Knicks: RJ Barrett’s aggressiveness is key to development

RJ Barrett, New York Knicks (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

How RJ Barrett can take the next step with the New York Knicks.

You’ve seen the content on social media—RJ Barrett was back in the gym during the New York Knicks‘ mini bubble camp. You’ve also seen the quotes from coach Tom Thibodeau about RJ’s desire to grow and potential to improve “quite a bit.

We don’t yet know exactly when the Knicks’ season will begin, but snippets and glimpses like these will get the fan base pumped for opening night.

Until then, let’s flashback to Barrett’s rookie season to see what went well, and what could’ve gone better.

RJ Barrett: The Positives

Having been a highly-touted high school prospect, and playing on arguably college basketball’s biggest stage at Duke prepared Barrett for the bright lights of the NBA. He wasn’t going to be phased by hostile road environments or by being sought out by veteran defenders because he received that level of attention for the past 2-3 years.

He got off to a hot start in the scoring department, averaging 20.5 points per game in his first four NBA contests. In that stretch, he got to the free throw line over 5 times per night, and I think that’s going to be a key performance indicator for him moving into second season. He’s not to the point where his jump shot or three-point shooting is reliable enough to provide a real threat, so his mindset should be to attack the rim as early and as often as possible.

The counterargument to that would be *Insert sports talk pundit voice* “Well, you can’t expect him to get to the line that often when defenders know the scouting report, too, and they are playing five feet off him.”

Logically, that make some sense, but RJ still has the ability to get into the paint if he makes it a priority. December 2019 was the only month where his average free throws attempted dipped significantly down to just over three per game, but that could’ve just been the natural rookie sea legs acclimation period for him. After the new year, he was back to averaging over five FTA per night.

One other positive of note is that his turnover rate did not markedly increase after the Marcus Morris trade. Morris didn’t meet many shots he didn’t like, and had the ball in his hands quite a bit prior to his trade on February 6th, 2020—so I was curious to see if RJ turned the ball over at a higher rate after the trade with greater ball handling responsibility, but it remained steady at 2.3 TO’s per game. This is a good sign, as one would expect Barrett’s usage rate to increase this season, and it stands to reason his decision making should also improve with experience.

RJ Barrett: The Negatives

It’s hard to be taken seriously as a go-to guy in the NBA when you can’t force the defense to respect your perimeter shooting. Fortunately or unfortunately for Barrett, he’s always going to be judged and viewed through the prism of his draft capital, and who was selected before him.

The fact of the matter is both Ja Morant and Zion Williamson flashed that go-to scorer capability with three-point range, and Barrett has yet to do so, shooting a lackluster 29 percent shooting from deep.

Next. Players most likely to thrive under Thibs. dark

While that statistic figures to improve next year, it may not rise to league average level because Barrett doesn’t play with elite-level playmakers. A lot of his attempts were, and still might be, contested and late in the shot clock, so he may have to take it upon himself to improve his range off the dribble. It’s not ideal for a young player, and hopefully the Knicks can help him out by bringing in additional guard help.