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RJ Barrett is better than Antoine Walker and that matters

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both/I’m just glad RJ’s so so good.

New Orleans Pelicans v New York Knicks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The road to glory isn’t all glory. Lotta middling towns to pass along the way. At some point on the way to Mike Tyson becoming “Mike Tyson,” he had to get past Marvis Frazier. Before Homer Simpson could get in the ring with Drederick Tatum, there was Boxcar Bob. For RJ Barrett, there’s a retired NBA player.

Thanks to a superlative second season, Barrett’s ceiling remains a sweet mystery. Last season he was lapped by Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, the two players taken ahead of him in the 2019 draft. RJ was the tortoise to Ja’s hare and Zion’s Bowser-with-Luigi-hops Frankenstein. This season Barrett’s a Most Improved Player candidate and one of the biggest reasons the Knicks are one of the NBA’s biggest surprises. Now let’s talk Antoine Walker.

Walker was no joke. A three-time All-Star who helped Miami win the 2006 title, Employee Number Eight had seasons averaging over 23 points, 10 rebounds and nearly six assists, the same numbers earning Randle MVP chants. The career 33% shooter from deep’s response when asked why he took so many 3s — “Because there are no 4s” — belongs in the Smithsonian. That is a successful career. Barrett already looks poised for more.

RJ’s rookie numbers were eerily similar to Walker’s. In 1997 the then-Celtic had a shooting slash of 43/33/63. Barrett was actually a bit worse than that, posting 40/32/61. Their per 36 production was remarkably similar in points, field goal attempts, assists, blocks, steals and turnovers. How times have changed: those numbers got ‘Toine on the All-Rookie Team. Nowadays there’s an All-Rookie First Team and Second Team and Barrett didn’t make either. Now their numbers have begun to diverge.

From year one to year two, Walker’s:

  • field goal attempts per game rose 15%. Barrett’s are down slightly.
  • field goal percentage dropped from 42.5% to 42.3%. Barrett’s is up from 40.2% to 44.8%.
  • 3-point attempts per game rose 68%. Barrett’s have fallen a little.
  • 3-point percentage fell from 32.7% to 31.2%. Barrett’s has climbed from 32% to 38.3%.
  • assists were fewer than his turnovers. RJ’s assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 1.5:1.

Walker shot more, especially from deep, and shot worse, especially from deep. He regressed as a playmaker, going from a minimally positive assist-to-turnover rate to a negative. He didn’t improve from year one to year two and he never did, period. His career slash of 41/33/63 is virtually identical to his first-year numbers.

Barrett’s upped his assist % while lowering his turnover rate. Combined with his improved shooting (including a torrid months-long rain from 3-point range) the Knicks now feature a second foundational piece. Barrett shares one advantage that Walker possessed: an uncommon marriage of size and skill. Walker was a power forward with the handles and athleticism of a wing. Barrett’s a wing with the strength of a bigger man.

Despite Barrett’s improvement from deep, he doesn’t get a ton of looks from there. Five Knicks who play every night take more 3s per 36 than him, including Obi Toppin. Barrett’s shooting profile suggests a deliberate tempo in his maturity. Last season 30% of his 3-point attempts came from the corners, considered the most efficient spot to shoot 3s; this year that’s up to 46%. Last year he made 36% of those shots; this year it’s 40%. Overrall RJ is taking slightly fewer 3s, but taking more of those 3s from the corners.

Walker’s game moved away from his physical strength. He was a better 3-point shooter than many guys his height, which is not necessarily the same as being a good 3-point shooter. His Ruthian swings took him farther and farther from the basket, where his point forward skills and 225 pounds were more of a menace. His second season shooting percentages fell from everywhere other than 0-3 feet; even those shots dropped from 63% to 35% of his total attempts.

Instead of drifting to the perimeter, Barrett is attacking more inside the arc, where his strength is an asset; those successes open up some space when he’s behind the line, allowing him a little cleaner airspace to get his shot off, or at least enough sunlight to feel good about the launch window. RJ’s shooting better from everywhere this year: 0-3 feet (57%-62%), 3-10 (27%-32%), 10-16 (28% to 33%) 16 feet out to 3-point range (29%-42%) and beyond. RJ Barrett is looking better than Antoine Walker, which for a team whose other lottery picks of late are Toppin, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina is legit. How good can RJ be? If we’re asking that question again next year, it’s been a very good year.

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