It’s been said a player's third season is when they show you who they’re going to be for the rest of their career. If that’s the case, then RJ Barrett is going to be a star. This year, the young Canuck took his game to another level, achieving the 20 PPG mark many Knicks fans dreamed for him averaging this season. He finished the year with 20 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3 APG while shooting 40.8% from the field. He also emerged as the team’s best perimeter defender, post-Reggie Bullock, as he regularly chose to defend the opposing team’s best player down stretches. Not bad for the 21-year-old. He is on a trajectory that should see him become an All-Star next season. He finished this season as the team’s leader, as Julius Randle digressed statistically and vocally as the team’s engine.
It showed Barrett’s mettle that he maintained his composure and increased his leadership while playing next to the most childish and selfish players in the NBA this season. With his isolation tactics, Randle was a black hole on offense, killing movement and momentum. Yet, Barrett remained positive and played within the starting five’s system while leading second unit combinations as the focal point once Randle sat. It was chronicled in a Slam Magazine cover story last season that Barrett and Randle sit next to each other on team flights, so Barrett was closely exposed to Randle’s sour attitude towards the fans, media, and teammates. Knicks fans are lucky none of that malcontent toxicity rubbed off on the young star.
WHAT HE DID GREAT
Barrett once again had a rough start to the season. Part of this was due to new additions Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker struggling to gel with return starters Mitchell Robinson, Randle, and Barrett. Barrett continued his streak of starting seasons off with rough shooting, but there was evidence he had taken on the challenge of becoming the team’s primary defender.
The emergence came during an early-season game in October against the New Orleans Pelicans. Barrett took it upon himself to be the team’s closer, shifting from his deferential nature in his first two seasons. Barrett took over in the fourth and scored a career-high 35 points on 12-18 shooting, eight rebounds and six assists. It was the best game of his career and signified a shift in mentality while showing off the off-the-dribble scoring improvement he put in last summer.
While the starting five never fully gelled this season, Barrett took the most significant leap of the starting unit. He developed a tremendous two-man game with Robinson, finding the rolling big man for lobs in the pick and roll. He also increased his shot attempts from inside and outside the perimeter. So while his percentages dipped across almost every statistical category, part of that was because of an uptick in attempts and a less efficient roster around him.
Where Barrett improved the most was finishing around the basket. He’s not an elite athlete, but he makes up for it with basketball IQ and strength. Where he has always had a penchant for getting to the hole, he has bricked way too many layups in the past. This season he became the team's most reliable penetrator after the much-maligned Elfrid Payton left in free agency, and Rose sat out most of the year. Payton wasn't great at much, but he did get to the rack better than any other guard last year.
WHAT HE NEEDS TO WORK ON
Now that Barrett has improved finishing around the basket, he needs to improve his mid-range game. He needs to add it to his game-to-game arsenal. He showed an ability to pull up from three off-the-dribble, but needs to become more consistent. It’s also time for him to develop a step back and side-step three, making him a more dynamic player catching the ball on the perimeter and as the ballhandler off defensive rebounds and in transition. Starting next season, Barrett needs to play like this is his team. Unlike Randle, every player paired with him on the court plays better and with more joy. Barrett’s timeline falls within the under-25-year-old young core. He, Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley, Cam Reddish, Quentin Grimes, and Jericho Sims, and perhaps Robinson, are the future of this team, save for a mega trade for a disgruntled star this summer. Barrett needs to establish himself as the offensive focal point whether or not Randle is on the court. Randle has shown a willingness to defer this season when Barrett’s hot towards the end of the season. Next year this must become the norm, and it starts with Barrett asserting himself.
When Barrett was drafted, ESPN compared him to another lefty, Jalen Rose. It took Rose seven seasons to average 20 PPG, and he only did it four times out of a 13-year career. Barrett is certainly on track to surpass this comparison. DeMar DeRozan with a better three, or Jimmy Butler with an actual three, are better comps. Both are great players who thrive in the mid-range and driving to the basket. Barrett has a ton of work to do in isolation situations to become the scoring threats those multiple-time All-Stars have become. But he does possess the two-way versatility and is a feisty presence on the ball. Barrett’s ceiling depends mainly on his ability to improve off-the-dribble. He has great shooting form, a chiseled physique, and the mental fortitude to become great. He will need to improve his handle and awareness to become a reliable closer.
GOALS FOR NEXT SEASON
This summer the Knicks need to cut the shit and cement the issue at point guard. This can be accomplished by crowing Quickley as the starting point guard or trading for a star like Donovan Mitchell. It has to be the team’s top off-season priority. Once this is established, Barrett should have a point guard to get him easier looks and find him in transition. Barrett should see more opportunities going downhill on fast breaks once this team improves in pace (they were third-worst in pace this season). This will inevitably bump his scoring average and free throw attempts. He has raised his free throw attempts per game every season, averaging 5.8 this season. If he can make a jump to 7 or 8 attempts next season and continue shooting his 70% average from the stripe, that 6 points he can have every game. He should shoot to average 24 or 25 PPG next season, which would make it impossible for the media to ignore him come All-Star time.
Barrett is one of the most beloved Knicks in recent memory and is up for a rookie-scale extension this summer. So it's not a question of if the Knicks will lock him up for the long-term, but when and how much. Knicks President Leon Rose has been frugal thus far. But Barrett proved his potential and silenced the doubters by becoming the face of the franchise this season.