It’s pretty difficult for any New York Knickerbocker to fly under the radar. In most recent incarnations of the team, it would have been damn-near impossible for its highest-drafted player since Patrick Ewing to escape the spotlight. But between the presence of star coach and de facto face of the franchise Tom Thibodeau, Julius Randle’s surprising star turn and All-NBA season, Kemba Walker’s homecoming and the emergence of Bing Bong Guy, RJ Barrett has become the forgotten man — or at least an overshadowed one.
Let’s rectify that.
Barrett is off to a scintillating start to his third NBA season, averaging 18.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game through the team’s first seven contests. He’s shooting a career-best 51.1 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc while taking a career-high 6.0 3-point attempts per game. This looks like the continuation of a very solid progression for Barrett, one that has him on track to fulfill or even exceed standard expectations for a No. 3 overall pick — which looked somewhat unlikely in his rookie season.
There are some who will tell you that Barrett was actually good during his debut year. Don’t let them. Asserting that his performance during his initial foray into the league was Actually Good undersells the dramatic improvement he made last season, and it does a disservice to his rapid development. (I like to call this the Josh Allen Corollary.)
Barrett checked in 488th out of 520 qualified players in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus during his rookie campaign and was one of the league’s least-efficient scorers, ranking 255th out of 259 qualifiers in effective field-goal percentage. He was on the floor a lot (30.4 minutes per game) and so had solid counter numbers (14.3 points, 5 rebounds, 2.6 assists a night), but he was a negative presence when he was on the floor.1
And you know what? That’s OK! Most rookies are pretty bad, and especially bad when they are positioned to fail — which Barrett was, due to the state of the Knicks’ roster at the time. Still, the performance was discouraging enough that RAPTOR estimated Barrett’s five-year market value at just $42.8 million heading into his second NBA season, well behind fellow top-three picks Zion Williamson ($118.3 million) and Ja Morant ($96.1 million).
Of course, players’ careers don’t end after their rookie year, which is not necessarily representative of what type of player they will become down the line. And Barrett’s sophomore campaign represented a significant step in the right direction. He went from shooting 32 percent from 3-point range to 40.1 percent, and from 61.4 percent at the free-throw line (a disastrous figure) to 74.6 percent (just a few ticks below the league average). He was a poor shooter from both those ranges in college, too, so his simultaneous improvement in each area was a particularly encouraging sign.
Barrett also cut down on his turnovers, took a greater share of his shots from three and finished better at the rim. Most crucially, he improved on defense to the point that Thibodeau was willing to play a 20-year-old for 34.9 minutes per game — something he had never come remotely close to doing in the past.
Youngsters don’t often get much time under Thibs
NBA players under the age of 21 coached by Tom Thibodeau, by minutes played per game
|RJ Barrett||2020-21||New York Knicks||20||34.9|
|Josh Okogie||2018-19||Minnesota Timberwolves||20||20.2|
|Tyus Jones||2016-17||Minnesota Timberwolves||20||12.9|
|Marquis Teague*||2013-14||Chicago Bulls||20||12.7|
|Marquis Teague||2012-13||Chicago Bulls||19||8.2|
The Knicks also experienced much more success as a team, and Barrett played a key supporting role in that success. Accordingly, his RAPTOR projection dramatically improved heading into his third NBA season. His five-year market value shot up to $118.9 million this year. That’s a jump of $76.1 million from one year to the next — one of the largest in our sample of 287 players entering their third season in the league. (His $118.9 million projection is just north of where Williamson was last year, by the way. That seems like a pretty good sign, considering how electrifying Williamson was as a rookie.)
Barrett saw a huge jump in projected value
Third-year NBA players with the biggest difference in five-year market value entering their third season from value entering their second, according to FiveThirtyEight’s player projections
|Rank||Player||3rd Season||2nd yr||3rd yr||Diff.|
|12||Otto Porter Jr.||2015-16||10.5||100.6||+90.1|
If his start to Year 3 is any indication, that projection will be going up again next season. The improvements Barrett seems to be making this year, though, are perhaps even more important than the one he made in standstill shooting a year ago.
