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The eternal sunshine of RJ Barrett’s spotless game

Indiana Pacers v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the best bits from The Wire is Stringer Bell’s impassioned excoriation of the 40-degree day. His argument is the 40-degree day is unexceptional in most relevant ways. It’s not particularly good weather, but not bad enough to really stand out, to be worthy of conversation. I think about Idris Elba’s monologue when I think about Knicks’ third-year wing Rowan Alexander Barrett, Junior. RJ is the like a 40-degree day, but different, the inverse of the Bell rant. He’s a clear skied and breezy 68. The type of good weather, hoodie-and-jeans weekday we all take for granted, but rarely discuss, and would be utterly lost without.

RJ Barrett is counterintuitive because, in his perfectly smooth and constantly improving game, he doesn’t really have a comp. He is good at everything and great at nothing, and in doing so, in being so, poses a fascinating question: What is that type of game really worth in the modern league?

As a very dumb and obvious but theoretically helpful thought experiment, I tried to assess RJ’s tangible value last season in relation to his peers by using old school, potentially irrelevant box score counting stats, because I don’t have a foggy clue how you assign VORP, and also his VORP is very bad, which hurts the argument I’m laying out, I think. But he finished 29th in the league in points, 74th in assists, 58th in total rebounds, 47th in three-point percentage, and 89th in field goal percentage. If you average that together, RJ Barrett would be the 59.4th best player in the NBA. Using statistics in this way is obvious malpractice, but I would also wager there is a second-year wing you’ve heard or thought less about who finished in the top-100 in these categories across the board.

This is RJ’s gift and his curse. In many ways, today’s NBA is a Charles Xavier academy of mutants, genetically altered freakish super-beings who all have a superpower, with an elite few supermen imported from the DC Universe with several. But let’s be honest: Superman, or his Marvel counterpart, Captain Marvel, are the most boring superheroes in any universe and it’s not particularly close.

The league thrives on an economy of House of Highlight Instagram stories and Twitter clips. This places an undue weight on players who are capable of producing highlights. The league, the modern elite player, is a Gollum made of elite skills. Sure they’re “good” at everything, but they all at least have that one Diggler-esque quality to whip out that makes them big, bright, shining stars.

I’ve seen a lot of my Knicks brethren on my timeline bemoaning the lack of national love for RJ, but these thread warriors, these noble comment section attorneys, lack empathy. You and I are here every night, watching RJ dutifully manning his post. He’s our weighted blanket, our nightlight, the unsexy but immaculate young player performing mistake-free basketball on both sides of the ball, night in and out. We can always trust him to make the right play, and also count on him to rarely, if ever make a spectacular one. But how can one articulate this solidity to a writer thumbing through his timeline, preoccupied with every shiny new thing on an arrivals shelf at the social media toy store?

There was this list that was widely circulated amongst enraged RJ truthers: “25-Under-25.” RJ wasn’t on the list, but Kevin Huerter was. And initially, I was offended and angry with the “brain” trust that came up with this evaluation. But really, when you take the long view of the league, an inspired microwave scorer like Huerter makes more sense as a draw for a team in desire of a final “piece” than RJ does. Barrett is not a witch’s hat crowning a cupola, like Huerter, he’s a cornerstone. When you’re walking down Flatbush looking at buildings, guess which feature your eye will naturally be drawn to?

RJ Barrett is obviously not a publicly-traded company, but if he were, he’s the exact type of stock my dad would recommend I invest in: A conservative, steady earner with a sturdy chart, extremely unlikely to crash in any economy. But he lacks the gold-rush sex appeal of a meme stock — he’s not Apple or Amazon and he never will be — and in the market of the modern NBA discourse we only speak in these boom-or-bust Tweet-length Jim Cramer assessments. He’s a star or could be a star (INTERESTING), he’s not a star or never will be a star (BORING), etc.

But what team in the NBA couldn’t use an RJ Barrett? He has a bottomless utility belt, he’s one of those Allen keys with a million folding attachments that can fit in any sized socket screw. I think the Knicks fans frothing from their mouths bemoaning his lack of national love and respect have gone too far in the other direction, and are akin to people telling you, “You know you can still get COVID even if you got the vaccine, RIGHT?” as they claim RJ is a superstar hiding in plain sight. But here’s the thing folks: the Knicks can, and will be successful this year with RJ because he doesn’t have to be a star. He’s the perfect Robin to Randle’s Batman, an amorphous blob of complimentary talent that can be molded to assume any form. We shouldn’t be arguing for RJ’s inherent greatness, we should be asking ourselves and others to redefine what greatness is and what it can be.

Who will speak for the unexceptional man in exceptional times? I will. Thank you for your banal competence RJ, I look forward to your antiquated counting stats ticking up incrementally this season. I look forward to you always making the right rotation, or the right pass, or hitting the open shot. I hope a generation of AAU kids are in film rooms crushing hours of you playing flawless basketball last season on a team whose success would’ve been impossible without you, rather than perfecting how to pull up at the nail and hip check a trailing defender to draw a call. The league — and sure, why not, the world — would be a better place.