RJ Barrett’s development is the most important thing for the Knicks following his massive contract extension. He has made plenty of progress but still has room to grow.
RJ Barrett is widely beloved among the New York Knicks fandom, but he is far more divisive in the mainstream eye. There are valid reasons for both sides; Knicks fans are justified in their belief in him to develop into a star, just as there is reason to doubt him living up to the massive expectations thrust upon him as the third pick of the draft from a blue-blood university to play in the “World’s Most Famous Arena”.
There are plenty of variables that impact the expectations for the Maple Mamba, including the players that went in front of him in the 2019 NBA Draft. His time in the spotlight certainly makes him feel like a more known commodity, but at the end of the day, Barrett just turned 22 this summer. Even before he had played a game at Duke, he was being referred to as “The most decorated prospect since Lebron”. It is hard to have a more prestigious journey than Montverde Academy and Duke, but Barrett racked up nearly every accolade imaginable, whether it was National Player of the Year in high school or competing for Team Canada in U17 international play.
The reputation that Barrett garnered before he ever donned a Knicks jersey certainly played a role in how people feel about him, but what he has done in his short three years in the NBA definitely contributed to this as well. RJ Barrett is a complicated case study because he has gotten better in each of his seasons with the Knicks, and his numbers are quite impressive at his age, but they are not without worry. Even if he has improved, has he improved enough, or in the areas where he needs?
There will likely never be more pressure on the young Canadian to perform than there will be this season. Not only is he going into the season on a fairly hefty extension that was heavily debated this offseason, but we also recently learned that Leon Rose and company spent much of the last two months trying to figure out how to trade him for Donovan Mitchell. It is yet another variable added to Barrett’s very complicated Knicks career, one that could potentially motivate him and prove a stroke of luck that the Knicks couldn’t successfully give him away if he becomes a star. Or, it can loom over his career like a dark shadow for the rest of his time in Manhattan.
Not only does this add additional stress to a career that has already been in a pressure cooker, but it also is a public exile of a player whom many hope will be the next great Knick. That may not impact his willingness to be in the biggest market in the country while making $30 million a year to do it, but it also may not help his relationship with the organization. While many Knicks fans rejoiced over the Charlie Ward curse finally being broken by a first-round pick, others wondered if the Knicks will come to regret that.
Nobody has ever questioned if Barrett is an effective NBA player or deserving of a second contract. Where the question lies is how great the Maple Mamba can be. What is realistic to expect of the former Duke Blue Devil? Can he be a star? Or even furthermore, can he be a star on a team that is contending for an NBA title? That is something the Knicks have been looking for since Patrick Ewing and only found for a brief time with Carmelo Anthony. In a market and an arena thirsting for a star, there is always going to be clamoring for the next big thing.
So, let’s get down to business: how much has the 22-year-old Canadian developed throughout his productive three-year career and how does he project going forward?
Tracking the progress that RJ Barrett has made over three years is not necessarily straightforward given the many consistency issues he has had in his young career, but the box score does tell one side of the story. As a rookie, the former 3rd overall pick averaged 14.3 points a game. He followed that up in his sophomore showing with a three-point bump to 17.6 points per game. In his third season with the Knickerbockers, Barrett again increased his points per game, scoring an impressive 20.0 points per game.
The per-game stats that Barrett has put up early in his career are impressive in their own right and give him some elite company. Sam Vecenie of The Athletic pointed out that RJ is one of only 10 players to average 20 points, five rebounds and three assists per game in a season by the time they were 21 years old since 2000. While that is a fairly arbitrary stat line, you can look at similar stat profiles of young players with sometimes gaudy numbers and high usage to find a fairly impressive list of players, mostly All-Stars. While there are outliers such as Tyreke Evans’ early success or inefficient high usage guards like Cole Anthony, the rest of the similar stat profiles ended up being All-Stars. Does that mean Barrett is a lock to be a multi-time All-Star? Absolutely not, but there are positive and negative takeaways when you dive deeper into the profile.
The biggest question for Barrett, as with many young prospects is the jump shot. Over his three-year career, he has shot 35% from beyond the arc, but the consistency has not been there whether you are looking at a yearly basis or breaking down those numbers into the peaks and valleys he has shown during his career. In his rookie year he shot only 32% from deep, he followed that with an impressive 40% from three. Unfortunately, that does not seem sustainable or realistic as he crashed back down to 34% in his third campaign for the Knicks. The positive side, however, is an increased volume on a year-by-year basis.
If you look month by month at his third season shooting, you would have a different take for every month of the season. RJ had a disastrous start to the season and his shooting slump was a significant part of that. When Barrett has struggled over time, his shooting has almost been the cause of that. Conversely, when he was surging in the back half of the season and averaging 24 points a game, he was shooting over 35% from deep. That mark is not some outlier success and is right on par for his career average, but shows what he is capable of when he is not slumping from three and is a legit threat to knock it down.
