New York Knicks: RJ Barrett having a better season than last year

RJ Barrett, New York Knicks. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

The New York Knicks’ budding star has further improved from last season despite a drop in efficiency 

The New York Knicks have continued to struggle as of late, now losers in five of their previous six games. They remain in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and with the NBA’s 2nd hardest remaining schedule, it’s no surprise that they’re looking to be active on the trade market.

This season has been disappointing, but one silver lining has been the continued improvement of former 3rd overall pick RJ Barrett. In fact, he’s having a better season than last year, which many considered his “breakout”.

Last season, Barrett averaged 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game on 44-40-75 shooting splits.

This season, Barrett is averaging 17.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game on 42-36-68 shooting splits.

While it may seem like he’s performing worse at first glance, the 21-year old has taken several crucial developmental steps this year that makes his future look even brighter in comparison to the 2020-21 season.

The first step has been his aggressiveness around the basket. Despite averaging fewer drives per game than last season, Barrett is attempting more free throws per drive while shooting 45% compared to 42%.

His ability to not only draw contact but finish through said contact has been superb, especially when considering that he’s bullying his way past players that are around 6-8 years older than him on a nightly basis.

While lefty layups are his specialty, the former Duke star has also added a variety of finishing tactics in order to keep defenders on their toes. It’s a major reason why he’s shooting 58% in the restricted area compared to 55% last year.

While that number isn’t in the elite territory just yet, it’s still a positive sign. If it holds up, this would now be the third consecutive season in which Barrett has increased his restricted area efficiency. It isn’t hard to imagine him entering said elite territory as he gets closer to his prime.

Crafty finishing and the ability to draw fouls are common traits amongst the league’s top scorers, so it’s encouraging to see that Barrett has taken steps forward in these areas.

Another aspect of his game that has become very promising is his pull-up shooting and movement shooting in general. He shot extremely well last season, but most of his attempts came on set corner threes while nearly all of his makes were assisted.

While this isn’t an inherently bad thing, it led many to believe that his ceiling was more of a high-end role player instead of a future top option on offense.

While it has hurt his overall percentages, Barrett has clearly made an effort to expand his game by attempting more shots off the dribble. He struggled mightily at first, a major reason behind his field goal percentage dropping to just 38.8% in the first 17 games.

However, he began hitting them with more consistency as the season went on. Since New Year’s Eve, Barrett is shooting a respectable 33.3% on pull-up threes. For context, elite shooters such as James Harden, Zach LaVine, and Donovan Mitchell are shooting just over 34% on pull-up threes this year.

Similar to his finishing, he still has a ways to go but it nonetheless represents an improvement over last season’s mark of just 30% on much fewer attempts.

In fact, Barrett is currently hitting more threes per game than he did last year. It’s also worth noting that despite a lower overall average, he’s currently scoring better per 36 minutes than he did last season. (19.3 points compared to 18.1 points)

Barring a major trade, the ultimate goal for both Barrett and the New York Knicks is for him to eventually assume the role of a number one scoring option. In fact, many fans have already been clamoring for it to happen this season.

What may come as a surprise is that he’s quietly been taking over lead scoring duties for a while now. Former All-Star Julius Randle has floundered in his third season with New York, and the Knicks offense has begun shifting to the young wing as their top finisher.

Over Barrett’s past 20 games, he’s averaging 21.1 points per contest on 44.2% shooting while taking 16.8 shot attempts each night.

Over Randle’s past 20 games, he’s averaging just 18.2 points per contest on 39.5% shooting while taking only 16.6 attempts each night.

To further illustrate the transition, Randle has been attempting just 14.8 shots over the previous 10 games while Barrett is taking 18.1 shots. Head coach Tom Thibodeau appears to be more comfortable with the third-year pro operating as the New York Knicks’ leading scorer.

Barrett isn’t a finished product, and he still has a vast amount of room to improve. He needs to hit a higher percentage of his free throws, reduce turnovers, and use his length to disrupt passing lanes on defense.

However, he’s made subtle improvements in several areas of his game compared to last season which makes it easier to see him eventually becoming the All-Star caliber player that many envisioned when he was drafted back in 2019.

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