New York Knicks

RJ Barrett: The curious case of the Knicks most important X-factor

RJBarrett2
(Getty)

RJ Barrett came into the NBA as part of a draft class headlined by Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.

So far, early returns on both Williamson and Morant have been positive as both have become the faces of their respective franchises.

Barrett on the other hand hasn't catapulted himself into the all-star conversation as his draft classmates have, but in the midst of his age 21 season, does that mean that he's missing the mark of where he should be at this point in his career?

Let's take a look.

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Barrett is in the middle of one of his shooting ruts. (more on that in a bit) It seems to happen every year for a stretch of the season, but what's different than in years past with the evolving Barrett is that he's been able to contribute in other ways to the team without relying on his scoring.

Barrett has become New York's go-to defender and he's taken the challenge head-on with some success.

"The biggest part I've been trying to work on is my defence," Barrett said early in the season via the New York Post. "I want to be first-team all-defence.

"I want to be that guy for this team. So just looking at that, can't give up anything easy. Try to make every night a struggle for anybody I'm guarding."

Barrett has been able to shut down the likes of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. He held Caris LeVert in check and slowed the red hot DeMar DeRozan down.

RJ Barrett defensive matchups this season
MATCHUP PARTIAL POSS PTS FGM FGA FG%
Jayson Tatum 55.4 9 3 16 18.8
Franz Wagner 87.6 9 4 13 30.8
Caris LeVert 48.5 8 3 11 27.3
Jaylen Brown 16.1 4 2 7 28.6
DeMar DeRozan 23.5 9 3 7 42.9

*Stats according to NBA Stats matchup data.

"I'm not worried about RJ. He's a terrific player," Knicks' head coach Tom Thibodeau said earlier this year. "There's gonna be some ups and downs.

"We have to figure things out and get better. But I think he has confidence in who he is and it's come from his preparation, which is important. We are asking him to do more this year, but I think he's ready for that challenge."

Barrett has the tools to be an all-defence type of defender. His length and size give him an advantage that most don't have. With the combination of Thibodeau's genius and Barrett's growing experience, there's no reason to believe he won't continue to evolve on that end of the floor. For those keeping score at home, he's already ahead of Williamson and Morant in that regard.

Where he's a little further behind Williamson and Morant is his consistency on the offensive end. Here's where we can get into his shooting.

Last season, Barrett quieted some critiques by posting shooting splits of .441/.401/.746. While he won't be mistaken for Stephen Curry, they were vast improvements on his inefficient rookie year.

The concern about his shooting stroke has returned with a vengeance this year. Barrett is shooting sub-40.0 percent from the field and is hovering around 30.0 percent from 3-point range. In the role Barrett is currently in as a 3-and-D wing, which admittedly may not be tailor-made for him, he's failing.

The positive side for Knicks fans is that Barrett has shown the ability to shoot himself out of those slumps. In his rookie year, Barrett came out the gate hot before cooling off in November and December - he was able to regain his stroke post-All-Star break before the pandemic brought his season to an end. The reverse happened last season, where he started off struggling from the field only to find the touch the rest of the way. It's safe to assume Barrett will get back to being closer to what he was last season before long.

But what does that mean for the Knicks? And should Knicks fans be concerned about the lack of consistency?

The answer isn't exactly black and white, it lands somewhere in the grey area. Most can agree that when Barrett's shot is falling, he shows glimpses of the player that the Knicks hope he can ultimately become - an All-Star that can be the perfect sidekick next to their franchise player. When his shot doesn't fall, he's closer to a player that may end up as a part of a trade package or someone who'll get the label of a player that a fresh start elsewhere may be best for.

The bottom line is it's too early to take a concrete stance on Barrett. He is only 21 and nowhere close to his prime.

Barrett has time on his side and Knicks fans should exercise some patients with the Canadian.

The Knicks drafted Barrett with hopes from the future, not right now.

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

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