After entering the summer of 2019 with high hopes for their offseason, the New York Knicks remain stuck with the muddied persona they’ve built for themselves.
Despite offseason hype and rampant rumors of franchise-altering free agency additions, the NBA’s most lucrative team is back at the bottom of the standings with two wins through 10 games.
Daydreams of a star-driven lineup became an overflowing rotation of natural power forwards and a substandard backcourt seemingly set up for failure. And yet, there is hope for New York in the form of rookie swingman RJ Barrett, whose rapid ascension into the NBA has given the yearning fanbase a glimmer for the future.
While overshadowed by eventual No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson at Duke, Barrett dominated college basketball despite playing second fiddle to his dormmate. As Williamson commanded the majority of the national attention, Barrett displayed tons of upside while adapting to head coach Mike Krzyzewski and the next level of competition.
His hard work landed him as the No. 3 pick in his class with the opportunity to showcase his talent on what many consider to be the grandest stage in professional basketball. Under the bright lights and electrifying pressure of Madison Square Garden, Barrett has indeed stepped up as one of the most effective rookies through the early stages of the season.
Head coach David Fizdale made it clear after the Knicks’ 113-92 loss to the Sacramento Kings that he has no intention of limiting Barrett’s playing time.
According to the New York Post’s Marc Berman, Fizdale reacted to the questioning of Barrett’s workload by remarking “We got to get off this load-management crap.”
Fizdale cited former-Knick Latrell Sprewell, who played 40 or more minutes in five of his 13 pro seasons, as a comparison for his rookie’s high minute total.
“This kid is 19. Drop it already,” he said.
As a result, the fourth-year head coach is allocating 35.3 MPG to Barrett—the most amongst rookies. With the freest rein of any first-year player, Barrett leads his class in total points with 155 while ranking second in both rebounds and assists with 58 and 36, respectively.
Despite walking away on the wrong side of the scoreboard in that loss to the Kings, Barrett put up 22 points on 40 percent shooting while attacking the basket relentlessly and drawing nine foul shots. Though he made only five of his attempts, the fact that he can force the referee’s whistle as often as he has is impressive for the age-equivalent of a college sophomore.
From as early as the 2019 Summer League, it was evident that Barrett would attack the basket with confidence. The 19-year-old already exhibits excellent body control when barreling past defenders, absorbing contact and shifting himself to create separation on acrobatic layups.
Due to the physical nature of his playstyle, Barrett is second among rookies in points off the drive with 6.2 per contest. What’s more impressive is his ability to read defenders and kick the ball out from the shooting guard and small forward positions. He’s third in passes out of the drive for rookies behind two natural point guards in Darius Garland and Ja Morant.
While he certainly takes his fair share of attempts, Barrett isn’t afraid to defer to teammates and give the ball up, either. He ranks third in his class in assist average and fourth in total passes.
Barrett’s court awareness applies to both ends of the floor. For as terrible as the Knicks have been, they’ve ranked near the middle of the pack defensively. New York is fifteenth in average points allowed (109.3) and are tied with their division rival Boston Celtics for seventh in steals average.
Passion displays itself on the court through hustle, and Barrett has it in boatloads. The rookie battles hard every time, translating to his team-high 3.8 contested 3-pointers per game. He also displays consistent effort on the boards, leading all rookies listed below 6’7″ in offensive rebounds per game with 1.2.
It’s been common to find Barrett tracking down loose balls, intercepting passing lanes and stripping the rock from opponents. He remains shifty and elusive when lurking on ball handlers, timing himself patiently and making use of his 6’10” wingspan. He’s forced the fourth-most steals of all rookies on average during this young season and wracked up six of them during his first trip to visit the crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets at the Barclay’s Center:
Barrett has a knack for swiping passes away from opponents. His quick hands were highlighted by two steals against Nets role players Taurean Prince (1:34) and Garett Temple (2:12) in only the second game of his career.
One play in particular (0:53) saw Barrett track down a stumbled pass by center Jarett Allen, push the ball up the court within seconds and set teammate Julius Randle up for an easy layup. Though Randle botched the open attempt, this is an example of how Barrett can translate defense into offense and make his teammates’ jobs easier in the process.
Leaking out on the fastbreak or leading the charge as a primary ballhandler, Barrett is enabling the Knicks to score on 52.9 percent of fastbreak sequences that include him. For perspective, that ties Kings guard De’Aaron Fox and exceeds the percentages of both LeBron James and Ben Simmons—all of which are known to create transition offense.
Coming out of college as a 30.8 percent 3-point shooter, there was a sense of uncertainty regarding whether or not RJ’s jump shot would adapt to NBA distance. Part of his issues shooting the ball was because of the forced nature of his 3-point volume. Now that he’s in an environment that’s letting him play his game, Barrett is up to 34.3 percent on 3.5 attempts per game.
That’s certainly not elite territory, but it suggests that the shot concerns were likely overblown. This is just a young player who can and will develop better range over time.
The priority now needs to be adjusting Barret’s game for elite competition, which means taking smarter shots from 5-14 feet from the basket. Up to this point in the season, he’s only made 23.1 percent of 26 attempts in that range. Whether he works on his mid-range shot creation to increase that percentage or eliminates those shots altogether, his team will continue suffering until he fixes the current rate and volume.
Far from a perfect product, Barrett remains an explosive two-way athlete with a wide range of NBA-ready skills to build off of. Though failed dreams of landing star free agents grew to be the focal point of their summer, the Knicks walked away from the 2019 offseason with an undeniable building block for their future.