After a terrific breakout in January, second-year swingman RJ Barrett has fallen back to earth in February. However, the Knicks keep winning.

It seemed like R.J. Barrett had turned a corner as 2021 began. Barrett hit his stride, and the 20-year-old third-overall pick spent the first month of the year looking like the top prospect he was touted as. Over the course of January, he averaged 18.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 45.9% from the field, and perhaps most importantly for his long-term development, 75% from the line.

Hopefully, last month was a promising glimpse into Barrett’s future. However, early February has not been nearly as kind to the Knicks’ former top pick thus far. A strong outing against Atlanta on Monday has buoyed some of his numbers this month, but it had not been pretty up until that point.

Barrett’s stats were down across the board (except three-point percentage, but he’s on pace to attempt half as many as he did in January). With that, he’s losing playing time: down to 27.8 minutes per game in February from a full 36.0 last month. 

The concern is that Knicks fans may be more patient with Barrett than Tom Thibodeau, who by all accounts wants to win now. Following season after season watching young players rot on the sidelines for the likes of Jarrett Jack, DeAndre Jordan, Taj Gibson, and, of course, Elfrid Payton, fans would be justified in thinking that it’s happening all over again. 

Yet this time it feels different.

Winning is good for development and, while this comes from a small sample size, the pattern is clear: R.J. Barrett will lose minutes. Thibs isn’t here to develop the young guys, he’s here to win and bring the young guys along with them. 

There’s something to be said for letting guys play through their mistakes, but at the same time, there would have been a lot fewer complaints about younger players not getting a run under David Fizdale, Mike Miller, Jeff Hornacek, Kurt Rambis, or Derek Fisher if those teams were playing like these Knicks.

Perhaps Thibodeau is making it a lesson in accountability, and perhaps Barrett is responding. Following a disappointing stretch of three-, 13-, seven-, and eight-point outings, Barrett came alive against Atlanta with a 21/6/3 line, making two of his three free-throw attempts, and most auspiciously, hitting all three of his attempts from deep. 

Would a longer leash hurt Barrett? Probably not, but players respond to benchings differently. If R.J. was removed from the starting lineup and was playing 15 minutes a game it would be different, but he has the opportunity to play well every night, and he’ll stay on the floor when he does. 

Ideally, this is all just a slight hiccup in an otherwise impressive sophomore campaign for Barrett. These two inefficient weeks could be an anomaly that, as of the Hawks game, has already ceased. 

Knock Thibs for his rotations (I do regularly), but the players have responded to him. If Barrett goes back to struggling, if he’s regressing on the floor and struggling with his confidence, then it may be time to see if giving him more leeway snaps him out of it. But, in the meantime, Thibs has earned the right to try things his way with this team.

 

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