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How RJ Barrett can become a top NBA wing

No. 20 seems too low.

NBA: Preseason-New York Knicks at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Late last month, we covered ESPN’s annual top 100 player list, which saw RJ Barrett rank in at 63. It may have been lower that what some of us hoped to see but overall, it was a step in the right direction for a young wing who, prior to last season, was often overlooked. Earlier last week, SB Nation ranked the top 30 wings players players in the league and the fourth year Knick made the cut comfortably coming in at 20. Following an exciting season in which he hit career highs in multiple categories, Barrett is expected by Knicks fans to take yet another step towards stardom this season, but the most recent ranking shows that he may still have more to prove before he can be seen as a top-15 or a top-10 wing in the league.

Barrett, after securing a hefty contract extension, does now find himself ahead of some notable names like Tobias Harris, Michael Porter Jr., and Jerami Grant. It’s damn near impossible to predict what Barrett’s season will end up looking like with the offensive pecking order still yet to be fully sorted out, but those are some really solid players that Barrett now finds himself being ranked ahead of. That being said, 20 ultimately seems a bit disrespectful with guys like Kyle Kuzma, Harrison Barnes, and Herb Jones all ranking ahead of him. The good thing is, if he can outperform his expectations, something he had no problems doing in the second half of last season, he could find himself leap frogging a few guys to catapult himself in to a top-15 wing.

Being labeled a top-15 wing in the league is definitely an honor nobody should sneeze at, but at the end of the day it’s just an arbitrary label. That is, until you see the kind of guys that start to pop up in that 15-10 ranking. Guys like Mikal Bridges, Andrew Wiggins, and Jaylen Brown. You’re now talking about All Star-caliber guys, players who have shown night in and night out that they are crucial parts of championship contending teams. And while there’s still a ways to go, Barrett (whether it’s this year or in the next few years), has a real shot at putting himself in that category, if not higher.

Which brings up the question: what is it exactly that he’ll need to do to join those guys? In an age where offense is glamorized and people base players and their impact so often on stats and stats alone, many would just say get better on offense. With a revamped jump shot and a new point guard, upping his PPG while improving on what was a shaky field goal percentage would do wonders. Shoot, he should also take on some more playmaking responsibilities while he’s at it. All those things very easily could lead to a bump in stats, passing the eye test and getting more respect. But we all know that while it’s possible he does all those things, it’s certainly not easy or a given. So the easiest route to turning more heads and finally earning the respect that he deserves may have to be defense. He is already as good, if not better than Kuzma and Barnes offensively and is miles ahead of Herb Jones on that end of the floor. Barrett definitely took a step back defensively last year but as someone that often gets linked to Jimmy Butler (who finds himself at number five on this list) as a potential future comparison, Barrett has the tools and the potential to be a very good, if not elite, defender. We’ve all seen flashes of it so if he can repeat his offensive output from last season while turning into a lockdown defender or something close to it, it may be enough to do the job.

And this is crucial because of the Knicks’ makeup. Jalen Brunson is a no-doubt upgrade over any point guard the franchise has had in recent years but his defense can be a weakness at times. He’s actually a solid defender given his smaller frame, mostly due to how smart of a defender he is and how hard he tries. But his size does limit him at times. The Knicks are now pairing him up in the backcourt with an Evan Fournier who looked like a revolving door for most of last season. And then there’s Randle, who can be a good defender when focused and engaged but showed last year that he can still be a very inconsistent defender. Add all those things up and you have a team that is pretty much just relying on a really good rim protecting center tandem of Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein to man a Thibodeau-led defense. Funneling the opposing offense into good rim protectors has worked for teams in the past. Teams with guys like Tyson Chandler and Rudy Gobert instantly come to mind. But even then, those teams often had at least one good, if not elite, defender. If Barrett can take that role become the consistent lock down defender we’ve all seen him be against some of the best in the league, it may be the best thing to happen to both Barrett and the Knicks.