As I sat down to write this piece, I tried to think of one word to describe the rollercoaster ride that was RJ Barrett’s 2022-23 season. While some words — inconsistent, confusing, and volatile — came to mind, nothing really did the trick. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Barrett’s latest season, much like his first three in the league, was filled with both distinct strengths and weaknesses. It was overall an unpredictable, up-and-down campaign that was very difficult to measure and in turn encapsulate into one word. What I can say though, is that in an odd but also very interesting way, Barrett’s 2022-23 season might have been the most Barrett season we could’ve had, one that was is just as perplexing and head-tilting as it is fun and encouraging.
Barrett came into this season with a lot of questions. How will he mesh next to the newly acquired Jalen Brunson? How would he play now that he secured the big extension? Can he build off of the strong finish to the 2021-22 season and finally take that big jump? Unfortunately, a lot of those questions were answered in negative ways early on. He started the season averaging just 18.2 PPG on 40.3% shooting from the field and 28.5% from three in his first 25 games. And it got pretty ugly pretty quick. Some people did him a pass as they thought that it was him getting off to his usual slow start, coupled with the fact that he was adjusting to playing next to Brunson, but it was still a bit concerning.
But it was RJ’s play on the other side of the ball surely which left many fans concerned. While Barrett hadn’t been a lockdown defender in the past, he had at least always shown flashes of being a good, or at least a capable, defender over his first three seasons. The young wing had his share of defensive lapses, but he had also showcased his ability to defend some of the better players in the league. Through the first couple months of the season, however, his defense left a lot to be desired. He had incredibly undisciplined closeouts, quicker and smaller players were getting by him with ease, he was giving up easy backdoor cuts and he just seemed to lack the type of energy and attention to detail often expected from a Tom Thibodeau-lead defense.
Despite some fans giving him a pass, the narrative around Barrett was slowly starting to change for the worse. Barrett, who was linked to the blockbuster Donovan Mitchell trade rumors just months earlier, was looking like a shell of the player that ended the prior season on fire. Now an inefficient volume shooter who wasn’t playing any defense, Barrett and his contract extension were looking a bit rough. Some fans were already calling the extension a mistake and were making up potential trades to get rid of the young wing.
Things did start to look a bit better in the following months as his offensive numbers started to climb. In his next 23 games, from December 9th, to February 4th, he averaged 22.3PPG on 46.3% from the field and 37.3% from downtown. He looked more comfortable and aggressive again and with his outside shot falling, he showed signs of returning to the player he was in the second half of the 2021-22 season. There was hope that it’d be smooth sailing from hereon out and that we had seen the worst of Barrett’s season. Heck, people were even celebrating that the “second half RJ” was here early.
Still, the defense was still not where it should’ve been and remained a talking point among fans. Many of the mistakes he was making early in the season lingered and the weight he added over the last few years seemed to have been slowing him down more than ever. And Barrett, throughout much of the season, remained one of the team’s worst players in terms of defensive rating. But at least the team was winning and his offense had finally turned the corner. Or so we thought.
Barrett’s outside shooting regressed once again and in the final 25 games of the regular season, he averaged just 18.4 PPG on 43.5% from the field and 27.6% from 3. And with the playoffs coming up, it was incredibly worrying to see Barrett, who would be relied on heavily with Randle returning from a late season ankle injury, look so out of it offensively to end the year.
As the regular season drew to a close, Barrett’s season up that point had been largely disappointing and frustrating. The counting stats are one thing. Sure, it would have been nice to see Barrett get closer to 23 PPG but it was always going to be difficult for him to take another statistical leap with Brunson being handed the keys to the offense. But fans had hoped that allowing Barrett to be a third option coupled with a potential improvement in his jump shooting, would allow him to be way more efficient. Fans would have taken 20 PPG on say 46% shooting from the field and 37% from three. So when he ended the season with a scoring dip of almost .5 PPG with his field goal percentage going up just 2%, it kind of just seemed like a lost season. And that’s before we even get to his process on offense, which was often lacking.
Instead of picking opportune times to attack the defense off of Randle, and Brunson’s play, Barrett often seemed to get his points by putting his head down and driving into a wall of multiple defenders. And when his floater and layups weren’t working, and he wasn’t getting any calls, his shaky jump shot usually gave him nothing. All of this lead to some very very ugly and hard-to-watch shooting nights from Barrett. There were nights where it somehow worked, and it’s not like he did this every game. But his reads, shot selection, and decision making overall for a good chunk of the season just always seemed so forced.
