How RJ Barrett Can Bounce Back Next Season
There’s not much sugar left to coat this season with, and that has nothing to do with the pandemic-related stoppage. The New York Knicks fell short of expectations yet again.
The rotations were muddled, the front office and coaching seats had little continuity, and the pieces on the roster do little to complement each other.
But there is hope in the darkness.
Rookie RJ Barrett wasn’t at his most efficient, but he showed enough to inspire the organization to continue building around him.
Barrett is a volume scorer who needs his touches, rhythm and the ball in his hands to be at his peak. The Knicks drafted him not just with that understanding, but with the expectation that they would provide the volume he needs. But Barrett has barely shot 40 percent from the floor in his rookie campaign, and the struggling Knicks around him haven’t helped matters.
Since the advent of the 3-point line, only thirty rookies have taken at least 13 field goals and three treys a game. Of the group, Barrett’s effective field goal percentage of 44.5 is 27th, only ahead of Jamal Mashburn, Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay.
Firstly, being on the list is a compliment to Barrett’s raw scoring prowess and the faith the Knicks have in him. But there’s only a slight correlation that efficiency as a rookie leads to career effectiveness and finding that sweet spot. (Other names below 47 percent eFG% as rookies with that much volume include Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Jerry Stackhouse.)
Barrett has some work to do if he wants to become consistent as the anchor of an offense, and a lot of that has to do with his usage.
How the Knicks resolve their coaching candidacy and steer the ship moving forward will largely impact where Barrett gets the ball and what type of synergy exists between expectations and his strengths.
Whoever inherits this Knicks roster has two lefties in Barrett and Julius Randle to format around. There’s a ton of well-rounded shot-making ability within Barrett’s game that hasn’t been tapped into and that he hasn’t earned the leash for.
There are a few areas on offense he can tighten so that his freedom increases as the organization prepares to round the corner from a rebuild to a renaissance.
Let’s start with the basics: Barrett shot a subpar 45.7 percent on non-post-up finishes. He also made less than one-third of his runners.
He is long and crafty, with a solid handle and a pretty good IQ, but Barrett’s not too bouncy and lacks burst through the hole. Against premier rim protectors, he’ll need to play angles since he’s unlikely to catch any bodies. He’s far beyond his time with the use of a snake dribble and how he holds his man hostage when gaining an advantage in the pick-and-roll.
If there’s a trick to be stored up his sleeve, he has it.
Strangely, one of Barrett’s supposed strengths coming out of college was his body control and ability to absorb contact while going to his left. That’s an area he faltered when against NBA contact, however. He could get past his man and play crafty basketball but did not finish plays and really was harmed against physicality.
It didn’t help that, when Barrett would go to drive, this was the spacing he’d deal with:
Barrett isn’t bouncy, and usually guys who lack vertical pop tend to avoid two-foot finishes since they believe jumping off two will only stunt their leaping.
But playing square and solid can impact shooting percentage in ways that mitigate what is lost explosively. Barrett is a one-foot takeoff guy for the most part, and he likes to try a few things to create room for himself so he can decelerate and have that space.
Most prominently is a Euro-step or a side-step:
It’s not a great move for Barrett right now because he goes so slow at the finish. I always point out that guys should only use the Euro-step if they’ll finish high and at the rim; It’s not meant to accompany a floater, push-shot or anything that doesn’t result in knuckles scraping the backboard or rim.
That’s why Barrett gets his floaters blocked so much.
He doesn’t have the requisite speed to get to the rim and then decelerates at the end. So the separation usually gained from unorthodox foot movements doesn’t exist.
Because he’s fairly strong at the shoulders, Barrett likes to shove primary defenders away by sticking his shoulder into their chest on the gather step. He wants to create space that way, use his second step to get his base underneath and then fling up an attempt.
Only problem? NBA defenders are strong enough not to be bothered by such a shove:
The difficulty in jumping from high school to the NBA in less than 20 months is the sudden improvement of everyone around you from a strength and athleticism perspective.
