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RJ Barrett Will Not Be Overshadowed
By: Khaqan Khan
When asked about how he felt about being left off both All-Rookie teams, RJ Barrett, the 20-year-old guard for the New York Knicks, admitted:
"It bothered me a lot. Not going to lie. It bothered me a lot. I really don't understand why I wasn't on it. But it was motivation, motivation for next season. It was good to have an extra chip on my shoulder and just prove myself even more."
A near textbook response from a young player. I found it interesting that he mentioned "an extra chip" on his shoulder, which suggests to me he's tired of being overlooked.
In 2018, during his junior year at Montverde Academy, the highly touted prospect out of Canada decided to reclassify to move up and join the college ranks a year earlier, which landed him in the colossal shadow of Zion Williamson at Duke. However, Barrett didn't allow his buddy Zion to take from his spotlight. On November 6th, 2018, during the first regular-season game against #2 ranked Kentucky in the Championship Classic, Barrett broke the Duke freshman scoring record in a debut with 33 points while getting 6 assists.
Barrett finished the season averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists a game starting all 38 games as a freshman. At that point, it was a foregone conclusion Zion would be the number 1 pick in the NBA draft, and his teammate Barrett would follow him as the 2nd overall pick.
Come the day of the draft, after being led astray and bamboozled by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Knicks fans grew bittersweet about getting the 3rd pick knowing that they also missed out on even more generational talents in Zion and Ja Morant, who overtook Barrett as the 2nd overall prospect during the draft process. So when it was announced that the Knicks selected Barrett third overall, fans weren't mad at Barrett, but they couldn't help to think about what could have been. Barrett joined a team whose back up plan for no Durant and Irving was to sign four Power Forwards.
With no clear plan for the future, and no intention of winning, Barrett was thrust into a situation set up to fail no different than the other lottery picks on the team Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr, and Kevin Knox. As Ja Morant catapulted the Memphis Grizzlies back into relevancy with can't miss, electrifying plays night after night, Knicks fans had to endure yet again as their team fired yet another coach and had to live with Barrett helplessly driving into a crowded paint. With no hope, fans understandably began to look away.
As Barrett was well under the radar by being on board the sinking ship that is the New York Knicks, he quietly improved steadily throughout the season. After returning from an ankle, Barrett showed his resiliency and put together his best stretch of games as a pro in march. His efficiency showed signs of life, and most importantly, his confidence began to rise.
His shooting is his main weakness right now, but after going 46-for-90 (51.1%) from the free-throw line through the end of December, Barrett improved to 110-for-164 (67.1%) over the remainder of the regular season. Free throw percentage is a reliable forecaster of shooting potential. Barrett Improving his shooting percentage during his rookie season is a positive sign even if it is still sub 70 percent. Look for Barrett's shoot to improve slowly but surely.
The highlight of his season was definitely his game on March 2nd against the Houston Rockets, where he scored a career-high 27 points on 10 of 18 shooting while registering 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
Most Impressively, up 122-121, Barrett forces Harden into a bad shot as he comes to help. Then on the other end, the team puts the ball in his hands. Letting the game clock run down to 12 seconds, Barrett takes on PJ Tucker with a hard drive to his left. The 19-year-old puts his shoulder into Tucker and takes him out of the play, then converts the left-handed layup putting his team up by 3 with 10 seconds left in the game. The Knicks ended up winning.
Unfortunately, about a week later, the season was put on hiatus due to the Covid outbreak, thus ending Barrett's rookie season to end just as he was starting to find his tempo. However, that game against the Rockets and that clutch play, should be taken as a sign for things to come.
Barrett may not be on house of highlights every night like Morant or Zion, but the resiliency he had to improve despite being a part of a toxic situation for young players should restore faith in Knicks fans.
Barrett averaged 14.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.0 steals in 30.4 minutes across 56 games (55 starts) as a rookie for the 21-45 Knicks before the league's COVID-19 hiatus took effect on March 12.
For most young players, hiring a coach like Tom Thibodeau might be counter-intuitive because of his history of not playing young players unless they play defense like Jimmy Butler on the Bulls. When the announcement was made, many worried that the Knick's young players wouldn't get a chance to develop properly. However, Barrett has shown not only the willingness but the enthusiasm to embrace the challenge.
People around the Knicks have repeatedly expressed how impressed they were with Barrett's work ethic and consistent approach. A young player with a mindset like that should not see Thibodeau's demand for intensity and defense as a hindrance instead of as an opportunity to push himself harder under a coach who has proven he can win.
RJ Barrett's path to success on the court, aside from improving his shooting, will come with his ability to apply pressure to the defense and draw fouls while driving to the rim and making plays for his teammates off the pick and roll.
This is a high-level skip pass you see stars like Lebron James and Luka Doncic make routinely. Barrett receives a handoff from center Mitchell Robinson who then sets a pick for Barrett and begins rolling to the basket. Barrett takes a hard dribble towards the basket and sees the weak side defender shade to take away the lob threat of Robinson, so Barrett fires an on target skip pass to an open 3pt shooter in the corner with his off-hand.
Looking at that play and then imagining the extra dimension of the 7th pick in this year's draft, Obi Toppin could add as a pick-and-roll partner with his uber athleticism and his ability to pop for a mid-range and three-point shot. It could be the bread and butter in the future for the New York Knicks with the current track Barrett is on.
Barrett's defense is sure to improve as well. He's never been known as someone who doesn't try. He has all the tools to be at least an above-average defender. Hopefully, Thibbs can teach Mitchell Robinson how not to foul and be a defensive anchor. If that can happen, we might see an improvement in Barrett's defensive statistics, which is usually more incumbent on team defense instead of individual efforts.
The hope is that the new front office, which actually seems to have some type of plan, can build a culture that prioritizes player development. And that new Head Coach Tom Thibodeau can restore the grit and intensity like the knicks of old had that many fans still hold on to and cherish. As far as Barrett, fans should be patient with him and trust the work he's putting in. I can already picture Barrett getting a clutch three points by converting an and-1 play in front of fans in Madison Square Garden.
He has all the tools in place as well as the right mindset and work ethic to be a winning basketball player, with him, it's just a matter of time. It's hard to fully evaluate his game when he's on a roster that fails to complement his talents.
Coming off this extra-long off-season, I fully anticipate Barrett taking a substantial leap that will change the topic of the conversation away from an All-rookie snub to a potential all-star player.
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