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Know The Prospect: R.J. Barrett

He’s not the Blue Devil you’re looking for, but...

NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

You can sum up the Knicks’ lottery experience in one 25-second clip.

Who knows how the league unfolds the next five weeks, but once the New Orleans Pelicans won the top spot and the need-to-replace-Mike-Conley-sooner-than-later Memphis Grizzlies landed at number two, a consensus was born.

R.J. Barrett by the numbers:

The history of #3 picks is all over the map. Eternal respect to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, whose game and politics today would make him one of the most influential athletes in the world, in a good way.

Opinions of Barrett are equally everywhere. He’s James Harden. Larry Hughes. Jalen Rose. Evan Turner. He’s prolific. Pathetic. Bathetic. He’s everything in-between.

Projecting the fate of one-and-dones as pros is mostly a losing proposition. How do you calculate what someone who’s physically and mentally 18, going up against opponents who are mostly 18-21, will be like physically and mentally at 25, going up against mostly grown men? How do you measure how someone’s heart or spirit will change going from 30 games a year in high school and college to traveling the continental U.S. for 82 games over six to eight months?

Not only do players more often than not flip the script they enter the league with, entire draft classes do, too. Remember the 2014 draft? Anyone in the know back then told us it was the greatest draft class since 2003, if not 1984, if not ever, and certainly a step up from a 2013 class derided as “weak.” Know how many All-Stars have come out of 2014’s greatest generation? Two: Joel Embiid (picked third) and Nikola Jokic (picked 41st), same number as from 2013: Giannis Antekounmpo (15th) and Victor Oladipo (2nd). There are five second-round picks from ‘14 with more career win shares than Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, that draft’s top-two picks. This is all just a friendly reminder how much consensuses are often worth.

Now, take that casserole of improbability and stir in further complication. Imagine trying to gauge a neutron star’s brightness when there’s a black hole alongside it every game.

When Barrett committed to Duke, Williamson was expected to go to Clemson. Zion surprised everybody by choosing the Blue Devils, teaming up with Barrett and Cam Reddish. In the age of modern recruitment rankings, this was the first time one team landed the top three-ranked recruits. A fantasy come to life, right? But as many people who’ve had threesomes can tell you, reality is a helluva drug.

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed on to form the Super Friends with Dwyane Wade in Miami, the Heat struggled, opening the year 8-9 and not winning a title until their second season, when they’d had a chance to fail and Wade and LeBron, in particular, had learned how to best work together. It wasn’t easy for professionals in their mid-20s to figure out that balance. Barrett, Zion and Reddish didn’t get together and choose to form a collegiate Big Three. It was an adjustment, on the fly, in real time, and for all that top-shelf talent spacing was not a Duke thing.

Some adjustments adjusted well. While no one is in Zion’s league athletically, an awful lot of NBA players can’t do things Barrett can.

A little James Harden in your soup gives it some kick.

Barrett put up plus-rebounding numbers for a wing; as noted earlier in the Tommy Beers tweet he grabbed more than Texas big man Jaxson Hayes, a likely lottery pick, as well as bigger wings like De’Andre Hunter and P.J. Washington.

I looked up the college rebounding rates for the NBA’s nine leading non-bigs rebounders last year. Two didn’t have numbers: Luka Dončić played in Spain and DeMar DeRozan is apparently neolithic and there weren’t those stats back in 2009. The other seven and their college rebounding %’s:

Russell Westbrook (7.1)
Lonzo Ball (9.3)
James Harden (10.3)
Khris Middleton (10.8)
Victor Oladipo (13.1)
Justise Winslow (13.1)
Jimmy Butler (13.2)

RJ put up a healthy 11.2 playing most of his minutes alongside Zion, who gobbled 12 rebounds per 36 minutes. Some of Barrett’s boards were big-time.

Even Barrett detractors — and if you look left and right you’ll spy at least two — admit he’s able to playmake off the dribble and out of pick-and-rolls.

You’ll note in about 85% of those clips Barrett goes left around the pick. One area he needs to work on is strengthening his off-hand. One area of encouragement: he showed great comfort being physical at the college level, bumping into and bouncing off defenders while maintaining focus on getting his shot off.

Maintaining focus on getting his shot off was one of the points of criticism Barrett has received the most. While Zion and Reddish took 435 and 432 shots last season, R.J. put up a whopping 702. He nearly missed as many shots (383) as Zion attempted. It’s tough to know what that could mean going forward.

Is he an irrepressible chucker, a someday Al Harrington? Is the license Barrett enjoyed simply more evidence that Zion is a selfless superstar who sees the big picture in a way that justifies the LeBron comparisons? Does it mean Mike Krzyzewski, on the job for 40 years now, may have lost something off his fastball, and that a 72-year-old man who’s spent the bulk of his career earning a couple hundred mil off the backs of unpaid workers was content to sit back and ride the talent wave a bit rather than coach as hard as he might have 20 years ago?

Barrett, a.k.a the Maple Mamba, has already arrived on the international scene, playing for the Canadian National Team against grown-ass men.

In a lot of those international clips you see Barrett taking it to the rack. To be fair, this was the Dominican Republic and Virgin Islands, not the United States or Spain. Maybe your takeaway here is Barrett’s engaging in a bit of basketball-bullying or stat padding, picking on lesser foes. I say if one early autumn night in 2000 Zion Williamson’s parents had fought about what to watch on TV rather than engage in amorous shenanigans, Barrett is the presumptive #1 choice this June and what looks like bullying by an overly-dissected non-god might be painted as admirable proof that when he sees a weakness, he hunts it. He led the ACC in free throw attempts.

