NY Knicks: RJ Barrett is a Sneaky Most Improved Player Candidate

RJ Barrett, Knicks. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
RJ Barrett, Knicks. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

NY Knicks’ RJ Barrett has come a long way since his rookie season.

NY Knicks fans worried themselves sick throughout the abridged 2019-2020 season as Barrett, the 3rd overall pick of the 2019 draft, struggled to find his footing in the NBA. He was wildly inconsistent and could not be counted on to hit three-pointers nor free throws. He was not fluid going to the basket and/or dribbling with the ball in his hands and was unreliable off it.

Adding insult to injury was the success of rookies Ja Morant and (college teammate) Zion Williamson. NBA media quickly anointed those two as the best players of the 2019 draft class and mocked the Knicks and their fans for missing out and drafting a bust.

Barrett’s season was viewed as such a failure by the basketball press that he failed to even make the All-Rookie Second Team, beaten out by such luminaries as the Toronto Raptors’ Terrence Davis.

To RJ Barrett’s credit, he was not having it. He may have underperformed expectations but his stats — 14.3 points, 5 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1 steal a game made him worthy of a spot on at least the second team.

“Not going to lie,” he told ESPN. “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.”

NY Knicks: RJ Barrett uses disrespect as fuel

We can safely declare that RJ Barrett is a man of his word, as he has used the “extra chip” on his shoulder to prove himself in 2021 and shake off the ridiculous “bust” reputation.

His stats, for one, are much improved from year one. He’s up to 17.4 points per game and is shooting  5% better from the field and from 3. His post-all-star break numbers are particularly impressive. Since the second half of the season began on March 11th, RJ is averaging 19.2 points on 42% from 3 with 5.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He has emerged as the team’s secondary scorer behind Julius Randle.

More than the numbers, though, what most one has to be most impressed by is all of the intangible improvements. RJ Barrett is so much more decisive with the ball in his hands this year and is genuinely dangerous in the mid-range and when driving to the hoop. The second-half 3 point numbers are no fluke — despite what Anthony Edwards claimed, Barrett’s jumper is wet and he shoots it with confidence.

His recent late-game heroics have been difficult to ignore. He made key, game-winning plays late against Toronto and Memphis and kept the team afloat in tight losses to Boston and Brooklyn. Barrett exhibited a propensity for clutchness at Duke and it has carried over to the NBA.

All of this is to say that Julius Randle is not the only legit Most Improved Player candidate on the NY Knicks. RJ Barrett has gone from a wide-eyed, out-of-control rookie on a lottery team to a confident 20 points a night closer on a playoff contender.

I expect RJ Barrett to keep proving the doubters wrong, especially after ESPN so foolishly left him off of their 25 under 25 NBA players list.

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