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RJ Barrett has started Knicks preseason strong

I see the fire in your eyes, it’s burning brighter now . . . you’re the shining star.

NBA: Preseason-Minnesota Timberwolves at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Since being selected third by the Knicks in the 2019 draft, high expectations have dogged RJ Barrett. Over his first four seasons, those expectations have met mixed results.

At 6’6”, 214 lb, RJ is physically strong, but he hasn’t driven to the rim with authority often enough. He works diligently in and out of the season, but he has struggled to improve his shooting percentages. He will nail a game-winning shot on occasion, yet has not proven reliable enough to lead in crunch time. Despite being an NBA starter since entering the league, the consensus has been that RJ is an average to slightly above-average player.

But lo! Today’s dispatch comes from the Overreaction to Mostly Insignificant Games desk. It reports that RJ has shown notable improvement through his first two preseason scrimmages.

Barrett’s most promising year was his sophomore season, when he averaged 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and three assists while shooting 40% from deep on four-ish attempts per game. In 2019-20, he also logged his best defensive rating, 110. Since then, he has averaged almost 20 points per game but made only a third of his three-point attempts, has held steady at around 42% shooting from the floor, and regressed as a defender.

In last week’s game against the Celtics, RJ logged a team-high plus/minus of +17 and was perfect from the free throw line. Versus the T’Wolves on Saturday, he scored a team-high 23 points. In the latter contest, he came out blazing. For the first quarter alone he logged 15 points, one rebound, and a steal while shooting 4-of-6 from the floor and going 7-of-8 from the stripe.

At times in the past, RJ has hurled the ball at the hoop like a visually impaired pizza tosser. To be honest, he has not converted at a satisfactory rate this preseason, either, cumulatively shooting 3-of-13 from downtown and four-of-eight in the paint. He attempted no midrange shots in two exhibition games, which is unsurprising given his history. Here was his diet on Saturday:

Unlike his hero DeMar DeRozan, RJ has never attempted a high-volume of shots from between ten feet and the arc. That probably won’t change much this season.

What is encouraging, though, is that he has shown a greater appetite for paint and has drawn more fouls there this preseason. In these first two games, he went to the line 21 times and drilled 18 of his attempts. Lifetime, he’s been a 71% shooter from the charity stripe. Over these two exhibition games: 86%.

Red alert! Too small a sample size! It’s preseason! Abort the premise!

Fine. But for a player who typically starts slowly, he has gotten off on the right foot. RJ is strong enough to pressure some of the league’s bigger bodies and seems committed to doing so this year. To wit, here he brushes off Nickeil Alexander-Walker and drives at Karl-Anthony Towns: (Note: KAT is five inches taller, thirty pounds heavier.)

And behold this screen and cut action on Saturday:

As for the other end of the floor, RJ grabbed two steals against the Timberwolves. RJ was active, alert, and looked especially good with the second unit. To see him play so comfortably alongside Immanuel Quickley and Isaiah Hartenstein is a welcome sign. Barrett will likely spend a lot of time with the bench mob this season, with Thibs favoring a short rotation and no traditional power forward slotted behind Julius Randle.

For once, the Knicks feel stable. Maybe RJ is responding to the familiarity that comes from retaining mostly the same roster that closed out last season. He told Zach Braziller (NY Post) that having “guys that were here definitely helps, knowing that, going into the season, we have to come out with that same fight and energy like we did last year.”

RJ will earn $23.8 million for this campaign, and the front office has had reason to feel impatience toward the “still only” 23-year-old. Some have suggested that changing teams would benefit him, and indeed, his name surfaced in trade conversations. If RJ continues to improve as he has this preseason, however, that will go a long way toward quieting negative chatter.

Keep it up, RJ!