If it weren’t for Tyler Herro’s explosion or Ja Morant’s late-game heroics, Knicks guard R.J. Barrett might be the NBA’s best rookie, a week into the 2019-20 season.
Pray for R.J. Barrett.
While some lauded the Knicks this summer for sticking to short-term contracts, not blocking playing time for their young players, and generally recovering well from failing in free agency, the team is going to be terrible. One of the worst in the NBA. Some see the additions of players like Wayne Ellington, Marcus Morris and Bobby Portis as insulation for young players like Barrett trying to grow early in their careers. Nope. The Knicks’ plan to maintain flexibility seems so far to be more about not falling too far out of relevancy than making life easier for the lottery picks dotting this roster.
The team has far too often been hijacked by its new additions despite evidence those guys are not capable of anchoring good teams. Barrett is the best player on the roster and through four games has impressed by rising above the iso-heavy, gotta-get-mine offense and uninterested defense. If it weren’t for Tyler Herro’s explosion or Ja Morant’s late-game heroics, Barrett might be the best rookie a week into the 2019-20 season.
Knicks coach David Fizdale put it better than anyone could on opening night: “When the popcorn’s popping, that kid’s ready.”
With a 55.5 effective field goal percentage and 24 percent usage rate, Barrett is one of the only rays of sun for the Knicks’ offense. New York has been 11.4 points better per 100 offensive possessions with Barrett on the court so far in non-garbage time. If there is one thing the Knicks are doing well, it’s getting to the rim (they’re second in the NBA in at-rim shot frequency). Most of the players on this roster want to iso in the post or jack jumpers (see: Morris, Portis, Dennis Smith Jr. and Elfrid Payton), leading New York to 11th-highest isolation frequency in the NBA so far. The drive-and-kick identity comes from Barrett as well as human hammer-head shark Julius Randle, who signed a rich free-agent contract with New York this summer.
Both players have taken at least 60 percent of their shots at the rim this season. Barrett is in the 100th percentile for rim attempts among combo guards, according to Cleaning the Glass. Just about no one is putting more pressure on the defense inside. However, Barrett is converting just 58 percent of those looks, a middling number.
Just like in college, Barrett is overwhelmingly more effective going to his left. Barrett doesn’t have much of a right hand in traffic, so drives to his right result in off-balance, left-handed shots that have no chance.
Take out the drives to his right and I would guess Barrett’s at-rim efficiency is elite. Barrett has great touch, but there’s only so far that will get you against NBA defenses. Without a strong right hand, defenses will continue to frustrate him by over-playing his lefty drives. The scouting report will get stronger to take away what he wants to do. Still, Barrett is so comfortable with the mechanics of getting to the rim going left that it’s something he can build on.
It’s one thing for it to work in the ACC, it’s another for the methodical, strong strides and elbow uppercuts to take an NBA defender off guard. Barrett can hang physically against the pros. That much is clear already.
Getting to the free-throw line can be a learning curve for young scorers. Ask Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker. Yet in four games, Barrett has already attempted 25 free throws. His scary free throw percentage is a whole other breakdown, but the ability to not only finish inside but draw contact and get easy points at the line will prop up Barrett on nights when his shot isn’t falling.
Barrett’s functional strength will also be helpful on defense, where lapses have resulted from a lack of focus rather than athleticism thus far. Barrett doesn’t always get into a defensive stance and can get caught watching the ball. With Mitchell Robinson in the lineup more consistently, that should get better, but some of the smaller lineups the Knicks have rolled out do perimeter defenders like Barrett no favors. Consequently, Barrett is already piling up a highlight reel that would make a world-class matador jealous.
Fizdale also isn’t doing Barrett any favors by easing him into the NBA calendar. After playing 37 minutes per game in preseason, Barrett is playing the same amount every night in the regular season. It’s not unusual to see Fizdale leave the rookie in for 10 or 11 minutes at a time.
Even so, Barrett contested Kyrie Irving well with the game on the line over the weekend, and his size and length are tools he can use to get better in man defense.
In help situations, Barrett has been great by a rookie’s standards. Duke was better defensively than offensively last season, and Barrett seems to be taking the lessons from his college team’s long, swarming style to bring manic team defense to New York.
With a steal rate of 2.5 percent so far, it’s clear that Barrett has been a menace to opposing defenses. But the fact that most of those steals have come from digging in for help, doubling in the post and flooding passing lanes rather than simple one-on-one situations is impressive.
Barrett can’t change the fact that the Knicks front office targeted players for whom Plan A through D is to score. Those guys are in New York’s rotation for now, but Barrett has already made the most of a strange situation and will only get better as he learns his teammates, especially the other young guys on the roster. Defensively, the team will likely be a mess all year barring a massive leap from Robinson, but they can be competitive by scoring, as they’ve already shown this year.
The Knicks have the makings of an interesting offense on the roster, too. To escape the bottom of the NBA, New York can make better use of its grab-and-go potential with players like Randle, Barrett and Payton, all of whom are threats to get a rebound and create in transition. The Knicks have shooting and a cadre of guards who are willing to pass. At full health, they should score a bit better.
But if the first week of the year is any indication, the focus is on Barrett. Playing 37 minutes a night with the confidence of a veteran on both ends of the court, the No. 3 overall pick could make a dark summer for the Knicks a bit brighter by keeping up what has been a sturdy, encouraging start.