the offense to the third-year wing.
RJ Barrett is ascending.
MVP chants that were previously showered on Julius Randle at Madison Square Garden have now been replaced with “R-J Barrett” chants. The switch up from the fans is justified—Barrett has been that good lately.
After spending the latter half of 2021 struggling to find his footing following a superb sophomore season, Barrett has started 2022 on a tear and has become the undisputed top dog of the Knicks.
Through his first 12 games of 2022, Barrett is averaging 23.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and shooting 45.2% from the floor and 42.4% from three-point range. The key number for Barrett, however, is 18.3—Barrett’s field goal attempts per game in that same span.
RJ Barrett nifty passes in the month of January, part one: pic.twitter.com/56rK3tokg6
— Reid Goldsmith (@reidgoldsmith) January 25, 2022
For all of Barrett’s Knick career, Julius Randle has been the undisputed number one option. Randle’s historic 2020–21 campaign made that formula seem more than fine for the Knicks. The team snagged the fourth seed on their way to one of the best single-season turnarounds.
RJ Barrett played a key role in that turnaround, too, and had Randle not had one of the best single-season turnarounds for a player, it would have been Barrett showered with praise for his miraculous turnaround from a poor shooting rookie season. Whatever the case is, Barrett’s elevation to the top role is good for Barrett and great for the Knicks.
With Sunday’s win over the Clippers, the Knicks improved to 8-3 in games Barrett has more than 20 field goal attempts. Of those 11 games, six have come in the new year, and the Knicks are 5-1 in those games.
The increase in field goal attempts is a welcomed change from his 13.4 per game average through the first 29 games of the season, where Barrett’s main function on offense was occupying the corner and allowing Randle or Kemba Walker to run the show. This format was not working for Barrett—he averaged a meager 15.0 points per game in that span—or the team.
Since Barrett has ascended to the top of the food chain, so to speak, things have felt better. One area Barrett excels in compared to Randle is decisiveness, particularly this season.
Both Barrett and Randle are built out of solid steel, yet only one is currently putting their solid frame to use. Barrett has increased his attempts at the rim over the last 12 games, averaging 7.5 attempts per game compared to his season average of 5.6. The touch is noticeably improving, too.
Barrett’s field goal percentage at the rim has improved to 53.3% over his last 12 and is 54.1% for the season, a progressive increase from his 50.9% as a rookie. Conversely, Randle is averaging 4.1 attempts at the rim, down from his season average of 4.8 per game.
In addition to scoring at a better clip at the rim, Barrett has also reduced the instances of tunnel vision when driving. He has looked Mitchell Robinson’s way quite often, and in general, has looked for his teammates as the defense collapses.
Beautiful wrap-around pass from RJ to Noel for the bucket pic.twitter.com/Jw2ZTxaizh
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 25, 2022
The success down low could be attributed to external forces as well. For starters, Randle has relinquished the keys to the offense, putting the ball in Barrett’s hands more often. The other is Barrett has had more space to operate thanks to the marksmanship of his teammates. The joke through his first two seasons is that Barrett left dorm-room-level spacing at Duke for studio-apartment-level spacing in New York.
Lately, it feels like Barrett has the spacing of a normal NBA player. The emergence of Quentin Grimes and Evan Fournier has been key in decongesting the floor. Fournier’s three-point percentage since the new year has increased to 45.7% and he is averaging 15.5 points per game, both up from his season averages of 38.9% and 13.5 respectively.
Grimes is shooting 44.7% from deep in that same span and shooting 40.5% from deep as he continues his ascension as the younger, better Reggie Bullock. Even more encouraging is Thibodeau throwing more minutes the rookie’s way. Over the last nine games, Grimes has averaged 22.0 minutes per game.
The key now is ensuring this run is not a fluke. Barrett had five- to six-game stretches where he has looked good before coming back down to earth. Still, this stretch feels different.
Even in the tough loss at Cleveland, it was Barrett who took the decisive shot. It showed that his teammates trust him, his coach trusts him, and Barrett damn sure trusts himself. The stars are aligning for Barrett, and the team needs him to become who the Knicks expected they were getting when they drafted him.