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RJ Barrett keeps getting benched in the fourth quarter. What gives?

What’s up with RJ?

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After playing less than 32 minutes just twice in his first 24 games, RJ Barrett has now done so 5 times in his last 6 games. Over those 6 games, Barrett is averaging just 11.2ppg, 4.7rpg, 2.5apg and shooting 36% from the field.

The topic was already simmering among Knicks fans, but Wednesday night it came to a boil. It wasn’t just the fact that Barrett played only 27 minutes in an embarrassing 18-point loss to the Magic, it was the fact that Tom Thibodeau only played him 27 minutes when he seemed to be the only player other than Julius Randle getting his shot to fall. Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley, who to their credit have been playing well as of late, combined to shoot 2-22. Reggie Bullock, who played 33 minutes, finished with only 4 points.

When asked about the decision, Thibs explained, “You get in a hole like we were, then you’re trying to find anything that can get you going.”

Maybe playing your second best player — the one who has scored 14 points in the first three quarters, the one that is second on your team in scoring — could help your team.

Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Thibs benches rookies like Quickley and Obi Toppin. Thibodeau barely played rookies in his previous coaching jobs: Jimmy Butler managed only 8.5 mpg as a rookie in Chicago and Kris Dunn, a lottery pick, only saw 17 mpg as a rookie. When the Knicks traded for Rose, everyone assumed Quickley’s minutes would suffer. But Quickley is playing the same (and often more) minutes each night alongside Rose. It’s a wonderful sign, but then what should be make of RJ’s sudden dip in minutes?

RJ Barrett isn’t a rookie anymore, and he led the league in minutes per game just three weeks ago. It isn’t as if his play has been abysmal, and the team’s record has been hovering around .500 for that span as well. It’s very peculiar.

Barrett still averages 33.7 mpg, so hopefully this is just a lull and that Thibodeau will start playing him more. But the 33.7 mpg is just 33rd in the league, a huge drop off from before. Barrett has been pretty silent on the situation and has handled it professionally so far, but he probably isn’t happy to be repeatedly benched in the fourth.

Coaching the Knicks this season still requires a delicate balance of playing to win and developing the young guys. Despite the hype surrounding Quickley’s hot start, most Knick fans still consider RJ to be the Knicks’ most important future piece. This season as a whole has been a pleasant surprise, so here’s hoping that Barrett can get back on track.