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2020-21 Knicks Player Review: RJ Barrett

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In short: He was very good.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks
The best moment of RJ’s career to date.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

RJ Barrett shined brightly on Broadway in his sophomore season, improving in all statistical categories, playing with the composure of a 10-year veteran, and looking like a franchise cornerstone who might just be on the precipice of stardom.

Following his rookie campaign, we noted that Barrett was one of only four players in NBA history to average at least 14 points, 5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1 steal during a rookie season in which they were still teenagers, alongside LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Luka Doncic.

This year, Barrett — who only this month became old enough to legally drink alcohol — joined another weirdly specific, yet illustrious, list. Per Tommy Beer on Twitter, Barrett became just the 8th player in NBA history to reach 2,000 points, 500 rebounds and 300 assists before turning 21.

Cool list, lotta legends. Oh, hi Melo! Hope you’re doing well. You’re not going to end up on the Knicks next season, are you? Uh, you know what, let’s move on. Elaborate statistical groupings aside, Barrett unquestionably elevated his game in year two while leaving room for even further growth.

Got it, RJ was really good. What did he do better this year?

Easy answer. Basically everything. Here, let’s lay it out in an easy-to-read fashion:

Rookie RJ: 14.3 points per game (40% from the field, 32% from three and 61% from the free throw line), 5 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1 steal and 2.2 turnovers.

Sophomore RJ: 17.6 points per game (44% from the field, 40% from three, 75% from the free throw line), 5.8 rebounds, 3 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.9 turnovers.

Barrett bumped up his counting stats while exuding strengthened confidence and maintaining durability. After missing 10 games with an ankle injury last year, he played in all 72 this season. Not only that, he increased his minutes from 30 to nearly 35 per night, and finished second in the entire NBA in total minutes (behind teammate Julius Randle, #Thibs).

After scoring less than 10 points in a single game 32% of the time last year, Barrett did so only 18% this season. This year, he scored 20 or more points 46% of the time, compared to 23% last season. As a rookie, he put up at least 20 points and 5 rebounds 12 times in 56 games, and as a sophomore he did so 21 times in 72 games. Last season, he had two double doubles, this year he had five.

He had his first career 30-point effort, putting up 32 points, 5 boards, 3 assists and 3 steals in a blowout win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Meanwhile, he’s got the attributes to be a lockdown defender and performed pretty admirably on that side of the ball under Tom Thibodeau, as the Knicks under Thibs improved from 23rd in the league in defensive rating to 4th.

No matter how you slice it, Barrett was considerably better in his second NBA season, and he’s still only 21-years-old.

Terrific. But is his shooting sustainable?

We won’t know for sure until he does it again, and then again, and then again. But the extreme uptick in free throw percentage (a 14% improvement from last year to this year) suggests that Barrett has found his stroke.

But let’s dig a little deeper for good measure. Despite a brutal early season stretch in which Barrett missed 21 straight threes over the course of four games, he shot from deep with poise and ultimately upped his percentage from below league average last year to well above it (this season’s average three-point percentage was 34.6%, Barrett shot 40.2% for the year).

The uptick in his deep ball ability came despite Barrett shooting almost two more threes per game compared to last year. Still, there remains room for improvement, as Barrett shot 41% from deep on catch-and-shoot threes but just 30% on pullup threes.

He could also stand to shoot better from the mid-range. The Knicks often opened games with Barrett coming off a screen and taking a jumper from one of the elbows, seemingly in an attempt to get him going right away, because when both Randle and Barrett were on fire, New York was tough to beat.

Only, RJ isn’t quite a killer from that realm. He shot just under 36% from the mid-range, which is slightly better than Giannis, who is terrible at shooting, but is more in line with players like Jordan McLaughlin of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Nassir Little of the Portland Trail Blazers.

If RJ can come into next season knocking down 40% of his mid-range jumpers while continuing to connect from three, it might just foreshadow a serious ascension.

But is his focus on jump shots taking away from his other abilities?

No. Barrett’s improvement as an outside shooter didn’t come at the expense of his other skills. As an example, let’s look at his crafty inside game. After shooting 53% on 322 total field goal attempts in the restricted area last season, he shot 55% on 410 such shot attempts this year.

Thanks to his strength, combined with a dominant left hand but decently ambidextrous abilities, Barrett can usually get to the rim without much trouble. Although finishing once he gets there is one area where Barrett could still stand to improve. He averaged nearly 12 drives per game, more than lads like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry; however, he only capitalized on drives 42% of the time, which puts him near the bottom of the list of players who averaged at least 10 drives a night.

Considering his size (RJ is listed at 6’6” or 6’7” and about 215 pounds depending where you look), Barrett must improve at getting buckets when he drives to the rim. This season, we saw a lot of impressive drives that ended in wild layup attempts, often with Barrett clearly feeling like he had been fouled. Perhaps next year he’ll start receiving more calls. But he should still go into the offseason focused on building strength so that he can complete those drives.

He sucked in the playoffs though, right?

Not as much as you probably remember. Much like everyone else on the Knicks, Barrett lost the jumper he had found during the regular season, shooting just under 39% from the field and 29% from deep. But he was 12-15 (80%) from the free throw line, so he didn’t lose the ability to shoot from everywhere.

In his first five career playoff games, Barrett averaged 14.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3 assists. He could have been better, but he wasn’t a complete no show. Not to mention, when the stakes were the highest — games four and five — Barrett had his best postseason performances, with averages of 19 points, 6.5 boards, 4.5 assists and 1 steal. The Knicks got knocked out rather handily by Trae Young and the Hawks, but Barrett didn’t go down without a fight.

And it matters that he was responsible for the best Knicks playoff moment in years.

They say year three is when truly great players often take The Leap. In year two, Barrett took significant steps. Based on his young career to date, you have to imagine RJ is probably in the gym right now, as you read this, attempting to improve. He knows he’ll have to be prepared for the increased pressure that will come with expectations next season.