Knicks' RJ Barrett showing noticeable improvement on defensive end

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RJ Barrett defense on DeMar DeRozan jump shot
RJ Barrett defense on DeMar DeRozan jump shot

On social media, most of the conversation around RJ Barrett is focused on his ceiling on offense.

Will he be able to develop a consistent jumper? Can he get by defenders off the dribble? What about going right?

Barrett’s focus, though, seems to be on the other end of the floor.

“Honestly, the biggest part I’ve really been trying to work on is my defense,” Barrett said earlier this week. “I want to be First Team All-Defense, I want to be (a top defender), I want to be that guy for this team. ... Try to make every night a struggle for anybody I’m guarding.”

On Wednesday, Barrett was given the biggest defensive assignment of the night. And he aced it.

With his team one shot away from an embarrassing late-game collapse, Barrett contested DeMar DeRozan’s jump shot well enough to force a miss and seal the Knicks’ win in Chicago.

“(DeRozan is) so good at getting to his spot and then drawing you into the air and drawing fouls and that’s what I loved about (Barrett’s defense),” Tom Thibodeau said after the win. “We gave the appropriate help. RJ stayed disciplined. He challenged at the end very well.”

Mitchell Robinson stepped over to help on DeRozan and Barrett showed patience on his contest. If Barrett jumped too early, DeRozan would have been at the free-throw line with a chance to win the game.

“At a time like that, time running out, up one, you don’t want to get a cheap foul,” Barrett said. “You got to jump after him.”

Barrett did just that. In the process, he saved the Knicks from a brutal loss. And he showed you again that he has the tools to be a strong defender.

He also had 20 points in the win, which was one of the best two-way performances of his young career.

You can argue that Barrett’s trajectory/development on defense this season is more important than his offense. With Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier in the starting lineup, New York may not need Barrett to create as much as he did last season.

But the club will need him to defend. With Reggie Bullock in Dallas, the Knicks may ask Barrett to defend the opponent's top wing every night. On Wednesday in Chicago, he was clearly up to the challenge.

KEMBA GETTING SPACE TO SHOOT

Walker has hit five threes in consecutive games. On Wednesday, he hit five of his six attempts and scored a team-high 21 points.

He’s shooting 52 percent from beyond the arc (32 attempts) so far this season.

“The guys we have on our team, we just have a lot of space. Julius (Randle) is drawing a lot of attention, he’s finding me,” Walker said after Wednesday’s win. “That’s due to our offense, guys are cutting, drawing defenders and the ball is just swinging around to me. I’m getting some great looks. My teammates are setting great screens as well. So when I’m open, I’m just trying to make the best out of the opportunity.”

Walker’s knee ailment limited him at the end of his tenure in Boston. He didn’t play in both games of the Celtics’ back-to-backs last season.

So what Walker said on Wednesday about his health is noteworthy:

“This is the best I’ve felt in a very long time. My days consist of me taking care of myself," he said. "I don’t mean that when I’m in the facility with the trainers. I mean that when I’m home. When I’m in my room I’m taking care of my knee. That’s like my whole day. There’s a lot of preparation leading up to these games for me. Especially during these days.

“I feel good. I’ve been doing everything I can to stay healthy and be on that court. That’s all I want to do, is play the game that I love. It’s been fun. It’s still early, we’re playing pretty well right now. We just want to keep going.”