Ah Rowan. What could I say about RJ that I wouldn’t say about my own son? They’re both hard working guys, both show a ton of potential, both can be extremely frustrating at times, and you have really literally no clue what direction either is headed. The difference is my son is seven years old in an elementary school class he excels in scholastically but not behaviorally, and RJ is a 21 year old, picked third in his draft, in his third year in the NBA, on a team whose struggles he can’t be completely let off the hook for.
RJ had a rough start to the season, but unlike Mitch, he didn’t have a new body to blame for his struggles. Each year he’s unquestionably showed signs, but last year appeared to be the final step before truly emerging as the “1A” to Randle’s “1” this season, as the Knicks would take their obvious, empirical step up to the elite level of Eastern Conference powerhouse. I’m guessing you don’t actually follow basketball and just kind of read insane analytic deep dives like this for fun, and for high quality prose, so bad news, not how it’s worked out.
Let’s work in reverse order with RJ and start with the negatives. He can be passive. His natural position is a three (or two?) so this makes sense. Depending on how he’s utilized, he doesn’t have to be, and often hasn’t been a ball dominant player, so he can go through periods where he’s sleeping or being slept on during possessions. In addition, like so many Knicks, his shot comes and goes.
And right now, I’ll share with you the aspect of his game that really bothers me, the one that keeps me up at night, much like my son’s inability to make simple connections between how he listens to instructions when getting ready to leave the apartment before school with my wife, even though he knows from experience his direct inability to follow very basic steps will result in him losing things after school we all know he badly wants: Why does RJ Barrett, a player who obviously cares an incredible amount, who has that intrinsic, competitive gene every team looks for, who has no ego, who works so hard on his game, who has no obvious physical malady or issues with coordination, still shoot so poorly from the free throw line? Even since the New Year when his play has turned around greatly, he’s shooting 70% from the nail, and I just don’t get it. There’s no Earthly explanation, I’m afraid it might indicate a broken sensor on his motherboard, and I’m very concerned.
Now the good. As he does every year, RJ has added something essential to his game, and this year, it’s the handle. As we fight over whether AB, or IQ, or Deuce should get point guard duties, I think there may be an argument to be made for point RJ. Not a highlight passer, but a fundamental one, who now can keep the ball on the floor during nuclear attack and has become so fucking smooth with it.
I could be wrong, I’ll leave it to the nerds, but good things happen when he’s ball dominant, at least in the half court, most of the time. Particularly when Jules is off the court. When that pull up and fade three is on, you see the superstar potential. But even if he never becomes first or second team All NBA, the thing I love about RJ is his motor. The guy has such indomitable will, never stops going to the rack, and it’s contagious. You see a guy like (another big offseason question mark) Cam Reddish, and his drive, the will to use his body to keep netting wins on possessions when players like Julius can content themselves with contested pull up threes and baseline fadeaways, it’s frankly inspiring.
So the problem is to assess the relative worth of RJ Barrett. I would say on one side of the spectrum, we have the monster supermax Ja Morant is about to sign, five years at $181 mil. I know I’m in the minority here, and both Joker and Embiid are big men busting ass every night and elevating their teams, and the Griz had a comfortable mini run when Ja was out for ten games so people are arguing they’re a good team without him, but Ja Morant is the MVP to me. The Grizz stunning leap has everything to do with him, as a player, as a leader, as a force of fucking nature. I’m not even going to compare stats. Ja Morant is the type of player that not only changes a team in a given year, but a franchise forever, for your child’s entire life. So that’s the ceiling, and if the Grizz even offer him $180.5 million over five years rather than the full $181, they should move the franchise to Seattle.
The floor would be Miles Bridges, who turned down a $60 mil, four year deal that the Hornets offered him in the offseason. He’s now potentially looking in the neighborhood of his max offer sheet, $130M over four years, which isn’t necessarily going to be where he lands, but it will likely be close. RJ and Miles are a jump ball. Miles is the better defensive player, but RJ is a 35% 3PT shooter while Miles is at 30%. Miles is dominant inside. Where it gets interesting is if you compare the two players’ year three numbers, at which point Bridges, who is two years older now, but was a year older then, was significantly worse.
So all things being equal, the question to consider would be how much room you believe RJ has to improve. A leap of the caliber Miles Bridges took between years three and four seems impossible, as it would vault RJ into the stratosphere as one of the 10ish best players in the league. Also, he’ll never be as good a rapper.
But really, when it comes to RJ, this exercise is more hypothetical. We’re not going the Collin Sexton route here. Even if you don’t believe in RJ, the asset is too valuable to let go for anything South of the Bridges deal, and it will most likely end up higher, even if the fourth year leap won’t be commensurate. There’s also very few players like RJ, who is a lights out, no brainer 15 year player who does everything at least well. He offers a skillset any team would want, even if they’d balk at the potential price because of his draft spot.
RJ will break Charlie Ward’s historic streak of being the first Knick draft pick to re-sign in 25 years. So again, pure posturing and bullshit, but I’d love to see the Knicks offer RJ something in the vicinity of $150-$160 mil over five years or see if he can eventually do better on the open market. Do I think it’s likely, or even probable he ends up getting maxed, even with the questions? Yes. I think that’s more likely than a “hometown discount”. But we all have to hope he grows into the money, and I just hope the team can get Cam Reddish to agree to something that leaves the cap flexible for 2022-2023. This has been my TED talk.