The three-point shot is always going to be a question for Barrett, but it is not where the majority of his scoring comes from and that is both good and bad. When looking at the post-January successes, Barrett was in the top 10 in shots per game off drives with 16 drives per game. There was a clear correlation between the successes he was showing with his scoring and the aggression he brought with getting to the basket.
Classic RJ Barrett drive, TOO smooth pic.twitter.com/MA3RKmwC5A
— KNICKS ON MSG (@KnicksMSGN) January 19, 2022
At 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, Barrett is one of the stronger guards and can get to the rim at will, he is patient and able to go through weaker defenders. However, the finishing is a MAJOR problem if he is unable to create clean looks for himself. The bright side is that he is fairly consistently able to create those open looks, but the numbers show how important that is. Last season, he shot just 55% at the rim, which was in the 15th percentile among wings players, per Cleaning the Glass.
Why is that a concern? Well, in the high usage role he has held, the efficiency has not peaked yet. For him to really take that next leap, that will need to include efficiency and improvement at the rim. Part of the issue is Barrett’s lack of comfort with his right hand, which parlayed with the lack of vertical athleticism creates a lot of contested finishes. Naysayers usually bring up the lack of touch as a significant problem in the ceiling he has offensively as a largely at-the-rim scorer.
This is where we have started to see an increased bag of tricks for Barrett to get creative in finishing. If he can be more crafty in his layup package to help create open looks, that could go a long way with his finishing problems. The left-hand floater has been something he has gone to more over time, and would be an important tool in the arsenal to get open looks around the basket.
The development of the finishing has not come along as well as you would have liked with an increased finishing package and the numbers reflect that. While his two-point shooting attempts have gone up by one attempt per game but the shooting percentage has not increased with it. RJ has hovered right around 50% true shooting percentage over his three-year career with the Knicks. Last year the fan favorite Knick had a 51.1 true shooting percentage which was good enough for 146th in the NBA right in between a pair of Knicks legends: Danilo Gallinari and Bobby Portis.
RJ Barrett was awesome tonight on both ends for NYK, I thought. 20 points. A bit more craft as a finisher, including floaters. If he's going to be this straight line dependent, needs that shot. Had a nice reverse finish, made a 3. Was good to see him get going and push the tempo. pic.twitter.com/ILJ7Y9mhnE
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) October 29, 2021
While the scoring numbers have increased consistently, the efficiency numbers have not, nor have the assist numbers. RJ is a consistent three-assist-per-game player, with very little adjustment to that. The glimpses of passing that have led to the fandom calling for “Point RJ” have not manifested in successful facilitation, nor have they prevented turnover issues. Barrett has averaged around 2 turnovers a game with a less than stellar career 1.3 assist to turnover ratio.
The RJ Barrett story is entangled with the roster management in the Leon Rose era and Tom Thibodeau calling the shots. That obviously means RJ playing inexplicably high minutes regardless of contextual situations or close games, but it also means him sharing the court with multiple non-shooters at a time. Julius Randle in particular is a tough fit due to Barrett’s affinity for getting to the basket where Julius Randle also lives.
The idea of Barrett as a facilitator is something that is hypothetically successful in a situation with better on-court spacing and shooters surrounding him on the perimeter. Unfortunately, that situation does not seem likely to come to fruition with the current roster construction.
Areas for growth:
So we have looked at some of the ways that RJ Barrett has developed in his three years, now we look at what improvements can be made going forward. We know that the early statistical profile at his age and usage often reflects positive outcomes but the efficiency numbers are a concern. Is that something that we can expect to be improved? We can hope so, but there need to be tangible improvements, specifically with the finishing at the rim.
There were ways last year where Barrett was more effective off the dribble, specifically when going downhill which the Knicks could get him rolling off dribble handoffs. It is important for Thibodeau to be running offensive sets, even if devoid of spacing that benefits Barrett going to the basket. You could even see the opportunities he was giving bearing their fruit in the on/off numbers with Randle.
While going to the basket and being aggressive was an important part of the hot stretch RJ had starting in January last year, but we also saw the improving jump shot. So, what is his likely shooting trajectory? There is no real reason to expect a massive leap from beyond the arc or for him to become a 40% shooter at any point. However, the expectation should be realistic for him and based on his previous numbers. Somewhere between 35-38 percent from deep on six or more attempts a game is a positive place for him to be from long range.
When looking at the advanced shooting numbers, there are a couple of things that jump out on the screen. The first thing is that 94% of his career threes are assisted. His outlier was his sophomore season where he shot 40% from deep, 97% of those were assisted, as well as 40% being from the corner. In the other two seasons, Barrett has been under 30% from the corner.
Likewise, the place you need to see growth outside of the shooting is the finishing. That touch is very concerning, and an improved bag would help create open looks to help with his finishing problems. The contested finishing is not going to go away, but an increased layup package and crafty finishes like floaters could add a layer to his game that makes him a more potent threat going to the basket.
