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2019-20 Knicks Player Review: RJ Barrett

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The Maple Mamba is a beacon of hope for New York.

New York Knicks v Washington Wizards
RJ looks up, possibly asking the heavens when the NBA might come back.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

RJ Barrett is one of only four players in NBA history to average at least 14 points, 5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1 steal during a rookie season in which they were still teenagers. The other three? LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Luka Doncic.

Of course, that stat alone doesn’t necessarily mean much, but it does suggest tantalizing potential for the 19-year-old Canadian left-hander. Those players with the ability to regularly fill up the entire stat sheet are typically among the league’s top performers. And in case the per game stats don’t quench your hunger for numbers, Barrett was fifth among rookies this year in total points and assists and fourth in rebounds and steals.

So why is he often overlooked in discussions about the best rookies from the 2019 draft class?

There are a few reasons. First, there were two other neophytes drafted ahead of him, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, who each play with an indescribable incredibleness. Both might be generational talents, while Barrett appears more like a regular basketball player. Possibly a really good one, to be sure, but his feats, even the vicious dunks, simply don’t reach the awe level of the other two guys who were drafted in the top three.

Second, he was pretty inefficient during year one, including a below average shooting stroke that saw him hit only 40.2% of his shots from the field, including a dismal 32% from deep. His shooting struggles continued at the free throw line, where he was successful merely 61.4% of the time.

Unlike some other young Knicks, Barrett received plenty of playing time during the 2019-20 campaign, with 30.4 minutes of action per game. Doubters point to his inefficiency and say that his skills are lacking, but consider how RJ was ramping up his play as the season neared its conclusion: in the six games the Knicks played in March before the coronavirus caused everyone in the country to hide at home, Barrett averaged 18.7 points (45% from the field, 33% from three and 76% from the line), 4.5 boards, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals.

It’s a small sample size, but the Knicks went 3-3 over that stretch, which accounts for just over 14% of the team’s total wins for the year. RJ’s March included an impressive victory over the Houston Rockets in which he had 27 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 1 steal, as well as a five-point win against the Atlanta Hawks, which saw Barrett put up 26 points, 5 boards, 4 assists, 2 steals and 1 block. Having two of your best games near the end of your rookie season isn’t something to scoff at.

Who Exactly Is RJ Barrett?

This question gets at the root of why Barrett gets neglected when talking about the 2019 rookie class. Is he a top dog or a second banana? Would he be far more efficient if the Knicks were good, or is what we saw this year what we’ll get?

If there wasn’t so much turmoil in New York this season, there would probably be a lot more attention to the positive attributes of Barrett’s game. Alas, there was turmoil aplenty. But let’s dig a little deeper into Barrett’s statistics to see if we can parse out exactly what he is.

Barrett was at his best this year when shooting as close to the hoop as possible, which makes sense because the thing he might be best at is driving to the lane, drawing contact and somehow completing difficult layups.

A number of instances of that can be seen in the following video, which will definitely get you pumped up, but then you’ll remember that COVID-19 is still a thing so the only basketball we have to look forward to in the immediate future is the Michael Jordan documentary, which is only on for one more Sunday.

Barrett shot 53.4% from the restricted area, according to NBA Stats, and that number dropped like rain as he got farther away from the basket. He’ll have to develop an ability to hit mid-range jumpers at a decent clip (he hit about 32% of shots from between 15 and 24 feet out), and it wouldn’t hurt if he could find a three ball. For now, drives are where he thrives.

Barrett Needs A Playmaker To Put Him In The Best Position

As stated earlier, the Knicks were not good this year. The team’s best player, Julius Randle, is also the guy fans got most fed up with as the season went along. The point guards, Frank Ntilikina, Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr., did not deliver assists à la John Stockton, to say the least.

According to NBA Stats, Randle provided the most buckets to Barrett, with 40 assists to RJ, followed by Payton with 30 dimes and Ntilikina with 16. No one else on the team assisted Barrett even 10 total times, which illustrates how often he had to go get points by himself.

Couldn’t Barrett be the playmaker though? He could certainly improve on that front; his main strengths are getting to the basket, particularly with his stronger left hand, and getting to the line (he ranked second among rookies with 254 total free throws). At 6’7”, if Barrett could improve even slightly at making the correct kickout pass once he’s made it into the lane, his playmaking ability could skyrocket. He also has the size and strength to be a solid defender.

He was below average in many other areas, but it’s difficult to tell whether some of his weaknesses were way more obvious because he was on the Knicks. If he was on a team with more consistent shooters, would his assist rate tick up? If New York was able to find the right coach, would he learn how to be more efficient? Would a proper shooting coach help him figure out how to hit wide open 15-foot jumpers, aka free throws?

Here’s what do know about RJ:

> He looks good in a headband, and has a magnificent mean mug.

New York Knicks v Atlanta Hawks
Headband RJ.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

> He put up at least 20 points and 5 rebounds 12 times in 56 games.

> He dropped 19 points, 15 boards and 5 assists in his fourth game as a pro, which also resulted in the team’s first win of the season.

> He swiped 6 steals in the second game of the season against the Brooklyn Nets.

> He only scored less than 10 points once in his last 12 games, and in those contests he averaged roughly 17 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal.

> He is the godson of NBA legend Steve Nash, who believes that Barrett has an “incredible future” ahead of him. Imagine if the Knicks hired Nash as an adviser of some kind? Could be cool...

There remain a lot of questions about Barrett, but he showed plenty of promise during year one. Alongside Mitchell Robinson, he’s the most intriguing player on what was an overwhelmingly dull basketball team. Put the right players around him and he may burn brighter than the sun. Keep him in a never-ending cycle of organizational incompetence and he’ll become the next player who didn’t live up to his potential in New York.