The catch-and-shoot jumpers are still going down, but he’s doing a bit more sliding around the arc and relocating to create those opportunities, rather than just waiting for a kickout in the corner or on the wing. He’s also doing a lot more creating for himself off the bounce. He made just 15 pull-up threes in his first two seasons combined, according to NBA Advanced Stats, but he’s already made five in just seven games this season. That’s representative of a larger leap in creativity that has seen him go from a considerably below-average shooter when asked to manufacture his own looks (in terms of both the quality of shots he created and especially how often he converted them) to a pretty damn good one.
Barrett has been better when creating for himself
RJ Barrett’s actual versus expected effective field-goal percentage by season on shots taken after at least three dribbles
|Effective field-goal %|
In his career-high 35-point game against the Pelicans last weekend, Barrett had the full arsenal on display. He was pulling up for threes, wrong-footing his defender with crossovers, using crafty hesitation dribbles, snaking pick-and-rolls before ducking around a rim protector for scoops, knocking down in-rhythm step-backs and more. He’s still much more of a straight-line power player than a finesse one who will consistently shake opponents off the dribble, but he’s showing that he’s more capable of doing the latter now than he was in his first two years in the league.
The development of his right hand is coming along quite nicely as well. Barrett remains extremely left-hand dominant, but he’s getting better at both finishing and dribbling with his off-hand, to the point where he’s now comfortable executing in-and-out dribbles, crossovers and one-handed finishes moving to or using his right hand.
The most impressive part of all of this, though, is Barrett has managed to make these strides while also taking on the most challenging wing defense assignment on a nightly basis. That’s a change from last year, when those responsibilities largely fell to Reggie Bullock.2 With Bullock now in Dallas and the more offense-focused Evan Fournier in the lineup in his place, Barrett is forced to act as the team’s primary wing stopper.
Barrett said earlier this season that he wants to be on the All-Defensive first team this year. He certainly has a long way to go, but my radar is up just a little bit. It was Barrett who drew the primary coverage on Jayson Tatum as he went 7 of 30 from the field and 2 of 15 from deep in the season-opener, and against Zach LaVine as he shot 7 of 17 from the field and 2 of 6 from three in the most consequential Knicks-Bulls game in even semi-recent memory.
It was also Barrett who switched onto DeMar DeRozan on the final possession of that game, stayed down as DeRozan went to his patented pump-fake, then contested the fadeaway and (with some help from Mitchell Robinson) forced an airball. Barrett, a Toronto native, noted after the game that he grew up watching DeRozan with the Raptors, so he had seen that shot-fake a whole bunch of times in his life before DeMar tried to use it on him.
He’s also showing improved feel as a team defender, making on-time rotations that don’t show up in the box score but help prevent opponent scores and keep him in Thibodeau’s good graces.
Barrett is by no means a perfect player or prospect. He doesn’t get to the free-throw line nearly often enough for a player of his size, skill set and strength; and he has a frustrating tendency to float in and out of the offense for long stretches of games. (His 21 percent usage rate is only a hair above league-average and fifth among rotation players on the Knicks, and he took just three shots in the first half of the season-opener, for example.) He doesn’t have the elite quickness or athleticism that are typically prerequisites for being an offensive fulcrum or top-flight stopper, and while he’s been solid individually and as a positional defender, he still doesn’t make very many plays on that end, in terms of deflections or steals.
But go back and take a look at the pre-draft scouting reports written about Barrett. You’ll see some consistent themes emerging about how he has the outlines of a potential NBA star but not yet any of the awareness, attention to detail or consistency. Phrases like “induces face-palms by forcing contested shots” and “must improve feel” and “does not possess great shot IQ” and “overall effort needs to improve” and “it would help him to change his mentality” are littered throughout. There’s a lot about his funky jumper and poor defense and subpar shot creation.
Also in those scouting reports, though, are notes about his work ethic, maturity, win-at-all-costs attitude and overall competitiveness. Through the early portion of his career, those traits are the ones prevailing — helping him chip away at his weaknesses one-by-one, and turn into the type of player who simply helps his team win games in whatever way he can.
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