It was a strange game for the Knicks taking on the Pelicans down in New Orleans.
They never trailed and built a lead as high as 16, but the game never truly felt in hand, not with many of New York’s primary bucket-getters having off nights in one form or another.
Julius Randle scored just 10 points. Evan Fournier struggled inside the arc shooting 1-6. Derrick Rose only mustered five points on the evening. That’s three of the Knicks' top four scorers unable to find the bottom of the net. With the Pelicans cutting into the lead at various points in the second half, what route did the Knicks have to fend them off?
The answer, as you’ve probably heard, was RJ Barrett, who scored a career-high 35 points to lead the Knicks to a six-point win that brings their record to a sparkling 5-1. Barrett was 12-18 from the field while also chipping in eight rebounds and six assists and committing just one turnover.
“He was terrific, all-around game from start to finish,” Tom Thibodeau said afterward. “... That’s the way RJ is and we needed it.”
For all the talk of the breakout campaign Barrett seemed destined for in his all-important third season, the early results weren’t promising.
Sure, he scored 19 points in the opener, 14 of which came during an explosive third quarter, but he ultimately needed over 47 minutes to reach that total in the double-overtime victory. He then totaled 29 points over the next three games on a combined 34.3 percent shooting.
The defensive effort he spoke of before the season was present, but not even Barrett himself could explain the offensive struggles he’s grown accustomed to around this time of the season.
“I don’t know why,” Barrett told reporters when asked about his slow start. “Third year in a row I started like this. I don’t know.”
In a perfect world, RJ bursts into the new season on fire. He drops 20+ with ease, firmly establishing himself as an early candidate for Most Improved. Easier said than done in a vacuum. Even more so when adjusting to a new backcourt that needs their share of touches, opportunities that have come at Barrett’s expense.
Through the first five games of the season, Barrett was averaging fewer touches and was holding and dribbling the ball less frequently compared to last season. He and Randle controlled the offense for New York’s starting lineup then. With Fournier and Kemba now by their side, RJ’s had to take a bit of a back seat and figure out where he fits into this new-look squad. Hence the scoring numbers that have regressed.
Things took a turn for the better on Thursday when Barrett scored 20 points to help take down the previously undefeated Bulls. By all accounts, the Knicks seemed to make a concerted effort to keep that ball rolling against New Orleans, especially with few others finding the mark. Barrett’s usage rate was just 19.2 percent heading into this game. It was at 27.8 percent in nearly 36 minutes of action against the Pelicans.
With those additional opportunities, Barrett thrived from all over. Whether in transition or in the halfcourt, he found his way to the bucket and finished some tough looks at the rim. Having upped his three-point percentage beyond 40 percent last season, he showed little fear in letting it fly from beyond the arc going 6-of-8.
It was an inside-out balancing act his newfound perimeter efficiency has him working to master.
“That’s also something that I’m learning and I’m going to get better at it and figure out, “ Barrett previously told reporters. “Having the ability to shoot, to really knock them down now. Just trying to figure out when to take those, when to drive. So, it’s just all a part of the game, just reading the game.”
And when New Orleans made things interesting late in the game, Barrett shut the door on their comeback attempt with two threes in the final two minutes. These shots weren’t the product of an opportunity created by one of his teammates. RJ dribbled into and launched these looks with the confidence of a man trusted by his team to seal the victory.
Barrett will forever be compared to the only two players selected ahead of him in the 2019 Draft. Judged by that bar, he’ll fall short more often than not.
Observed on his own scale, however, and Barrett has improved in all the right places in his two full seasons. Shooting. Defense. In his own words, he’s learning how to better use his size to get to the bucket.
But with a team full of scorers in their own right, the Knicks might not need all that Barrett has to offer on a nightly basis. Though if his most recent performance proved anything, it’s that we shouldn’t believe something we can’t always see doesn’t exist and isn’t waiting to be called upon.