It’s common thinking among NBA circles that a player's third year is when they show you who they will be for their career. We are in RJ Barrett’s fourth year with the team and the first after he was involved in Donovan Mitchell trade rumors and given a $107 million extension. Barrett has made incremental gains every year since he was taken third in the 2019 NBA Draft. This season he is averaging slightly better shooting efficiency numbers (.433 FG%, .486 2P% and .487 eFG%) while maintaining the 20 points per game he averaged last season.
But after his rightful fourth quarter and overtime benching in the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, his role moving forward is in question. So Matthew Miranda and I started a conversation about Barrett’s potential role with the team while analyzing his growth with the Knicks and under Tom Thibodeau.
Escobedo: When Barrett was drafted, I watched it in a sleepy bar in Dallas with my pops. When he cried on his father’s shoulder after being drafted by the Knicks, the team he wanted all along, I couldn't help but pull my pops close for a hug and a few shared tears. After years of being a despot destination, having a top-three pick out of a prestige university like Duke wanting to be here felt like a reversal of fortunes. Now that we are in year four of the Barrett era, I have many questions about his fit with this current roster and his potential to be anything more than a fourth option moving forward.
Whiny Knicks apologists constantly point to his age (22) as an excuse for why he has not developed at the rate some of us would like. But I counter with Barrett being placed as a starter since his rookie year and having the second-most touches and play-calling given to him in the last four years, second only to Randle. He has been guarding opposing starters, many of the best players in the game, and given a high-usage and high-minute allocation, yet consistently plateaued as a defender and scorer. I do not think there is another level to Barrett’s game. This is who he is, and we must either learn to be okay with it and build around his deficiencies or be willing to include him in trade negotiations for a star down the road. That’s not to say he is not a very good player with many strengths, he just is not what we envisioned as the third pick in the draft.
The top line is RJ’s per 36 numbers this year. You’re right to use “plateaued” for his year-to-year play; go through RJ’s numbers as long as you like, turn them every possible way and there aren’t many striking features. It is what it is. I think that’s a mark in his favor.
Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson are both potential All-Stars who most teams would be happy to have, and yet their value is vulnerable. If this is ringing a bell, you’re pro’ly old enough to remember adding Carmelo Anthony to Amar’e Stoudemire. When your best player’s bestness is their scoring and you add a new player who’s even bestier bagging buckets, the first guy doesn’t get better. STAT and Melo combined for a +0.6 rating in nearly 700 minutes that season, lower than he averaged (in more minutes!) with Landry Fields, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas and Rony Turiaf.
Take “What Kind of Fool,” as sung by Barry Gibb and Barbra Streisand. One reason it’s such a banger of a tune is how Gibb and Streisand’s skills shine while spotlighting the other singer; if their voices were dancers, you’d be certain they were sleeping together, that’s how seamless their fit. Here’s 20 seconds of bliss:
Players like Randle and Brunson sound best when they’re leading the band. We know neither is the best player on a title contender. What’s their value if Leon Rose finally finds the holy grail and lands Messiah X, our long-prophecied savior? Let’s say that savior was a mischevous Slovenian maestro tired of toiling under James Dolan With Better P.R.? And let’s say JDWBPR isn’t interested in Randle or Brunson; he’ll just take all New York’s draft picks, pick swaps, Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, Kevin Knox, Kristaps Porziņģis, Fields, Patrick Ewing’s kneepads and Walt Frazier’s Rolls Royce. Now your new plan involves Randle and Brunson each touching the ball far less. That means they mean less — yet are paid the same as now, when their role renders them relative bargains.
RJ’s Clark Kent-like statistical dullness may be hiding the superman underneath. Look at the roles he’s been given so far. His rookie year, he took two fewer shots per 36 than Randle and fewer than Marcus Morris, too. His second season, Randle’s apotheosis, the shot disparity was even greater, plus rookie Quickley and newly-acquired Derrick Rose took more shots than RJ; hell, Elfrid Payton averaged the same number of attempts as Barrett. Last year was the anomaly, the year RJ led the team in shot attempts and there was no third banana to split the monopoly. This year, Randle and Brunson are tied for the most shot attempts, with Barrett third. There aren’t really any statistically significant patterns that emerge. Maybe that’s his cape peeking out.
Barrett’s production has stayed steady, seemingly immune from the vagaries of his year-to-year shooting. He’s been the first banana, the second, the third, and like the fifth, and it’s basically 20, 5, and 3 regardless. His free-throw shooting is currently a career-high 76%, suggesting a kid who would normally be one year out of college still has a lot of room to grow.
