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Breaking down RJ Barrett’s Summer League defense

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Keep that same energy, my guy.

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

I’m gonna be honest, defense is kind of my thing. I enjoy watching guys defend more than pretty much anything else in the game. It’s not always pretty, but it’s so important. There’s so many small decisions involved in defending at an NBA level, and they all need to be made so quickly. It’s the business end of an operation where offense is the marketing, the basketball equivalent of getting your college degree — if all else fails, you can still probably find a job somewhere, but no one gets famous for getting their Master’s degree (or playing defense).

The same applies here. The Knicks didn’t pick RJ third overall because of his defense, but maybe with some extra night classes and summer school, he can get his degree in pick-and-roll defense (with a minor in transition).

At times, I was worried...

But here’s something I noticed about RJ: for every defensive inadequacy he displayed, I witnessed him flash an ability to be competent in those things at least once or twice as well.

Generally, he did seem to grow more adept as the Summer League continued.

For example, I thought Barrett did a poor job early on of using his hands and arms. Standing 6’7” tall with a 6’10” wingspan, Barrett can certainly use some of that size and length more than he does. Fundamentally, RJ’s closeouts weren’t always sound and his balance seemed very poor in multiple defensive scenarios. Half of these clips are from the first two games.

By contrast, all but one of the following clips are from the final three games.

This is positive from the perspective that RJ learned quickly and converted the feedback that his coaching staff was inevitably relaying to him in that regard. Any defender is better when they become bigger (arms up or out), but for someone like Barrett (whose balance and defensive stance needs work), the basics of closing out with your hands up and disrupting the passing lanes with your arms are critical.

Thus far, these clips all sit well with the optimist. Seeing some defensive improvement over the course of five games is indeed a positive thing! Fixing some balance issues and learning the angles and tricks from vets could absolutely mold Barrett into an acceptable defender!

The pessimist now steps to the microphone, taps it twice, and clears his throat. With a bit of feedback screeching from the monitors and the steel grill pressed much too close to his mouth, his words are loud, distorted, and obscured by blown tweeters: “But defense is about effort, dawg!”

RJ deserves to be applauded for his game-saving (at the time) defense in the second Summer League game against the Phoenix Suns. Barrett was completely isolated against Elie Okobo with the clock winding down and the score tied. This is a high-pressure situation for anyone, let alone a kid who just got drafted by the Knicks in the lottery. No screens, no real help, and Barrett even gets beat by a step initially, only to recover and block the shot. It was pure effort — and while we have to (and will) scrutinize the attention to detail and effort on a consistent basis, RJ has always been complimented as a gamer, a competitor, and a winner.

For a game-saving defensive possession, you damn sure better give maximum effort. But what was that effort like for the rest of Barrett’s Summer League?

To say Barrett’s effort was inconsistent would be unfair, but certainly I’d characterize his focus as such.

Barrett’s basketball IQ is above average. I’m not ready to praise it beyond that, but he did make some great reads and show me that he had some defensive recognition in his DNA.

You can’t fight over every screen, and it’s not always the right way to defend a particular pick-and-roll, but after seeing Barrett take a couple of “welcome to the NBA” hits from screeners in Game 1, there were times I wondered if he had bailed on some coverages to avoid those collisions.

Whether you fight over a screen, get skinny, get slippery, dive under, lock and trail — whatever! — you are generally more successful defending the pick-and-roll with some physicality. That can come in the form of a decisive hedge, a press up on the ball handler to make the screen more difficult to land, imposing your preferred path for the ball handler, etc.

Barrett used his physicality well at times on the defensive end, but I see potential for him to utilize it so much more.

There were two games where Barrett committed zero fouls. You get 10 freaking fouls! I would have liked to see an even more physical, more imposing version of Barrett defensively throughout Summer League. You don’t want to overwhelm the kid in Summer League, though. You want him to go out and be who he is — the player you drafted him for. Going into preseason, I’d almost encourage him to pick up a couple fouls in those games. If I’m David Fizdale and the Knicks are at halftime with Barrett racking up zero fouls, I’d plead with him to end the game with three. If nothing else, I’d encourage him to test the limits of what he can get away with in the NBA. Get your feet wet, young fella!

Perhaps the most menial but exciting thing about Barrett’s defense to me is his proficiency to stay on his feet. Think about how often we’ve seen rookies take a seat on the bench because a pump fake got them in the air. It’s not hyperbolic to say that this could be a big asset to Barrett this season. He will stay on the floor in what will be a learning process on the defensive side already. I talked above about wanting him to use his fouls more, and he has that luxury because he doesn’t seem to pick up the silly ones. Barrett will reach here and there, but I would prefer this type of defensive discipline for him right now over a guy actively trying to block every jumper, which is always bad news for young guards/wings.

“Inconsistency” is synonymous with “rookie” in the NBA. Revisiting Barrett’s focus, there were too many moments where he’d fall asleep ball-watching or react late to a help assignment.

In the clip below, Barrett looks like the star high school basketball player who gets the start in game one, but missed every practice beforehand. There’s a triumvirate of ball-watching, a reach, and a weird half-committal to a charge.

About that fake charge — that’s not the only time Barrett used that. He’s going to need to be more decisive, and if I’m coaching him, I’m telling him to leave that one in the Duke playbook and burn it.

Consistent with the rest of his defensive efforts, Barrett both excelled and showed signs of imperfection in the rebounding department. Barrett pulled down 8.6 rebounds a game. That’s a ton, no matter how you slice it. Still, that doesn’t mean the process was flawless. Barrett is a big guard and he’s comfortable in the paint. Naturally, he should rack up some boards. He even showed a solid box out in a possession or two.

But how disciplined can he be there? Are those Westbrook rebounds, or do those matter? Are you hanging in the paint to collect the stat or are you stopping an opposing player from getting the board? I need to give RJ the credit he deserves, he pulled them down at a great rate in Summer League, but can he be even better?

To a large degree, I saw a capable defender in RJ that came out when he wanted it to. When the effort was there, he was passable. When the focus was there, he was average — which is a compliment, because it’s not easy!

All things considered, I would be blown away if RJ was a plus defender over the next few years. Aside from his limitations, we have to consider what will be asked of him offensively. I just don’t see the physical tools or consistent focus enough to make me a believer, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be serviceable — more than half of these deficiencies can be coached.

When your back is against the wall in the final possession and you need a stop, I love the competitive fire. Unfortunately, Damian Lillard and James Harden — those guys are competitive too. The big sample size this season will be unkind to Barrett on the defensive end, and that’s okay! Your goal with Barrett is to minimize his physical limitations by probably using him to defend opposing wings, not primary ball-handlers. Teach RJ when to dive and when to fight over top. Get the kid in the film room and make sure he scouts the tendencies of players, let him use his basketball IQ! Give him some freedom. Encourage him to foul out in a meaningless game. Keep those things in mind as you solidify this ethos: Nobody needs RJ Barrett to be a great defender, or even a good defender this year, but in three, four, or five years, will he have advanced enough to be on the floor late in a playoff game? This year is study hall, term papers and a dissertation, but he’ll graduate soon enough.