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Breaking down RJ Barrett’s (Summer League) offense

My takeaways from his dramatic character arc over five games.

NBA: Summer League-New York Knicks at Washington Wizards Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Why waste time say lot word when few word video do trick? It’s been a while since I’ve written a piece, so let me get these shots off and hit you with a clip before I even get three sentences deep.

In a nutshell, this will be the RJ Barrett experience all season long. Within seconds, Stephanie Ready compares his struggles to the Summer League struggles of Steph Curry and Trae Young. She mentions that his godfather is Steve Nash and says “not to worry” about his shooting struggles. Barrett immediately airballs. In addition to the above connections, get ready to hear about how his dad went to St. John’s — and you’ll hear about Rowan Sr. and Steve Nash’s Canadian national team friendship every game until 2021, I’m sure.

I saw Barrett play in high school. Everyone saw him play in college. Most people have made their mind up about the kid, and as with most rookies, people will highlight his ups and downs respectively to support their argument about him. Truthfully, it will be easy to do. He’s going to show flashes, and he’s certainly going to struggle at times.

I can tell you this: he ain’t Steph Curry. For that matter, he ain’t Trae Young, either. Both of those players were phenomenal shooters (with VOLUME!) in college who came in and had an off week in Summer League. RJ Barrett is not a good shooter, but he does so many other things well, so let’s properly calibrate our expectations, shall we?

Today, we will be speaking strictly offense. Don’t worry, the defensive breakdown is coming.

Over five Summer League games, Barrett’s basic stats looked like this:

  • 34 percent from the field (26 of 77)
  • 24 percent from 3 (7 of 29)
  • 40 percent from 2 (19 of 48)
  • 60 percent from FT (18 of 30)
  • 2.8 turnovers per game (three MORE turnovers in Game 2 than the rest of his Summer League combined)
  • 4.2 assists per game
  • 8.6 rebounds per game
  • 42.6 TS%
  • 38 eFG%

It’s hard not to dive right into the shooting from here. Let’s start by taking a look at some of his strokes from Summer League.

So this doesn’t look disastrous, right? But the truth is, I’m a little concerned, and I think you should be too, regardless of what Stephanie Ready thinks.

RJ is trained by Drew Hanlen, probably the most popular basketball trainer of the last several years outside of Chris Brickley. However, Hanlen has been training Barrett since high school. The shot doesn’t look awful, but the numbers do (and have). Here is a little background on what changes Hanlen made to RJ’s shooting stroke since he was a Blue Devil.

I’m most concerned about the free throw numbers. There’s a lot (and I mean a lot) of cues to look at when trying to project a good NBA shooter. Certainly, one of the most simple ones is free throw percentage. RJ shot about 67 percent from the stripe in his one year at Duke, per Sports-Reference. I’d say Knicks fans should be happy if he hovers around 70 percent this year and should be ecstatic if he can exceed that in his second year. RJ shot just 60 percent during Summer League.

This is especially problematic because Barrett seeks out contact like Danny Ainge seeks out draft picks.

The free throw is statistically the most efficient shot in basketball, and Barrett needs all the efficiency he can get. He’s going to live at the line, so he absolutely needs to make those at a higher clip — regardless of his shooting from distance during game play.

Something else I picked up on was just how often RJ missed short. Maybe this is a distance adjustment? Maybe his legs were just a bit out of condition? I tracked all of RJ’s 3-point attempts, and of his 21 misses, 15 of those hit the front rim (not counting a blocked 3-point attempt at the end of a quarter). That’s 71 percent of his shots off the front rim.

Barrett didn’t force too many of those jumpers, so that’s a good sign. His in-game IQ stood out. Barrett has to shoot when he’s open, and I think he knows that — even if he’s inefficient from deep for the foreseeable future. I also notice that his jumper seems a bit more sped up since his days at Duke — probably a good thing, but expect one hell of a learning curve.

When Barrett is forcing the issue, it’s usually on drives — and this is an enigma wrapped in a riddle. Let’s start by looking at some of the ways he presses too hard:

Most of those are attempts at drawing contact gone awry. All the more reason to be hopeful about his proficiency at the charity stripe, but also cause for concern in some regard.

Forcing the issue into traffic is one thing, but Barrett wasn’t exactly cash once he got there. Although he attacked the paint like a man possessed, I was taken aback by the amount of point-blank misses Barrett had.

Barrett is brute force by trade — and partially by necessity. To say Barrett’s handle is suspect would be underselling it. He’s not exactly Stanley Hudson out there, but it’s an area he needs to improve. Barrett is a point guard trapped in Ron Artest’s body.

It’s not just the handle that holds Barrett back. RJ doesn’t have elite NBA burst or leaping ability. He’s a fine athlete, but not in those ways. Barrett struggled throughout the five games to beat defenders off the dribble or create any real separation on his own.

The lack of speed and handle might hinder who he could be, but RJ’s kind of found a way to be “the best RJ Barrett he can be,” and I mean that in the most complimentary way. For a young player, it’s impressive how much he already plays to his strengths. Barrett has a package of hesitation moves and half-Euro steps that don’t leave anyone in the dust, but simply allow him to get shots off or draw fouls. Just a nose of an advantage is all you need in the NBA.

To this point, Barrett might look mostly pedestrian, but RJ as a playmaker is perhaps the most exciting area of his potential role as a pro. I think RJ has a chance to be truly special in pick-and-roll considering his vision, IQ, and willingness to attack the rim. What the hell do I know, maybe just knowing Steve Nash actually does make you a better passer.

When Barrett plays at his speed and under control, he can be a brilliant decision-maker. There was a healthy dose of Mitchell Robinson/RJ Barrett pick-and-roll in these games and I would like to borrow a pencil from someone to sign up for 82 games of that. However, without being a shooting threat, there is an undeniable ceiling there.

Speaking of Mr. Robinson, Barrett rewarded Mercedes Mitch a few times with entry passes that weren’t always routine. These aren’t going to knock your socks off, but it’s a legitimate skill that got Gumbo Guwop free buckets he wouldn’t have otherwise had. Six extra points for the big fella could be the difference between an All-Star bid and a mid-season vacation, so you never know.

Barrett seems like an old basketball soul. As a guard/wing, he’s kind of a throwback to 90s guards like Jalen Rose or he who shall not be named Mark Jackson, who bang in the post. He plays like he’s older in some ways. He’s not blowing you away with speed, and he’s got some of the same craftiness that 10-year vets have.

Offensively, the kid is working. There’s a lot to clean up and definitely some limitations, but the noise about him as a gamer is legitimate.

Barrett rebounded the ball at a high clip and should be an above-average rebounder at his position. He has the ability to start the break and he’s been good in transition, but it will be interesting to see how his half-court game develops over the next few years. Barrett wasn’t much of a threat off of the ball and his strengths definitely shine through when he has the ball in his hands.

Teams were already funneling Barrett baseline, which isn’t uncommon, but he struggled to turn the corner and generally becomes much less effective as you shrink the floor on him. Barrett was much better working from the right side (going downhill or driving middle) as opposed to starting on the left side of the floor, something I don’t think the Knicks picked up on.

RJ has been a high-usage guy his whole life, leaving less time to worry about the nuances of defense — the medium of peasants!

So, naturally, we will examine how he did defensively later this week. I just hope he can keep that same energy...