The last two stat lines belong to Andrew Wiggins: the middle line is his fourth season in Minnesota; the bottom line is Wiggins this year with Golden State. I share it for two reasons: because nobody in 2018 could have envisioned the fit an older, wiser Wiggins has with the Warriors, and because RJ’s contract is not the albatross Wiggins’ was. You mentioned building around Barrett’s deficiencies. I’d say one of his strengths is how much easier he is to build around than the other “Big 2.”
Escobedo: Lots to unpack here, including a great Barbara Streisand song, a siren whose discography and filmography were required viewing in my musical-loving family’s house in the hood. But returning to Barrett, I strongly disagree that Barrett is easier to build around than Randle and Brunson, who are both drastically more skilled and gifted than Barrett, who has to work for everything he gets. What makes those optics even more glaring is where Barrett was drafted. Randle and Brunson don't have to deal with being drafted third after Zion Williamson and Ja Morant in 2019. The expectation of being the third pick is to be a difference maker, something Barrett has not been thus far. If he was selected between, say, eight to 15, we would more than likely talk about him with more praise.
While you're correct that his inefficient scoring has remained about the same throughout his four-year career, his defense has been as dramatic as Knicks Twitter. Since returning from the finger injury on January 12, Barrett has held a 125.8 defensive rating. Yuck. You don’t need metrics and spreadsheets to witness his lazy rotations and poor decision-making on hedging, recovering, and rotating on perimeter switches. It's been awful, and has led to multiple opposing role players lighting us up from the perimeter. It has gotten so bad Thibs has benched him in favor of Immanuel Quickley multiple games since Barrett has returned. Nothing makes the Barrett/Jimmy Butler comparisons more laughable than Barrett’s atrocious effort on defense.
Miranda: I’d be remiss not to mention RJ outplayed Butler so emphatically Thursday night he had his man looking like the Ghost of Jimmy Past, but I’d also be remiss if I failed to acknowledge one game is just that: one game. So let’s talk about a role that RJ could flourish in, one that plays to both his strengths and the team’s: RJ as Sixth Man.
“He makes too much money to come off the bench!” I already hear. “Dude was the third pick in the draft; he’s not taking a demotion.” Of course not! It’s not like there’s ever been a player taken third in the draft who went on to spend most of his career coming off the bench, helping his team win multiple championships while paving his path to Springfield along the way. No, never. Who’s that? Mevin KcHale? I don’t know her.
Escobedo: It appears we have found some common ground. There are enough Knicks fans on Twitter calling for RJ’s head after every game, wanting him booted out of town. I am not of that ilk. I agree with you he is best suited coming off the bench, not behind Evan Fournier, but the eventual “star” player we have been relentlessly pursuing over two decades.
Of the starting five, Brunson, Grimes, Randle and Robinson are solidified at their respective positions. This leaves RJ at the small forward the position most in need of an upgrade. It's highly likely RJ will be included in whatever trade Leon Rose eventually makes for a star. He was already the centerpiece of the Donovan Mitchell trade this past summer. Barrett will either be traded or moved to the bench, depending on what other players stay and go, and that’s how it should be. Metrics have become too advanced, shedding light on a player's every plus and minus toward efficiency both individually and as a team player. We have seen way too many examples of horrible shooting, night after night, from RJ. But. But my disappointment has not yet turned to rage towards the young forward. I have just lowered my expectations around RJ never becoming a star. Once I realized he is a decent starter at best, I sleep better at night.
Miranda: Barrett leading bench swarms would free him up from Randle and Brunson’s twin gravities and give him some time as a hub, which could help his development and the team’s. McHale came off the bench for years, then started for years. That could work here. In a few years, when Randle is over 30 and his contract’s winding down, the Knicks may see Barrett — who will be due for an extension of his own by then — as a natural successor at that point. Perhaps they’ll even compensate him for the bigger role. Until then, the Knicks should add someone anywhere in the OG-to-Luka range to their starting five and let RJ swim in the best possible ecosystem for his future.
Escobedo: I’ve never bought into the “Knicks for Clicks” dialogue around having three lefties starting. But I do buy into the eye test of Randle and Barrett’s overlapping games and preferred offensive spots on the floor. the front office has already shown a willingness to include Barrett in trades, as he was the centerpiece of the Mitchell trade talks. I was against it then, but I am more than willing now to include him in a trade for a star. I understand Barrett is only 22 years old and still developing, but the inefficient shooting splits and defensive rating are concerning. I have no interest in waving “trade RJ” signs, but I am more willing than ever to include him in talks that net us a star.