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RJ Barrett is better than we thought, and other early-season observations

RJ Barrett’s emergence should change the calculus for the Knicks’ present and future plans

New York Knicks v Detroit Pistons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Knicks are 1-7, David Fizdale seems way in over his head, prized free agent acquisition Julius Randle is floundering, and Jeffrey Epstein didn’t commit suicide. All of these are disturbing truths that we currently confront as Knicks fans. It’s been a rough early on this season, even for those of us seasoned by #LOLKnicks.

Amidst the darkness there has been a small, glimmering light at the end of the tunnel. RJ Barrett, the third overall pick in the 2019 draft, has impressed early on. Obviously there are concerns about his overall scoring efficiency, in particular with regard to his perimeter shooting and percentage at the charity stripe. However, his overall package as a ball handler, passer and surprisingly effective defender has been on show early and often.

While many were certainly bullish on Barrett’s potential, few expected him to look this good, this soon. Certainly the Knicks’ beleaguered front office braintrust most certainly did not when they splashed the cash in free agency. In the wake of their superstar strikeout there was a concerted effort to bring in veterans like Randle, Elfrid Payton and Marcus Morris, among others, that would help ease the burden on Barrett and the other members of the Knicks’ young core.

It was a reasonable plan even if we can, and certainly all do, have differing opinions on the specifics of their execution. Unfortunately, that plan has gone awry early, in true Knicks fashion. Randle and Morris have floundered in the primary scoring roles they’ve been thrust into by David Fizdale. Perhaps they were promised such roles of prominence by the front office.

No matter. Circumstances change, and with Barrett’s earlier-than-expected emergence as a player capable of shouldering a massive offensive role as both shot creator and facilitator, the Knicks’ plans — both present and future — should change along with it. It’s up to the front office to lean into it full-fledged.

As a playmaking two-way wing, Barrett falls under an archetype that has long been the life force of contending teams over the last 30 years or so of the NBA’s history. Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, among others, represent the pinnacle of that category of player, and all have anchored multiple championship teams. Barrett is obviously not on that level right now, nor is it close to a certainty he will ever reach those heights.

However, his advanced feel for the game at such a tender age has already established him as the driving force of whatever has been good about the Knicks this season. It is incumbent on the front office and coaching staff to shift their efforts from focusing on easing his burden with veterans as they initially planned and figure out which players on the current roster are fits alongside Barrett playing in a primary role.

Here are some other early-season observations...

Spread the floor

Barrett has been excellent when he gets going downhill into the paint. Building an offensive system heavy on motion and centered around spread pick-and-roll by surrounding him with shooters should be a top priority.

Establishing Kevin Knox as a pairing alongside Barrett needs to be a priority objective. This newfound focus should also lead to more playing time for the likes of Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier (who has his own issues) but 3-point shooting isn’t one. Reggie Bullock should also fit in nicely when he returns.

Reality check for the vets

Randle may have signed on for the chance of establishing himself as a “star,” but things change, and a star he is not. His extraordinary carelessness with the ball must be confined to a more ancillary role similar to how he’s previously thrived offensively in Los Angeles and New Orleans. If he is willing to accept that “demotion,” then Randle can stick, but if that proves problematic for him, then a move must be made.

He isn’t alone, though. Morris’ wannabe-prime-Carmelo-Anthony game needs to be cut out and revert back to the one he played in Boston the last two years, where he was relied upon for spot-up shooting, attacking closeouts and defense, not shot creation. Bobby Portis needs to stick to the script of a true stretch five, not indulging his inner Hakeem Olajuwon urges and drifting into the post.

Place a premium on fundamentals

If you want to create a successful motion offense, there are mundane, but critical, components of doing so like quick decision-making, screening, hustling back on defense and running through actions with speed and purpose. Placing an emphasis on such things reinforces to RJ and the other young players that they must [very Larry Brown voice] “play the right way.”

This goes hand-in-hand with giving the vets a reality check, but it’s imperative to prioritize playing veterans who do this without fail. Step up, Taj Gibson and Wayne Ellington! Young players like Dotson and Ignas Brazdeikis also fit the bill with their styles of play.

Look, this is all very basic stuff that you’d want to be emphasized even prior to RJ’s emergence. Spreading the floor, not taking stupid shots, and being fundamentally sound aren’t exactly ground-breaking principles. However, now that you have player who looks capable of establishing himself as a franchise cornerstone, there really shouldn’t be any hesitation to lean into building around him by having a single-minded focus on this stuff.

Julius Randle is cool, but he’s no great shakes. The guy can definitely play and is certainly better than what we’ve seen with how he’s being used in New York, but the priority of the franchise should be to identify which veterans complement RJ and the rest of the young core. Players who struggle to find their footing within that offensive ecosystem should be moved post-haste. No exceptions.

Holding players accountable

This falls squarely on David Fizdale’s shoulders. Yes, I’m sure that it’s not easy coaching this team, and many of the roster fits are clunky, but that’s what coaching is about. The solution isn’t to be a total player’s coach and let certain guys — that make more money and have more clout because they’ve been in the league longer — play as they please.

His offense isn’t complex, but if his stated goal is making sure the ball moves, and we see it more frequently with lineups that feature a mix of the youth and the bench, then he must hold players accountable that go off script. We’ve been told that he’s not afraid to cut individuals up when going through film sessions, but playing time cannot just be a carrot he uses to punish and reward our youngest members like Frank, Knox, Zo, etc.

These are all unacceptably shitty shots to settle for with plenty of time left on the shot clock. Let’s not even dig into the defensive foibles of Randle and Portis. These type of plays show a lack of awareness, in-game intelligence, and effort to work for something better. If Fiz isn’t going to hold these guys accountable for that then he’s working against the type of culture he claims to want to build.