Those moves that Barrett loves that worked so well at Duke and in high school aren’t going to shake DeAndre Ayton. It will return to being an important part of his arsenal once he gets stronger himself, but Barrett isn’t quite there yet. Right now, all he does is invite contact, not get a call because he initiates it, and raise the degree of difficulty on the shot.
That aforementioned floater has to improve quickly, though. Barrett takes about one a game, a means of avoiding elite rim protectors and NBA bigs.
The concept is solid: If they stand back and don’t leave the charge circle, Barrett can get good shots from 4-6 feet away and loft floaters over them.
The speed at which he plays doesn’t allow him to do both, however. Bigs can see him rise up and forfeit his dribble. As he rises to float one over, they approach, either swatting his attempt into the stands or making him loft it higher over them.
He’s tried off two feet and off one as a true runner and, well, neither worked:
Barrett needs to be a little more deceptive and shifty with his shoulders in this area. A footwork coach would work on a tennis concept known as a “split step”: It’s what net players use just as their opponent hits a return. By split-stepping and being balanced on both feet equally, the net player can react to whichever way the ball goes and not lose a step.
Barrett almost needs to do the same as he approaches the rim. Right now, his hops are fairly large and emphatic to where defenders see him coming to a stop. A little subtlety to his last step could carve out more space.
The last part of Barrett improving as a scorer at the rim is gaining confidence in using his right hand.
Because left-handed guys play with a different aesthetic, their avoidance of their weak-hand is more noticeable. But Barrett left points on the board by relying on his left and his floater instead of getting to the rim for a bucket. Both primary and help defenders would dare him to go all the way to his right, and he wouldn’t do it:
Don’t feel like any of this is Panic City for Barrett. He still had a solidly productive year and, remember, is not legal drinking age.
His best days are ahead of him, and these few subtle tweaks could pay immediate dividends as he chases alpha status within this organization.
2. Mastering the Mid-Range
Hand-in-hand with his finishing ability, Barrett must become more efficient with his dribble pull-up game. From the long mid-range, he shot a putrid 6-for-33.
Only two players—teammate Dennis Smith Jr. and Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon—shot worse on as large a sample.
Nowadays the analytic arguments overpower the commentary on mid-ranges: Avoid taking them, move back behind the 3-point line, it’s the least-valuable shot in basketball. Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple.
The average team scores about 0.91 PPP on any given possession. Modern defenses are designed to take away those most-efficient shots and encourage mid-range jumpers. So a balance needs to be struck.
You have to be good at what the defense gives you, but you also have to take the right shot for your team that yields an above-average likelihood of scoring.
To simplify: If Barrett’s going to have the ball in his hands and defenses won’t let him get to the rim, he has to get good enough at nailing the mid-range that it isn’t actually a bad shot anymore in the right circumstances.
Consider this: There were 11 players to take at least 75 jumpers in the long mid-range and generate a greater PPP than the league-average of 0.91: Josh Richardson, Khris Middleton, Dennis Schroder, CJ McCollum, Domantas Sabonis, Danilo Gallinari, Donovan Mitchell, Jamal Murray, Malcolm Brogdon, Damian Lillard and JJ Redick.
Most are late-clock scoring options on their teams. Many share physical profiles with Barrett. All, with the exception of Redick, are on playoff teams.
Good teams not only impose their will on the defense to get the shots they want, but they make the shots they are forced to take. That’s where Barrett needs to impose himself as alpha and why this stage of his game is important, regardless of what analytics tell us about optimal team shot selection.
Barrett needs to improve knowing which shots to take. A lot of his mid-ranges were in-and-out, clean attempts. The numbers don’t reflect his ability. Until they improve, his leash to take more of the bad ones won’t elongate.
And as a rookie, Barrett took a lot of the bad ones. Those are the shots that aren’t late-clock, that are isolation in nature and where other avenues for a higher-value shot are readily available:
Contrast those with mid-ranges I’d deem the right shots for a high-volume scorer: The late-clock opportunities where the Knicks need a bucket.
