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RJ Barrett may have had his rookie season cut short due to the pandemic after a midseason injury, but that didn’t stop onlookers from drawing early conclusions about his potential. He was left off the All-Rookie teams, re-drafted far below his third overall selection and put on bust watch in some circles. One year later, he’s made those people look completely silly.
For the Knicks to be one game over .500 and in the fifth seed this deep into a season with relatively the same roster from last year’s debacle, it has taken monstrous leaps out of their core pieces. We’ve seen it out of Julius Randle, who made his first All-Star team, and Mitchell Robinson, who has matured to the point of nearly erasing his past foul woes.
Now it’s clear Barrett has joined that list, shaking off a poor few games in December to emerge as a key cog on a playoff team and ridiculously-enticing 20-year-old prospect. Barrett is averaging 17.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game, shooting 44.8 percent from the field, 34.4 percent from deep and 73.2 percent from the free throw line. There’s no part of his game that hasn’t improved materially since last season, so let’s dive into each one by one to fully grasp the strides he’s made.
Let’s begin with shooting, the single biggest question mark surrounding Barrett. After underwhelming 32/61 percent splits from the three-point and free throw lines in his rookie season, he’s been reliable from both ranges this year. A two-percentage point jump from behind the arc doesn’t seem too impressive, but subtract his first five games of the season and Barrett’s clip jumps to 38.6% percent from three, north of league average.
You can see the development in his form, which was inconsistent last year with a hitch to work through. Now he’s shooting threes in (for the most part) one smooth motion, which on top of better shot selection has driven his percentages higher. As a rookie, 18 percent of Barrett’s threes were off the dribble. That number plummeted to under 5 percent this season, favoring the more dependable catch-and-shoot opportunities. Last year, two-thirds of RJ’s three-point attempts were above-the break-looks, now they’re only half.
How much of Barrett’s improvements are due to shot selection versus genuine development of his jumper? Look no further than thejump in free throw shooting to quell any doubts. There’s no longer reason to believe he can’t be an effective shooter in this league.
Scoring doesn’t only come from the outside, and Barrett ticked up his efficiency going into the paint as well. His shooting at the rim clocked in at 56.8 percent his rookie year, but is now up to 63.2 percent. Concerns regarding his inability to do much outside of the straight-line drive haven’t completely disappeared, he’s just shown the savvy and craftiness to work around that.
Barrett manipulates his lack of explosive speed a bit like Luka Doncic, the league’s most promising young player. Changes of speed, strong hesitation dribbles and better utilizing his strength allowed Barrett to sneak his way into better looks at the rim. Every game he’s picking up the best times to pull out specific moves to get his way, leading to veteran-like euro steps and spin moves in the paint.
A Tom Thibodeau-coached team needs you to do more than score, however, and Barrett has answered the call. He was fundamentally sound from the outset, but he’s sharpened his game further and looked like a true stopper at points this season. Thibodeau will often give Reggie Bullock the night's toughest assignment, but we still get moments of Barrett holding his own against Kawhi Leonard that speak to his potential on that end. New York is only a half-point better per 100 possessions at locking up their opponent with Barrett on the court, but to be this reliable on a defense this good for a coach of Thibodeau’s caliber speaks louder than the statistical impact.
Part of defense is rebounding, and Barrett is up a percentage point in rebounding rate this year from an already-impressive number for a wing, even with the added minutes and improved frontcourt. When he grabs a defensive board, turns and runs the fast break, we get a glimpse of all he can do in just a short possession.
It’s in these moments we see more of his improvement, this time with his playmaking. They were only glimpses last year, but more and more this season we’re seeing nightly skip passes to weak-side corners on the pick-and-roll, something stars in this league must have in their bags. Barrett’s getting it down in year two, sometimes with his off-hand, as a kicker.
He’s always loved targeting his roll men on lobs, but now he’s beginning to leverage his scoring threat to create opportunities for others, setting up baseline kick-outs to the corners knowing the defense collapsed on him and isn’t giving him his shot. His assists per 36 minutes only improved from 3.0 to 3.2, but his reads are improving exponentially.
Perhaps the most impressive part of all of this growth is we’re seeing it develop in real time. Those that paid attention to Barrett’s post-injury rookie year versus his pre-injury rookie year saw him learn and better execute just through playing, a preview into what we’re getting this season.
The passing improvements weren’t so clear early this season, but once his scoring became a consistent threat, the playmaking followed suit. Speaking of scoring, Barrett had a good amount of single-digit performances this year, but hasn’t scored fewer than 10 since February 23.
You can see this on display against individual teams too. Barrett’s first game against the 76ers this year was a 2-for-15 stinker in which he looked helpless against Ben Simmons. In their second matchup, the Duke product was more patient with Simmons on him and put up a better and more efficient, performance. Less than a week later, he dropped 19 points on 9-for-17 shooting on the same Sixers team, even making Simmons look foolish with some of his moves inside.
If Barrett keeps growing at this rapid pace, there’s no telling what his ceiling is. Everytime a weakness in his game becomes obvious, he works to address it. If one part of his game isn’t on that night, you can usually rely on him to impact the game positively otherwise.
The Knicks have a special talent on their hands, and it’s exciting to think what he might do next.