I find it difficult to interpret Barrett’s numbers knowing he spent his whole life and lead-up to last year as a lead-option, and then was cast alongside Zion as...well, not a #1, certainly. Not really a classic #2, either. He didn’t shrink in the presence of Zion. Is R.J. selfish? Competitive? Where’s the line? How do you draw a single line through so many numbers?


Two numbers care of stand out as encouraging. Barrett shot 31% on three-pointers, but in late offense situations, that number climbed to 39%. And while his non-transition field goal % at the rim was 61%, during possessions that used 20+ seconds of shot clock he shot 69% there.

The question marks are not insignificant. Like Kevin Knox, Barrett will need to pack on muscle to try his bump-and-bounce schtick in the pros. P.J. Tucker flosses his teeth with thicker tape than R.J.’s 202 pounds.

Then again, as you may have heard regarding Knox, Barrett is but a teenager, and not exactly a beanpole. He comes from a family of athletes: his father played at St. John’s, where his mother ran track; his grandparents ran for the Jamaican track team; his aunt was a Jamaican gold medalist in the 4x100; his uncle played D-I football at Maryland. Biology ain’t prophecy, but biology plus discipline probably has its privileges.

Barrett’s assist percentage is well above-average for a wing, though unselfishness at times this Jedi has not. Not yet, at least.

The name “Michael Beasley” gets thrown around sometimes with Barrett, though Beasley’s assist-to-turnover rate in college was a 2-to-5 war crime. Barrett feeds his brethren more than he leads them astray. The situation he finds himself in and the development he’s exposed to early in his career could play a big part in determining whether he favors setting up or putting up.

So. What is Barrett? More to the point, what might he be with the Knicks? If the Knicks trade Frank Ntilikina on draft-night for, say, a future first-round pick, and Barrett slides into the wing rotation as someone who can initiate some offense, create for himself and not be afraid to take or make jumpers, and he’s defensively capable, though not exceptional, where does that leave us?

Last year’s first-round wings were generally in the same ballpark finishing at the rim.

Miles Bridges 67%
Mikal Bridges 65%
Luka Dončić 64%
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 63%
Kevin Huerter 60%
Landry Shamet 55%

Ntilikina fell from 62% his rookie year to 49%. Knox was at 50%. Not a single Knick guard or wing who played 1000+ minutes hit 60% or higher from 0-3 feet. Is that an accident or coincidence of roster construction? A likely outcome for a team built to fail? An indictment of the player development program? Dunno. I do know Knox shot just 55% on non-transition shots at the rim at Kentucky, six points lower than what Barrett put up last year. Keep hope alive, brother.

These are all microscope questions, and God knows Barrett has been and will be overly dissected by the time June 20th rolls around. What about the macro picture? How does Barrett on a rookie-scale deal strike other teams, particularly those near the Gulf of Mexico, as far as trade bait? How would Barrett adjust to playing fourth or fifth fiddle in a lineup featuring Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving/Kemba Walker and young vets looking to establish themselves like Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson? Maybe coming in and having less pressure would allow him to flourish. Or maybe Barrett would never accept playing beta to somebody’s alpha, and we’re about to draft Dion Waiters 2.0.

Durant has lived through that already.

The bad news for the Knicks, and for you, reader, is there’s no way to know right now if Barrett will ever be cut out to be the lead option on a title contender. He doesn’t check all the boxes that Zion does. He’s less of a project than Jokic seemed to be, and Giannis. He’s less highly regarded than Wiggins was.

Can he be a quality cheap starter on a team that signs a couple of max free agents? I think so. Can he be an appealing trade chip for a team looking for the cherry on top of a package that nets Anthony Davis? I think so. R.J. won’t turn 20 until after his rookie season. Can he spend a few years as an understudy to a Hall of Famer or two, then be ready around age 24 to take on a bigger role? I think so.

There are numbers for days to parse and spin. How about a side or two of narrative? Jay Bilas on Barrett:

“He’s a lot like James Harden in the way he plays, not just the fact that he’s left-handed. But he gets to the basket with ease, and he’s a fabulous finisher, and one of the best rebounding guards in the country.

He can play the point … people forget he’s had a triple-double this year and could have more. But he’s playing alongside Zion Williamson, so that’s kind of sucked all the air out of the room. When Zion was out, he carried a tremendous load, he never comes out of the game. He never seems to get tired.

He’s not backed down from anything...Nobody’s been able to stop him and he doesn’t take plays off. When other people have been injured or sick or hurt, he’s played every single game. And nobody’s asked about, ‘Hey, RJ how do you feel?’ He’s always having to make up for somebody else being out. You’ve never heard anybody say, ‘Well, we’ve gotta make up for RJ. He’s the guy making up for everybody else. As great as everybody else has been, nobody has been as durable as RJ.”

You never know how a pro career will unfold, especially health-wise. But of all the traits one can be accused of, “durable” is high up there.

In the mood for some unabashedly biased analysis?

How about Barrett in his own words? His answer to the last question is *chef’s kiss.

Whaddya think, people? Is this the guy you’d feel comfortable seeing tower over Adam Silver 10-15 minutes into the draft? Are there other players you’d rather see the Knicks take? Comment away.