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RJ Barrett’s rollercoaster February

Will March be more of the same?

NBA: New York Knicks at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The month of February was a strange one for RJ Barrett. He averaged just 14.1 points in 29 minutes per game, a bit disappointing since he was contributing 18 in 36 minutes heading into the month. He did, however, shoot a blistering 47.4% from three. So why the difference, and what led to Tom Thibodeau occasionally benching him at critical points in games?

The shooting was most likely what started this concerning trend. Since the February 7th game against the Miami Heat, Barrett is shooting 42.1% from the field and that has led to the decreased scoring. His shot selection is still questionable at times and that is something that he will have to continue to work on, as is the case with many young players. If you break it down by distance and watch the games, a lot of his struggles have come from the mid-range, an area of the floor he often finds himself around due to his ability to play the pick and roll. He is currently shooting 32% from 3-10 feet and 35% from 10-16, both improvements from his rookie season but still under the league average. While only 8% of his shots come from 10-16 feet, approximately 25% come from 3-10, so that will most likely be something he will look to continue to improve on.

Now, the good news is that while his overall field goal percentage has taken a hit recently, he is actually shooting better from 3. While he only attempted 2.7 a game last month, he shot 47.3% from distance, an improvement on the 28.4% on 3.9 attempts before February. With his recent hot streak from 3, he is now at 34.5% for the season. While there are still questions whether this is sustainable, it’s something to keep an eye on, as it could really open up the rest of his game.

Some of his struggles can most likely be attributed to the fact that teams are aware the Knicks opened the season heavily reliant on Barrett to be the secondary play maker and scorer after Julius Randle.

Like seen here, because of the lack of creators on the floor for the, teams are trapping and hedging hard on Barrett when he is handling the ball. The Knicks’ most-used lineups lack spacing with a non-shooting center (Mitchell Robinson or Nerlens Noel) and a point guard who can’t shoot from three (Elfrid Payton). These players either cannot space the floor consistently and/or lack the ability to create for themselves. So when Barrett finds himself on the court with them, opposing teams can really key in on RJ.

The other frustrating thing is players like Randle, Payton, Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks all need the ball and are better with it in their hands. While depth is nice to have, the Knicks are now in a spot where they have multiple ball-dominant players, and Barrett has found himself in situations where he has to give up touches. He’s still in the midst of figuring out how to be impactful when he isn’t serving as a primary ball handler, but he has gotten better as of late, in part due to the aforementioned hot streak from 3.

RJ looked like his old self in the Knicks’ last two wins, going for 24 points on 8-of-17 in 34 minutes against the Pacers and 21 on an efficient 8-of-13 in 35 against the Pistons. That being said, he is still used to being one of the primary ball handlers and is at his best when doing so. Both his continued growth as an off-ball player and possible changes in the offense with so many ballhandlers are things to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

The Knicks have been playing good team basketball and winning, so it is somewhat understandable why Thibodeau has continued to spread out the minutes and roll with whoever is playing well, be it the veterans or the younger players. And Barrett himself has been very professional and mature about seeing his minutes decrease and not playing down the stretch in a few games. That being said, the splits clearly show that the Knicks are still at their best when Barrett is on the court and playing well. When he’s on the floor the team has a higher offensive rating, rebounding rate, effective field goal percentage and block rate, while also keeping opponents to a lower effective field goal percentage and offensive rating. Additionally, Barrett averages 18.4ppg in 34.3mpg in their wins versus the 14.4ppg in 32.4mpg in their losses.

The Knicks’ main goal should still be not only to win, but to win with their young players developing and being the reason they are winning. The onus is ultimately on Barrett to continue to play better on both ends of the floor and find a way to be the impactful player that the Knicks expect, but young players can really benefit from great coaching as well as having both the time and opportunity to grow. Hopefully Thibodeau will continue to give Barrett that opportunity by playing him big minutes.