Things didn’t look great early on in the playoffs either as Barrett got off to an incredibly inauspicious start. In Game 1 of the first round, Barrett scored just seven points, going 2-12 from the field and 1-5 from downtown and was a -13 in 31 minutes. He did manage to dish out six assists, grab four rebounds, and come away with four steals, but overall, it was still a subpar and rather ugly performance from Barrett. He bounced back scoring wise a bit, dropping 14 points in the Game 2 loss. But he had zero assists, just one steal, and was pretty much a non-factor besides the few baskets he made. Through two playoff games, there were fans and pundits who were calling him unplayable and pleading Thibodeau to bench him. Needless to say, it was a dire and ugly time for Barrett supporters.
But as Barrett has done for much of his career, he remained confident. And thank God he did, because Barrett went on to play some of the best basketball of his career the rest of the way. In a crucial Game 3, Barrett scored 19 points on an efficient 8-12 from the field (3-6 from 3), while grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out three assists. He then proved it wasn’t a fluke by coming out the very next game and scoring a playoff career-high 26 points on 9-18 from the floor. And in the clinching Game 5, Barrett had another solid all around game, scoring 21 points on 7-13 from the field, while grabbing four rebounds, and dishing out four assists. There were still some doubters claiming Barrett would come down to earth, but for the most part, the narrative and feelings surrounding Barrett were magically positive once again. And Barrett wasted to no time getting back to work.
Despite losing game one of the second round against the Heat, Barrett had one of, if not, the best games of his young career, scoring 26 points, grabbing nine rebounds and recording seven assists. By then, it was becoming increasingly clear that this wasn’t a fluke. That Barrett, despite his shortcomings and inconsistencies, had the potential of being a crucial part of a playoff team. A good one at that. And Barrett wouldn’t slow down. In game two of the Heat series, Barrett played a big role in helping the Knicks secure a much needed win with his 24-point performance, including five huge three-pointers. And in Games 4 and 5 of the series, he averaged 25 PPG, 5.5 RPG, and 2.5 APG on 51.5% from the field and 46.2% from three.
And the incredible — and head-scratching — part about all of this was the fact that RJ’s defense was back. Despite being one of the worst defenders on the team during the regular season, Barrett suddenly turned into a good, sometimes even great, defender. He made multiple rotations, got deflections, stayed with his assignment, and contested without fouling. He did end the season on a sour note — much like every other Knick not named Brunson — by going 1-10 from the field, and scoring just 11 points in the final game of the season. But overall, I don’t think fans could have asked for a better and more encouraging playoffs from Barrett.
RJ Barrett 2021 Playoffs— KnicksMuse (@KnicksMuse) May 25, 2023
14.4 PTS | 38.8% FG | 28.6% 3P | 49% TS
RJ Barrett 2023 Playoffs
19.3 PTS | 43.3% FG | 32.8% 3P | 55% TS
Most points ever by a Knick 22 or younger in a single playoff run. pic.twitter.com/MoGWcKLxdE
Which brings us to the question: How was Barrett’s season overall? To be honest, I’m still not 100% sure how to answer that. He obviously had very low lows early on, but had very high highs in the playoffs. And in between, there a whole lot of subpar-to-mediocre performances that kind blend together into this frustrating “RJ experience.” Moving forward, we’re in another “wait and see” type of offseason with Barrett. He’s nowhere near good or accomplished enough to take the regular season off, even if it means showing up big time for the playoffs. If the Knicks want to take that next step, they need Barrett to show up for more than the playoffs and a couple months in the middle of the season. That being said, he also showed that he can be the second best player on a team that was two wins away from being in the conference finals.
If he builds off of everything he learned and did in the playoffs, and comes back as the efficient, and aggressive scorer that blends outside shooting, cutting, and playmaking with a solid to high level of defense, then this past season, despite all of it’s struggles and frustrations, should be considered a success. But if Barrett starts the 23-24 campaign struggling with an subpar jump shot, bad shot selection, and lackluster defense, and ends up being just as inconsistent as he was this season, then this past season may have to be marked as a waste.
Which brings us all back to the underlying theme with Barrett: the unknown and the inconsistencies. Barrett, who many forget is still just 22 years old, remains an inconsistent and imperfect player. But somewhere in there, is a player who has the abilities, the body, and mental fortitude to be a very good and productive player on a winning team that other factions of fans also love to love. When and where or if he ever gets there is still very much in debate. And how long and how many fans hold out and stick with him, is also very much up in the air. But unless Barrett is included in a blockbuster trade, we can sit back uncomfortably knowing that we still have a few more years of the craziness that is the RJ experience.