The pull-ups after Barrett gets run off the 3-point line and driving into traffic are not ideal. The occasional pull-up against Drop pick-and-roll coverage is a different story:
These shots are part of the chess match. By taking one, and hopefully making it, maybe the defense has to change the way they play you. Maybe the big doesn’t sit back and protect the paint with as much discipline next time he comes off a screen, so the rim becomes open for the high-percentage layup.
Maybe someone rotates to challenge the one-dribble pull-up so he can swing it to find the open guy.
Average players turn into good players by improving their shot selection. Good players turn into great ones by making difficult shots that others dare not take. If we’re going to lean into Barrett being a go-to scorer for decades to go, let’s make sure he’s going to be a great one.
He’s got to get to the point where him taking a mid-range is as good, if not better, than him rolling the dice with a contested jumper from a teammate.
3. Making Passes a half-step earlier
Barrett is usually very square and off two-feet as a passer, a part of his game l happen to love. The difficulty is that he’ll become predictable because he is a two-foot passer and a one-foot finisher.
There needs to be more variance, so that as he picks up his dribble and starts to retreat off one foot, help defenders won’t retreat to their man and force him to take a tough two.
Those shrinking passing lanes are irrelevant if Barrett starts to anticipate when helpers collapse on him and gets a tad faster with his kickouts.
Overall, I think Barrett had a really strong rookie year when it comes to passing, particularly out of ball screens. He handled hard hedges and traps well, playing without panic and firing simple reversals. He displayed back-side vision and would rifle some overhead snap passes with his left hand to open shooters.
But the spacing and lack of Knicks 3-point threats would catch up to him at times, and he wasn’t good enough at manipulating defenses. We mentioned the snake dribble earlier, which he’s tremendous at, but he routinely used it only to score and not to create for others.
Barrett also struggled in the pick-and-roll with quick decision-making.
He has a tendency to over-penetrate, run out of options, then fire off a pass since that’s his only remaining option. Veteran defenders use their countless reps to anticipate and jump in front of those bailout passes. Whether from over-dribbling into the lane or picking up his dribble away from the basket, Barrett ran out of options and was just a half-step late in recognizing the open target.
He needs to be more proactive instead of reactive, dictating to the defense with his eyes and his anticipation skills instead of purely trying to read them:
Part of Barrett’s development will come from finding kickouts from isolations or post-ups—two areas the Knicks are determined to get him reps. Right now, he’s just a step slow in finding the open guy.
In post-ups, Barrett is more determined to wait for a defender to fully commit to him instead of finding ways to bait the defender in and kick out while he’s on his way to trap. The distance can cost his team about one or two seconds:
When you’re the best player on a team, you have the responsibility to create for your teammates and put them in positions to succeed.
In a classic case of “chicken or the egg”, Barrett’s spacing in post-up situations is cramped by the lack of shooters he’s surrounded by. But he can improve how open they are—and by extent their shooting percentage—with earlier and easier kicks. That becomes even more important if Barrett establishes himself as a threat that must be double-teamed.
But the same concept applies to isolations, where Barrett’s vision is clearer as he faces the hoop and he’s more of a threat to attack with vigorous and quick bounces. Part of becoming a good passer in those areas is finding an understanding of when help defenders are past the point of no return and off-balance.
If you pass at a time when they can’t change direction, chances are high your teammate gets a clean look. But Barrett wasn’t as proactive this year:
These are all regular struggles or areas of improvement for rookies. With the high usage that Barrett undertook his first season and the high expectations for him, those struggles were exacerbated.
But they’re all correctable, and his raw talent is too immense to not see his scoring metrics improve.
Pay attention to the timeliness of his play, the improvement of his burst at the rim, and the late-clock success he has in carrying the Knicks offense. If he can take positive steps in those areas moving forward, he’ll be a pleasant surprise in year two.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.