Improved shooting percentages. That will likely be the first thing you look at and point to when discussing the big difference with RJ Barrett this year. And you would not be wrong to do so. The fifth year wing is currently shooting 49% from the field, 85% the free throw line, and most importantly, 50% from three. So far, Barrett has made two or more threes in all but one game, shot 44% or better from the field in all but two games, and has shot 75% or better from the charity stripe in all but one game. He’s also been a lot better defensively as well. But the most important and impressive improvement from Barrett comes not from a slight change in shooting motion, more reps in the gym, or an uptick in defensive commitment, it has come from an overall development in his decision making.
In the past, it was apparent that Barrett just didn’t have the ability to read the game on a high level. This is a problem a lot of young players run in to, and it’s not like he was completely clueless out there, so for the first two, maybe even three, seasons, there was more patience. That being said, his ability, or lack thereof, to take in information on the court, register it, and produce the correct outcome last season was simply lower than what you wanted in a fourth-year player who was drafted as high as he was. Barrett routinely had possessions where he was predetermining what he would do before he even got the ball. Over the course of any single game, you could probably point out a handful of occasions where you could tell Barrett had already made up his mind that he would drive left no matter what or that he was going to use a certain move no matter what. If you’re talented like Barrett, you can get away with it sometimes, but against the most talented players and coaches in the league, it often can and often does not end up well. And that was the most frustrating thing for a lot of Knicks fans.
RJ Barrett once again reading the game totally differently than he did a year or two ago. Used to wait for the collapse, get into the paint, then try to kick to the corner or put up a shot. Now, he anticipates the defense, kicks to the wing and gets the hockey assist.— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) November 9, 2023
Obviously we all want to see him score 20+PPG and shoot the ball as efficiently as he is now, but for him to truly take that next step as a player, the Knicks needed him to be better with what many call “the process.” This includes, but is not limited to, how he reads his defender, how he reads the help defender, how he reads his own teammates, how he reads game situations, and how he reads the flow of the game. And while it’s only been seven games so far, we’ve seen him clearly be better in pretty much all of those reads.
You will recognize this right wing Barrett/Brunson screen from last years playoffs. Knicks get their switch. Barrett attacks Murray, recovers after the strip and ANOTHER great pass. Star performance by RJ. pic.twitter.com/o4iI4S6xbm— DJ (@DJAceNBA) October 28, 2023
Take the play above for example. Most fans would agree that in the past there was a high likelihood that Barrett takes a contested floater after getting the ball back. Instead, he whips an on target pass right into Randle’s shooting pocket.
This Hart 3 is a perfect example of why you can't box score watch. Hart gets the 3, Divincenzo gets the assist, but it's Quickley's penetration followed by RJ's ELITE touch pass that create it. pic.twitter.com/N35cT0FpWh— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) November 7, 2023
Or the play above, which he won’t get an assist for. As the post states, Barrett and his “more difficult-than-it-looks” touch pass helps create a wide open shot for Hart. I can say with a decent amount of confidence that there were definitely times in the past where Barrett holds on to the ball here.
The advantage is created with another early, crosscourt pass by RJ going to his right. Keep an eye out for this - it’s a very important development. Teams load up and we’ve got 2 on 1s on the weakside if you hit it fast enough. pic.twitter.com/t1givuzGiH— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSkool) November 7, 2023
And then there is this pass. It may look rather mundane, but this specific ability to not only throw an on target and on time cross-court pass but to do so while going to his right, is a huge development for Barrett.
RJ with a well thrown pass slightly in-front of the rolling iHart to allow momentum to continue toward the rim. Not the prettiest finish but frisky iHart is fun. pic.twitter.com/dGIWoT8LKm— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSkool) November 9, 2023
It doesn’t end with just cross-court passes or touch passes either as we see Barrett come off of a pin down screen and execute a really nice pocket pass to a rolling Isaiah Hartenstein.
“He’s seeing different types of defenses. Sometimes he’s being blitzed. Sometimes people are going under. Some teams are switching. He’s starting to feel real comfortable attacking everything.”— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) November 13, 2023
RJ Barrett’s decision-making, shot-making have lifted NYK: https://t.co/zWxOPduuGj
Again, it’s only been seven games, and there’s definitely a possibility that the shooting percentages see some negative regression. Nevertheless, his passing, his reading of the game, and his overall improved decision making is something that is sustainable. And that should be the thing Knicks fans are all excited about because that underlying ability to make the right decision will ultimately play such a big role in just how well he shoots the ball , how efficient he can be, and most importantly how good this team can be. We all saw how one dimensional and Jalen Brunson-reliant the Knicks were in the playoffs, so having this new and improved version of Barrett, one that is not only an improved shooter, but one that can also make plays for others should do wonders down the stretch.