It’s crazy to think that not too long ago, we were all talking about how RJ Barrett was arguably the best Knicks player through the first couple weeks of the season. Julius Randle was going through an abysmal shooting slump that saw him become one of the least efficient volume shooters ever to start a season. Jalen Brunson was playing well, but not as well as we were used to seeing him play, and his defense, as is often the case, left a lot to be desired.
So when the team, amidst a very mediocre 5-4 start, needed someone to step up and keep them afloat, Barrett was one of the few that answered the call. Along with the dominant play of Mitchell Robinson, it was Barrett and his play on both sides of the ball that kept the team alive. During that short but crucial nine game span, Barrett appeared in seven games and was a significant difference maker. The fifth year wing played arguably his best stretch of basketball, averaging 22.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, and 3.1 APG on 48.7% shooting from the field, 50% shooting from three, and 84.8% shooting from the free throw line.
It really was a beauty to watch. Not only was Barrett was off to a torrid start shooting the ball from three, the way he was processing defenses and information was better than it ever had been, and his decision making had been incredible. And to top it all off, he was also playing some very good defense against some really good players. All in all, it was by far the best start of his career.
32 Players have played at least 500 minutes with a usage of at least 27%— DJ (@DJAceNBA) December 14, 2023
RJ Barrett has the 5th worst eFG% of those players.
The only players worse are Poole, Cade, Jalen Green and Victor. pic.twitter.com/9TWVVdSLWG
But things have not been the same since he missed a few games due to migraines. Since coming back on November 18th, Barrett is averaging just 16.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, and 2.2 APG on 37.7% shooting from the field, and 25% from three in 11 games. Now, the free throw percentage is still at a nice place at 81.5% and the defense, although still very far from perfect, is still better than it was last season. But his shot selection, decision making, three-point shooting, and overall efficiency have all negatively regressed significantly.
NBA Worst 3P% since November 18th (when RJ returned from his migraines):— KnicksMuse (@KnicksMuse) December 14, 2023
25.0% — RJ Barrett
27.9% — Jaylen Brown
28.9% — Spencer Dinwiddie
28.9% — Jalen Green
29.6% — Naz Reid
(min. 50 three-point attempts) pic.twitter.com/fX9NHJlIgo
Things have gotten so bad that right now that his PPG, shooting percentage, and MPG are all lower than where they were at last season, which is kind of crazy because we all thought that he couldn’t play much worse than he did during the regular season last season. And because of everything we as fans have gone through in watching the ups and downs of Barrett and his development, it is admittedly frustrating to see Barrett seemingly take two steps forward then one step back. After last year’s playoff run, his FIBA World Cup performance this past summer, and the way he played to start the season, it felt like we were finally seeing him take that next step, which would have been incredibly huge for a Knicks team that continues to lack offensive firepower and size at the wing position.
That being said, it’s an 11 game stretch, and by no means does this suggest that he will continue to struggle or that he can’t return to form. There were reports that he was still dealing with migraines, so hopefully that’s the main thing holding him back. And we all know by now that Barrett is a streaky player who can look awful for two weeks and then look good for two weeks out of nowhere. We also have to remember that despite looking like the worst version of himself last night against the Jazz, he did just have a really strong showing against the Toronto Raptors, going 11-21 for 27 points. And shoot, for all we know, we could be looking back at this stretch of games in February, laughing about how fake his struggles seem. But, for now, this just seems to be who Barrett is.
He is a player, on some nights, who is capable of scoring 25 points on relentless attacks to the rim, with the ability to make some nice plays for others, stretch the floor when needed, and guard the opponents’ best player when fully engaged. But on a lot of other nights, he is a player who will shoot the ball a lot and do so inefficiently while having inconsistent defensive efforts. Again, it’s too early to overreact and close the book on Barrett having a nice 2023-24 season. He’s shown on multiple occasions now that he has both the ability and mindset to work through the struggles and turn it around. But knowing his history, and looking at his recent numbers, it may be time to temper down the expectations a little bit.