New York Knicks

RJ Barrett: New York Knicks forward eyes bigger defensive role ahead of 2021-22 season

After taking a leap in Year 2, New York Knicks rising star RJ Barrett has his eyes set on continued development in his third NBA season.

"My goals are always the same," Barrett told reporters at Media Day. "Always just keep improving. Just like last year, just improve on my weaknesses so that I can help out the team and put us in positions to win."

In his sophomore campaign, Barrett posted averages of 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists while shooting 44.1 percent from the field and 40.1 percent from deep. Barrett's contributions played a large role in the Knicks finishing with the East's fourth-best record and snapping an eight-year postseason drought in the process.

As one would expect, New York has made moves to build upon last season's success, re-signing key players and adding more talent through the draft and free agency. One void, however, is left by Reggie Bullock, who elected to move on via free agency.

30 Teams in 30 Days: Knicks season preview

With Bullock gone, the Knicks enter the upcoming season not knowing who will fill the role of being the main perimeter defender, a key component to any successful team, especially one that is known for its defensive pedigree.

With respect to his growth and development, this defensive role is something that Barrett is more than willing to take on.

"Being a two-way player is something that I've always strived for, something I want to do, it's how I want to be known," the 21-year-old said when asked about the team's need for a primary perimeter defender. "If coach puts me in that position to be that guy that's guarding the guy every night, I'm all for it.

"I'm all for the challenge, and I won't back down."

From the moment he said he was built for playing in New York ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft, it was clear that Barrett wouldn't be the one to shy away from a challenge. His latest proclamation is no different, and there's not much to suggest that he isn't capable.

Listed at 6-foot-6 and 214 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Barrett has the length to make life difficult for smaller guards and the size to measure up against some of the league's premier perimeter scorers. NBA.com's matchup data isn't perfect, but a look at the players that Barrett guarded most last season gives an interesting look at where he stood on New York's defensive hierarchy.

RJ Barrett's matchups, 2020-21 season
Matchup GP Matchup MIN Partial POSS PTS FGM FGA FG% FTM FTA
Patrick Williams 3 20:10 73.3 15 6 12 50.0 2 2
Anthony Edwards 2 16:06 57.2 15 5 12 41.7 2 3
Kawhi Leonard 2 13:56 56.0 23 7 19 36.8 7 7
Mikal Bridges 2 13:40 51.9 10 4 10 40.0 0 0
Dwayne Bacon 3 13:10 47.6 8 3 10 30.0 0 0
Danny Green 3 11:59 43.5 9 3 13 23.1 0 0
Cam Reddish 2 10:48 43.5 8 2 8 25.0 2 2

Of the above seven players, Leonard is the only player that could be considered the clear-cut No. 1 option on their respective teams, and it's worth acknowledging that he plays alongside Paul George. While young, you can also take the stance that Edwards is the Minnesota Timberwolves' No. 1 option on the perimeter.

Other than those two, however, it was rare to see Barrett guard the opposing team's best perimeter player last season. According to The BBall Index, his matchup difficulty of 23.0 ranked 10th on the Knicks last season, while Elfrid Payton (99.0) and Bullock (97.1) ranked first and second, respectively, both of whom are no longer with the team. While those numbers might not suggest that Barrett's ready for a bigger role, his defensive versatility does.

Last season, Barrett's ranked as New York's second-most versatile defender behind only Kevin Knox II, per The BBall Index. Considering Knox appeared in 464 minutes of game time and Barrett played 2,511 minutes (good for second in the NBA behind Julius Randle), he spent an inordinate amount of time guarding a variety of positions, namely shooting guards and both forward positions.

Last season, New York boasted an elite defence, which ranked fourth in defensive rating and first in opponent field goal percentage. With many teams relying heavily on guards for their offensive production, the importance of having such a staunch figure to defend on the wing will be key to the Knicks reprising their defensive dominance in the 2021-22 season.

But what does that look like?

Barrett can grow into this role by showing the ability to guard positions one through four, taking on challenges that could range from Trae Young and Kyrie Irving to Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum. Given the offensive firepower that New York has added in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, Barrett should expend less energy getting to his spots offensively, which will put him in a position to be a bigger difference-maker on the defensive end.

Assuming both Walker and Fournier start, Barrett is without a doubt the best option in the Knicks' projected starting lineup to guard such prolific players. Schematically, it will help that he'll have either Nerlens Noel or Mitchell Robinson as his back-line help, but Barrett has more than enough to hold his own.

Above all, defensive prowess oftentimes stems from a mentality, which is something Barrett has already displayed during media day. In training camp, he'll have the opportunity to continue to work on his defence with an opportunity to slow down a number of New York's talented guards.

We could see Barrett's defensive growth put to the test early on this season as the Knicks open the year at home against Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Boston Celtics.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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