Even if the NBA regular season is canceled, we’ve seen enough to start assessing the first seasons of notable rookies. What did the Knicks see from R.J. Barrett this season?
This year was (yet another) catastrophe for the Knicks — missing out on all their big free agent targets, missing out on Zion Williamson in the draft lottery, replacing both the team president and coach during the regular season and racking up just 21 wins before the season was suspended.
Rookie R.J. Barrett was one of the few bright spots, averaging 14.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game and occasionally dropping eye-popping lines like his 26 points on 14 shot attempts, with 5 rebounds and 4 assists, in New York’s last game before the suspension. However, he also struggled at times and right now the future of the Knicks is heavily tied to his potential to become a team-leading star.
What did the Knicks expect to see from him this season and what did his actual production say about his future?
What did we expect?
In a February scouting report, Trevor Magnotti looked at the clears strengths and weaknesses in Barret’s draft profile:
Barrett’s ceiling is as a star, and it’s pretty clear that he has the talent and pedigree to be a top pick. But the draft is about team building and roster construction and attempting to optimize your chances of competing for a title. We know that talent often wins out, but consistency, high-level awareness and execution are just as important. Barrett has the former but seems to be pretty far behind in the latter on both ends.
The defining theme was that Barrett had the talent and ability to be a star, particularly as a primary scorer and creator on offense. The concern was whether awareness and decision-making — Magnotti’s profile focused on shot selection and tunnel vision — would lower his value to the point where he could be a primary scorer but not on a good team.
It can take plenty of experience for a young scorer to fully unfurl in the NBA but positive signs for Barrett and the Knicks this year would have been hints of consistency and efficiency scoring and creating at all three levels.
What did we get?
Defense, as expected, was mostly a disaster. In Defensive RAPTOR, FiveThirtyEight’s all-in-one estimate of player value, Barrett ranked 28th among the 32 rookies who played at least 500 minutes this season. However, his long-term value is tied more explicitly to his offensive ceiling so we’re going to ignore defense for now and focus on the other side of the ball.
As Magnotti predicted, the issue of consistency popped up pretty quickly. The graph below compares the distribution of his Game Scores (a box-score based estimate of single-game value) to Jarrett Culver, a fellow rookie who finished the season with an almost identical Box Plus-Minus.
Barrett had higher highs and lower lows, with Culver’s scores clustered more tightly in the “slightly positive” range. If we compare him to all rookies, Barrett was in a group of just five players who appeared multiple times on the top-20 list of rookie Game Scores. He and Kendrick Nunn were the only ones from that group of five who also appeared on the list of the 20 worst rookie Game Scores this season.
Consistency (on the positive end of the spectrum) is something that can be developed but some of it is tied into that overarching concern — Barrett’s skill set somewhat locks him into the role of primary creator and scorer but he may not be able to maintain the efficiency to fulfill that role on a good team. And the idea of Barrett as a viable three-level scorer was undermined pretty drastically by his rookie performance.
Barrett wasn’t catastrophically bad as an outside shooter, hitting 33.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts. But he made just 25.0 percent of his pull-up 3s and just 27.7 percent of his pull-up jumpers inside the arc. He has to be able to make those shots at a massively higher rate but he also didn’t look that potent as a scorer or creator in that first level on drives to the basket.
The vast majority of drives end in a shot attempt, a pass, a foul drawn or a turnover (about three percent appear to end with the ball-handler just continuing their dribble back out of the basket area). Using the NBA’s tracking stats and those four base outcomes, I put together a quick similarity score to group players by their tendencies on the drive. The table below shows the seven players who were most similar to Barrett in what they did with their drives, along with their field goal percentage and assist percentage.
Lillard is the only player here we could really consider a primary creator, although LaVine is in that ballpark with an emphasis on scoring. Becoming more effective as a primary creator might mean tweaking tendencies, with a bit more passing, but Barrett also just needs to get much more efficient in general. Lonzo Ball, Fred VanVleet and Devonte’ Graham were the only players this year with at least 300 drives and a lower field goal percentage on those drives.
The comparison between what Barrett was this year and what he seems like he could be is fairly stark when you compare him to some of those idealized hypotheticals.
I included Shai Gilgeous-Alexander here because he actually seems like an interesting alternative, a player who functions as a complementary creator in a system with several capable ball-handlers. A surge in efficiency and preserving his tendencies on the drive would create an outcome closer to Gilgeous-Alexander, which, could still be a really good thing for the Knicks. However, it would take a leap from Frank Ntilikina or acquiring some other complementary ball-handlers to create that environment — Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr. certainly weren’t it this year.
To be fair to Barrett, he was in an almost undescribably unstable organization with an ill-fitting roster. And he wasn’t always put in the role of primary creator that he’ll hopefully grow into. He was third on the team in shot attempts per game and fifth in average time of possession. It’s reasonable to chalk some of his struggles up to outside factors and expect that simply more stability and better complementary talent will help him take a leap. Unfortunately, he’s still on the Knicks so, ¯_(ツ)_/¯.