Not only would improved finishing help his total offensive game, but getting to the free throw line at a higher rate. The increased aggression he showed last year did help in that capacity getting to a career-high of 4.1 free-throw attempts a game after taking 2.8 attempts a game in his first two seasons. Seeing an increase in free throws would be helpful with his efficiency at the rim and would make him more dangerous when going to the basket.
Barrett shoots a lowly 69% from the line from his career and while that career average is brought down by a truly abysmal 61% free throw percentage his rookie year, the 70% he has been around the last two years is not enough to take advantage of his aggression and turning those takes into points.
So, it is unrealistic to expect RJ Barrett to break Evan Fournier’s newly crowned record of made threes in a Knicks season, but playing next to Jalen Brunson could potentially open up more catch-and-shoot opportunities where he is at his best from deep. Corner threes are a way that more than a handful of players have made a living, it is where RJ has been at his best and could be a way to improve his three-point efficiency.
Getting easy shots from deep will help open up his game and keep defenses honest which will allow him to create space to get to the basket. Playing off-ball in situations where he is given advantage opportunities, would be really beneficial for him to be able to get easier shots.
Projecting the Future:
This season is going to set expectations for RJ Barrett’s Knicks tenure under this new contract. As of September 1st, RJ Barrett’s trade value was not high enough to anchor a trade for Donovan Mitchell, so there are two assumptions we can make about how the Jazz feel. Option A: he will not be the caliber of player that Mitchell was for them, or even potentially Collin Sexton who “headlined” that deal even though of course all things are not equal. Or, option B: they did not think he was worth the contract that he was going to have to be paid.
The Knicks now, however, are committed to him for the time being as long as he wants to be there. Is that a good thing? Well, that remains to be seen. However, there are plenty of think pieces and podcasts coming out daily now in the week of both the Mitchell trade failure and the Barrett extension to give their takes on why RJ is going to tank the Knicks’ future.
I am not here to tell you that he will be a superstar, or even an All-Star, but there is no reason for Knicks fans to worry at this time. Barrett is not being paid like a star right now, since he is making significantly less than the max. Compare him to fellow draft class-mates Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and Darius Garland, two of whom are all stars with the third being superstar anomaly Zion, who are all getting the $193 million rookie-scale extension. That is a whole lot more than the $120 million that the Maple Mamba will be receiving with only $107 million of that being guaranteed.
So will he live up to that billing? Or rather, what needs to happen for him to live up to that contract? With the growth trajectory he has been at, you can expect the scoring to continue to grow, but for him to really hit stardom, the efficiency needs to match that.
The high usage rate that Barrett has seen in all three years should look to change with Jalen Brunson having the ball in his hands so much, and the off-ball scoring could help add that efficiency and unlock new things. For Barrett to really be an All-Star, he is going to need to be a more consistent three-level scorer and improve both at the rim and from deep.
The concerns that Barrett showed this year were real, and the expected leap was not there, until late in the season. Those shooting and efficiency numbers from his sophomore year now look more like outliers than expectations, which change the narrative and trajectory of what we expect him to be. Last season was a disaster hellscape for the Knicks, and RJ’s struggles were a big part of that.
Going forward, consistency is the key for RJ Barrett — to be less streaky in his shooting and his scoring. There is no reason for him to not hit an All-Star ceiling offensively if the efficiency can improve with an increase in scoring at the rim. Barrett has improved by 3 points a game in each season, if he continues that trajectory and gets to 23-25 ppg. Last year, 2019 draft-mate Darius Garland made the All-Star game with 22 points and 8 assists a game last year. There is no reason to believe that Barrett would take an unfounded leap in playmaking, but if he increases the scoring, he could potentially be getting his own All-Star bid in the next year or two.
The new role with Brunson will certainly change the dynamics of the offense, but if the Knicks (Thibs) are thinking about their future, the emphasis will be on playing and developing the young talent. If this off-season showed us anything, it is that the lack of minutes to the young players has a ripple effect of negativity on the value of the young Knicks. Nobody is more important than Barrett to develop not just as a higher trade value, but for the Knicks to have their first true homegrown star since Ewing.
All signs point to this as possible, but the warning signs also show it is no lock. This contract at least takes the doubt off his future, now it is just a matter of that future being successful. RJ Barrett will keep having to develop, and we can only hope that the leap that many hoped would come last year, will finally come to fruition. Vegas believes in that leap, with RJ’s odds to win Most Improved Player being +2000 and 4th best in the league.
This season will show us a lot about the future, but at least now that the Donovan Mitchell saga has ended, we know who will be a part of that future. RJ Barrett since the day the Knicks lost the 2019 lottery, should have always been that answer. How much you believe they can succeed with him as the star of that future may vary, but at this point, we just have to wait and see.