The New York Knicks had circled the summer of 2019 as their time to revitalize their franchise. The weight of change now rests on the shoulders of R.J. Barrett.
New York moved Kristaps Porzingis to open an NBA-high $70 million in salary-cap space and owner James Dolan was boasting about the free agents that wanted to join the team. They also tanked the 2018-19 season in hopes of landing the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Neither of those things would come to fruition — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, their two primary targets, went to the Brooklyn Nets — but lottery luck helped them land a top-three selection in what was presumed to be a three-player draft.
The Knicks took R.J. Barrett third overall and though he’s only been a member of the team for a few weeks he hasn’t been shy about wanting to be the face of the franchise. Las Vegas Summer League was the unveiling of Barrett — the Knicks entered as betting favorites to win the championship — and through four games we have been treated to highlights and lowlights from the Canadian.
Barrett’s start to Summer League left some wondering if we were about to see a redux of Kevin Knox’s rookie season but he’s rebounded in the team’s last two games to quiet some of those early critics. With a fair amount of tape to dig through, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Barrett’s introduction to NBA life.
Though the NBA game is becoming synonymous with outside shooting, being able to get into the paint is still a sought after skill. Not only are layups the best shot in the game but getting in the lane causes defenses to react and opens those 3-point looks every team is chasing.
At 6-foot-7, Barrett has good size for a wing and the crafty lefty also has the length — a 6-foot-9 wingspan — to finish consistently at the rim.
Once he gets downhill not only is he hard to stop — he’s stronger than his listed 208 pounds would let on — but he actively seeks out the contact from defenders. According to Synergy, 13.5 percent of all Barrett’s possessions at Duke ended in free throws. For comparison, Synergy had James Harden at 15.4 percent last season.
Barrett does a good job of not only initiating the physicality, but he also is shrewd at getting defenders to swipe across or down on his arms as he’s going to the basket. You can see it happening multiple times in the video above.
He’s taken 22 total free throws but in the first three games he only managed 12 attempts, it wasn’t until the latest game against the Los Angeles Lakers that Barrett resembled the player we’ve been expecting
As other parts of his game continue to develop, Barrett must continue to rely on this strength and getting to the free-throw line helps manufacture easy points for the rookie. With New York expecting him to be one of their go-to guys offensively, the easier the points the better.
The downside of Barrett’s ability as a driver is that he’s not a great decision-maker and playmaker with the ball in his hands.
At Duke, this flaw often manifested itself in charging fouls. That has happened to him a couple of times in summer league but the real problem is that his tunnel vision has been exposed. The easiest tell is that Barrett will outright miss wide-open teammates.
In the first clip, New York runs a version of the Spain pick-and-roll — the on-ball screen-setter then gets a back pick from a second screener — and Mitchell Robinson has a clear path to the rim. Instead of throwing the alley-oop pass for an easy two points, Barrett continues to barrel into the paint and ends up turning the ball over with a charge.
Next, he’s isolated on the wing and breaks down his primary defender one-on-one. The other Knicks players do a great job of keeping the floor spaced to give Barrett an open path. As he continues into the lane a New Orleans Pelicans defender sprints down to prevent a clean look, which leaves Kevin Knox completely unguarded at the top of the key. Barrett doesn’t see Knox and attempts a fadeaway left-handed hook shot.
Finally, we see two different baseline drives by Barrett and in both instances, he doesn’t make the simple dump-off pass. The first clip there’s only one player in position to receive such a pass but in the second Barret ignores two equally open players — Knox and a cutting Kadeem Allen.
On the contrary, when he does make the pass it can be poorly done. Barrett has shown that at times passing is just the last resort. He’ll drive into the paint and once all potential shooting avenues are closed off he will then search the floor for a teammate to give the ball to.
In each clip, he seems to wait for a beat too long before attempting to make these passes. This could easily be fixed with more repetition and experience but it’s concerning that even though he’s been the primary creator at every previous stop (Duke, Canadian Junior National Team, and Montverde Academy) he struggles to read the court well enough to make the right pass on time.
With the Knicks likely placing the ball in his hands early and often this could be a fatal flaw for the rookie but he has shown that he is capable of making simpler reads at a high-level. He has a six-assist game under his belt already and when the looks are staring him in the face Barrett is a willing passer.
Even though Barrett entered college as the undisputed top prospect in his class, he has never been a consistent outside shooter. Given that he’s long been one of the taller players in his age group and that he could get to the basket at will, being a knockdown shooter wasn’t his primary developmental concern.
He attempted over six 3-pointers per game at Duke but only shot 30.8 percent from behind the arc in his one year.
Since graduating high school, Barrett has made subtle changes to his shooting motion, here’s a video that shows his progression from 2017 with Team Canada to today with the Knicks.
His pull-up jumper starts as a three-motion shot. First, he gathers the ball off the dribble, then he brings the ball up and cocks it back to his forehead, and he then finishes by launching the ball towards the rim. It was slow and looked more like a slingshot than a jump shot.
With the Blue Devils, Barrett smoothed things out some. Gone was the awkward transition between picking the ball up and starting his shooting motion. He still cocked the ball back towards the top of his head before shooting.
During his pre-draft training, Barrett worked with NBA trainer Drew Hanlen who boasts Joel Embiid, Bradley Beal, and Jayson Tatum among his clients. Hanlen’s name was most recently tied to Markelle Fultz’s poor comeback attempt with the Philadelphia 76ers last season and the two broke ties after Fultz’s shot looked worse.
That hasn’t happened with Barrett who now has the closest thing to a one-motion shot that he’s displayed in his career. What has happened though is that Barrett’s shooting numbers have plummeted in Vegas. He’s shooting 30 percent from the floor and 20 percent on 3-pointers.
Changing a shot is not done quickly so the blame for Barrett’s poor showing to date shouldn’t fall squarely on his trainer’s shoulders. Still, whether it be off the dribble or in catch-and-shoot scenarios, his outside shot has been underwhelming, to say the least — he’s 5-of-25 on 3-pointers.
In the video, the majority of his shot attempts are short — either air-balls or just hitting the front of the rim. There are two explanations for this: one, Barrett has yet to adjust to the four-foot distance between the NCAA and NBA 3-point lines; two, Barrett is relying more on his upper body than his lower body (strength and range come from the legs) at the moment.
As we’ve seen in fellow high-profile draft picks — Fultz and Ben Simmons — being a threat to at least attempt shots from the perimeter is necessary. To his credit, Barrett hasn’t been shy about letting it fly from deep (6.3 3-point attempts per game in summer league).
If he can’t at least become a baseline average 3-point shooter than all hopes of him being the guy to bring the Knicks back to respectability hangs in the balance.