This was RJ Barrett’s year to take the leap. Now Knicks fans are left with more questions than answers. What can RJ do to get back to being StarJ?

Things are not going well for RJ Barrett.

Year four was supposed to be “the leap” for the third overall draft pick of 2019. Barrett capped off last season by reaching a major milestone, averaging 20 points per game for a full season, prompting fans to clamor for that final leap into no doubt stardom.

The timing of that leap remains to be determined, and depending on how big a cynic you talk to, that leap may never happen.

Instead, Barrett began his fourth year confronting the real possibility of being on the way out of New York. After being anointed one of the centerpieces of the Knicks, suddenly RJ found himself the centerpiece of a proposed Donovan Mitchell offer. Team president Leon Rose would end up pulling the offer ultimately, deciding instead to sign Barrett to an incentive-laden contract extension. Trade discussions aside, Barrett entered the season with great expectations after his finish to his third season.


There has been no leap, however. And, depending on the color of your lens, Barrett has actually taken a step back this season.

All-Star consideration, leading the team in scoring, and heading to the playoff were just a few milestones Barrett had to have on his radar entering the year. So far, he has fallen short on all of those.

As a result, Barrett’s full game has been tossed under the same microscope Julius Randle found himself under last season. Every missed defensive assignment, every slouched shoulder, comes under more scrutiny than it should.

Even Clyde Frazier had some choice words, citing Barrett as the team’s worst defender, a claim Tom Thibodeau has pushed back on. “The way it works, defensively, it’s five guys working together, and the people that are tracking things, there’s no context to it,” Thibodeau said of Barrett’s defensive criticisms. “You don’t know whose responsibility it is to switch, you don’t know whose responsibility it is to show, you don’t know if there is a responsibility to stay down. You don’t know any of that.”

The defensive effort has seen serious lulls this season compared to last, yet that is not the reason many have come to question Barrett’s fit within the team. It has been his offensive woes.

Jalen Brunson’s arrival did not slide him down the food chain; Barrett led the team in field goal attempts per game early in the season, however, now with Brunson evolving into a true star scorer and Julius Randle performing at an All-Star level, Barrett has slid to third, while still averaging a healthy 16 field goal attempts per game.

Consistency has not been the problem. 

Before and after a finger injury that sidelined him for six games late in 2022, Barrett has averaged 19.7 points per game. While the other two members of the Mid 3 have put together All-Star caliber seasons — Brunson being the East’s greatest All-Star omission – Barrett has been stuck in the mud.

Over his last ten games, the lack of effectiveness seems to be getting to Barrett. Over that stretch, only Obi Toppin, Deuce McBride, and the seldom-played Evan Fournier have shot worse from the floor. Barrett is still hoisting up 16 shots a game, only now he is connecting on 41.0% of those attempts, a percentage that becomes horrific the further from the rim he gets. 

He continues to shoot a healthy amount of three-pointers (5.4 per game), but over his last ten games, is hitting an arctic 24.5% of them. Even his free throw percentage has gone back down to his rookie season level at 68.4%. Something is clearly wrong, and the solution could be as simple as taking a deep breath.

While Barrett may still be the Maple Mamba, and the general ethos of the Mamba Mentality is to shoot yourself out of a tough situation, the frequency in which Barrett is forcing shots has become troubling as of late.

Wild attempts from the paint are not an unusual occurrence for Barrett on a given night. Forced jump shot attempts like this, however, are.

For a brief time this season, Barrett shot the highest percentage from the right corner three spot, falling to 36.1%, thanks in large part to his overall slump. A good reason for that slump is rushed attempts like that. It is bad enough that every RJ Barrett three-point attempt elsewhere on the floor has the consistency of a roulette table, when he is rushing the shots he actually knocks down, things can spiral out of control quickly.

To be fair to Barrett, he has been featured less than he was last year. Brunson is the unquestioned star, casually scoring 30 points a night these days. Randle will always get his, particularly to start games, which has now left Barrett to squeeze the most out of his minutes with the reserves. And even in those minutes, there are not many plays you can point to that say Tom Thibodeau wanted to get his 22-year-old the ball.

The poor performances have not wavered Barrett’s Teflon confidence.

“I think every year this will happen to me,” Barrett said of his shooting struggles. “It’ll happen to a lot of players. It’s not anything I feel is out of the ordinary. Just going over the break, watching and going back to my mechanics and basics, getting my reps, I’ll be fine.”

The good news for Barrett is there are already identifiable areas for improvement. The first half has been Barrett’s nemesis. 

Over his last ten games, he is shooting 28.6% from the field in the first half, including 17.2% from deep. In addition to the poor shooting, he also is not getting to the line much.

Free throw line visits became a staple of Barrett’s 2022 surge last season. Barrett attempted a career-high 406 free throws last season, practically living at the charity stripe down the stretch, averaging 7.4 free throw attempts per game in his final 41 games last season. That more than doubled his average of 3.6 attempts through his first 29 games. His average this season is right in the middle, at 5.4 attempts.

If history is our guide, Barrett will find a way to right the ship on offense. He is a second-half player, both in the micro and macro. He has traditionally finished the season much stronger than he has started, much like he has finished games better than he has started them. This season, for example, he has performed much better in the second half of games, shooting 55.2% from the field and 35.0% from three.

Should this season be no different from his past three, the Knicks may finally roll out a formidable big three heading into the postseason. Should Barrett continue to struggle, though, the team is in the best shape it’s been to absorb his struggles.

Brunson is officially the greatest Knick scoring point guard of all time.  Josh Hart’s arrival has sparked the team in more ways than one, with his infectious energy playing a key role in the team’s winning streak heading into the All-Star break. Then there is the glue guy Immanuel Quickley, who has yet to receive much consideration for Sixth Man of the Year but has unquestionably taken a step forward.

This all gives Barrett time to get right.  Things may not be going well now, but Barrett’s greatest trait has always been his unwavering belief in himself. He will need to rely on that belief more than he ever has if he is going to get back on track.

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