New York Knicks: RJ Barrett has shown clear signs of star potential

New York Knicks rookie RJ Barrett isn’t making headlines like Ja Morant or Zion Williamson, but he’s pieced together a promising first NBA season.

The New York Knicks once again missed out on the No. 1 overall selection in the NBA Draft. New York ultimately landed in the Top 3, but its position in the third slot resulted in both Zion Williamson and Ja Morant falling out of reach.

The Knicks ultimately selected former Duke Blue Devils shooting guard RJ Barrett, who has managed to piece together a much stronger rookie season than he’s been given credit for.

Before Barrett had even played a game in orange and blue, an incomparable burden had been placed upon him. For one, the comparisons to Williamson and Morant were inevitable due to the fact that he was selected just one spot after that duo of already prominent players.

Furthermore, Barrett was the Knicks’ first top-three draft pick since Patrick Ewing, who was selected at No. 1 overall in 1985.

Despite the unrealistic expectations of immediate greatness, Barrett has managed to piece together a solid rookie season. He’s scored at a respectable clip while gradually improving his efficiency across the board.

All it takes is an open mind to see how Barrett is showcasing the realistic potential to develop into the star whom the Knicks have been looking for.

Raw Production

Before digging deeper, it’s worth looking at the surface-level production. On that front, Barrett has rookie-year averages of 14.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steal, and 1.1 three-point field goals in 30.4 minutes per game.

That translates to more than respectable per-36 averages of 17.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.3 three-point field goals made.

Barrett currently ranks third amongst qualified rookies in points per game, trailing just Morant and Miami Heat standout Kendrick Nunn. He’s also fourth amongst rookies in both rebounds per game and steals per contest.

As such, it’s hard not to be intrigued by Barrett producing at a level that compares to the top rookies around the NBA.

That production is supported by a slash line of .402/.320/.614. Those figures certainly don’t jump off the page, but a score-first player who was thrown to the proverbial wolves with a usage rate of 24.0 in his rookie season should be applauded for shooting better than 40 percent from the field.

That’s especially true when one considers that Barrett hit the rookie wall, only to rebound with an efficient second half of the season.

Drastic In-Season Improvements

Over the course of his first 28 games, Barrett recorded putrid shooting percentages of .389/.285/.543. In the 28 appearances that have followed, Barrett has upped his shooting percentages to .415/.343/.688.

Improvements of 2.6 percent from the field, 5.8 percent from beyond the arc, and 14.5 percent from the free throw line are significant signs of growth.

From a scoring production perspective, Barrett averaged 13.8 points on 13.2 field goal attempts per game during those first 28 games. In the 28-game frame that followed, he averaged 14.9 points per game on an average of 12.8 field goal attempts.

Not only is Barrett scoring with more efficiency and consistency, but he’s making better use of his touches along the way.

If you still aren’t sold, Barrett averaged 15.6 points per 36 minutes during the first 28-game sample size. Over the course of the 28 games that have followed, he’s managed to increase that figure to 18.4 points per 36 minutes.

Since the All-Star Break, Barrett has increased those averages to even more promising marks of 17.2 points per game and 20.5 points per 36 minutes.

Remain Optimistic

I’ll be the first to admit that, for every promising point made, there’s a reason to be concerned. That includes how New York’s worst on-court Defensive Rating is accumulated when Barrett is on the floor, and its best off-court is compiled when he isn’t.

While that may be, Barrett has provided far too many flashes of star potential to focus exclusively on what’s gone wrong during a rookie season that was an uphill battle from the start.

For one, the Knicks were a team with confusing roster structure and unrealistic expectations for Barrett from day one. He began the season playing upwards of 37 minutes per game, flew directly into a rookie wall due to his obscene usage rate, and then took a backseat to a veteran who was destined to be traded.

Morant and Williamson, meanwhile, had the luxury of playing with rising stars Brandon Ingram and Jaren Jackson Jr., and productive veterans Jrue Holiday and Jonas Valanciunas.

This isn’t to say that Barrett could’ve done the same thing with Memphis that Morant has, but it’s silly to speculate in either direction. Instead: We should respect that prospects develop along different timelines, and Barrett’s will not be the same as others.

If the Knicks are smart, they’ll focus on the fact that a 19-year-old rookie has already managed to overcome an extended period of poor play to turn things around on the fly.

If RJ Barrett can make these changes as a season is progressing, imagine what he can do if the New York Knicks help him piece together a productive offseason.