Knicks rookie RJ Barrett’s early NBA performance has been a mixed bag. Oddly enough, the two extremes of his polarizing production are two sides of the same coin. The good and the bad, so far this season, are tantalizingly intertwined for the third overall pick in the 2019 Draft. Through 22 games, the Maple Mamba is averaging a historically heinous 53 percent from the free throw line, on a historically impressive five free throw attempts per game.
This, for Knick fans, is a confusing contradiction to stomach. Optimism, always a scarce resource in these parts, is in particularly short supply heading into 2020, and the Barrett conundrum only deepens this scarcity.
RJ is getting to the free throw line — an offensive outcome with the analytic approval rate equivalent to a wide open three — at a frequency indicative of stardom. The flip side is that once he’s there, his shooting is on a par with Shaquille O’Neal’s career percentages — the poster child of foul line futility.
Twenty players in the last 20 NBA seasons have averaged more than five free throw attempts per game in their rookie campaigns. Four of those 20 — Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Ja Morant, and Barrett — are in their rookie or sophomore seasons now. Three more — Andrew Wiggins, Tyreke Evans, and Michael Carter-Williams — have, to varying degrees, been disappointments in their careers so far.
The rest of them are a who’s who of NBA royalty, with precisely 104 All-Star Games — and counting — between them. In order of stardom, as defined by popular vote, we have: Joel Embiid (two selections), DeMarcus Cousins (four), John Wall (five), Blake Griffin (five), Pau Gasol (six), Amar’e Stoudemire (six), Dwight Howard (eight), Russell Westbrook (eight), Chris Paul (nine), Carmelo Anthony (10) Kevin Durant (10), Dwyane Wade (13) and Lebron James (15).
An illustrious list, made all the more impressive by who’s not there, as who is. Think of the bruising big men, relentless jitterbug point guards, or do-it-all unicorns of the last 20 years who didn’t get to the line at that rate as rookies. No Yao Ming? No Kyrie Irving? No Anthony Davis?
I am not saying that RJ Barrett is definitively going to be an All-Star. I’m saying that RJ is hitting a statistical marker only a handful of rookies ever hit, and, of those rookies, the vast majority of them go on to become All-Stars. In fact, assuming Doncic and Trae are on the road to All-Star status, 83 percent of rookies this century who do what RJ is currently doing become All-Stars.
This is encouraging. Not as encouraging is that RJ’s 53 percent from the foul line is emphatically the worst percentage of all 20 players. This is a group that includes Howard (67 percent), Griffin (64 percent) and Stoudemire (66 percent). It’s not close — to the tune of an 11 percent drop-off — through the first quarter of Barrett’s debut season.
Herein lies the fascination with the Knicks’ 19-year-old rook: his biggest strength is diluted, overshadowed and knotted up in his biggest weakness. He gets to the line at a rate indicative of future stardom, but when he’s there — on an increasingly worrying sample size — his struggles swallow up that optimism and burp up a gigantic alarm bell instead.
For young players, free throw shooting is a well-established indicator of future shooting prowess, which, if it holds true for RJ, would lower his ceiling considerably.
The only players — at any stage of their career — this century to shoot less than 60 percent from the line on five or more free throws per game, with a usage rate of more than 24 percent (where RJ is currently) are Giannis Antetokounmpo (once), Andre Drummond (once), Tim Duncan (once), Blake Griffin (once), Dwight Howard (five times), Shaquille O’Neal (seven times) and RJ Barrett.
The rational take is one where the two extremes of RJ’s fortunes from fifteen feet regress to their respective means, where exceptional and woeful shake hands and compromise at good. By the end of the season, he gets to the line a respectable (but unremarkable) four times a game and makes an improved (but still disappointing) 65 percent from the foul line.
There is more to it than this, though. Dive under the hood of that rookie reference group — the 20 to hit five free throw attempts per game straight out of the NBA gate — and you see traits and tendencies that RJ unequivocally has, irrespective of what happens next when he lines up to shoot two.
It’s not just his 6-foot-7 and filled-out frame, or the way he seeks out contact or unearths angles; it’s a comfort and cadence around the rim most rookies simply don’t have. And remember, this Knicks roster has 1970s spacing. Defenses are packing the paint against these Julius Randle-led lineups knowing the Knicks have neither the shooters nor the system to punish them.
Despite this, Barrett leads the Knicks with 11 drives per game, which is second among rookies, behind Morant’s 17.6(!), and around the same mark as penetrators like Kemba Walker, Pascal Siakam and Ben Simmons. RJ’s ability to get in the paint should only improve as he gets more room to operate, and a system designed to emphasize his skillset.
As for the free throw percentage, there are reasons to be optimistic. Plenty of guys struggle from the line as a rookie only to take huge leaps the next year with a generally higher comfort level and a summer of work in the gym. Chandler Parsons went from 55 percent as a rookie to 73 percent the next year. Wilson Chandler went from 63 percent as a Knick rookie to 80 percent the next year. David Lee went from 58 percent as a Knick rookie to 82 percent the next year.
RJ is not short of competitiveness. Everything we’ve seen from the kid lends itself to the comforting likelihood that he won’t be resting on the laurels of his rookie season, and that his weaknesses — especially those as publicly lambasted as his foul line futility — come the offseason, will be attacked with the same gusto that he attacks the paint.
The relative sustainability of his strength, and its corollary weakness, will be interesting to watch for the rest of the season. Are either or both of these numbers outliers? Time will tell. But RJ’s ability to penetrate is a weapon to be nurtured, an instrument of efficient offense for a Knick group lacking an anchor to lean on one game to the next.
According to cleaning the glass, RJ is fouled on 15.7 percent (91st percentile) of his shot attempts. The Knicks’ shot frequency at the rim jumps up by 9.9 percent (99th percentile) when RJ is on the floor. As a result, the team’s accuracy on corner threes also jumps up by 13.7 percent (94th percentile) when RJ is on the floor.
Perhaps most encouraging is that RJ distributes beautifully on his drives, with an array of passes and reads that force defenses to make decisions with no good outcome.
Knick fans will hope his struggles at the line are an aberration, a rookie season blip marring an otherwise encouraging all-around game. If it wasn’t for his free throw percentage, the conversation around RJ — and maybe the Knicks — would be very different heading into 2020.