The New York Knicks have struggled out of the gate, again. In fact, they haven’t had a season in the last five-plus years that you’d consider commendable. If there was even more salt to rub in the wound, the Knicks haven’t reached the Eastern Conference Finals since the 1999-00 season.
It’s safe to say there have been much, much better days in Madison Square Garden — but fortunately for Knicks fans, they finally have something to look forward to.
RJ Barrett – a product of Duke University – was selected with the third overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. After averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in college, Barrett would have been the hottest commodity had he not played side-by-side with Zion Williamson, one of the most captivating prospects in the last 20 years.
Highly-touted coming out of college, Barrett was ranked as one of the top options from all major publications. And those rankings weren’t simply a guaranteed-star-is-born type deal – but the key intangibles have always been there. The New York-savior has a solid frame, smooth shooting stroke and the ability to get to the basket. He’s lengthy at 6-foot-7 and, combined with his agile demeanor, it allows him to comfortably create his own shot on offense.
Barrett hasn’t consistently shown Rookie of the Year-worthy flashes this season, but much of that can’t be placed solely on his shoulders.
So far, he’s tallied a respectable 14.1 points per game but doing so on an effective field goal percentage of just 43.5 percent. Those shooting percentages were a tad higher in college, however, it’s a facet of his game that he’ll strive to improve upon so that he can live up to the expectations of the Knicks’ franchise.
As he continues to develop his game and become more comfortable with the pace of the NBA, there’s little doubt his shooting will improve. At 31 minutes per game, Barrett is proving durable and capable, he just needs to see the ball go in the bucket more often and build up confidence.
Recently, New York was wrapping up a brutal road trip in which they finished against the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, then a back-to-back against the Utah Jazz. Still, despite the trials and tribulations, Barrett is taking things as they come.
“[I learned] just how to play hard no matter what,” Barrett told Basketball Insiders. “We are in the mountains, can’t breathe, still gotta play hard. It doesn’t matter.”
And that effort definitely showed.
Against Utah, the Knicks were without Julius Randle and Marcus Morris, their top-two scorers. Rather than simply fold, Barrett toughed out 10 points and two rebounds, despite feeling tired from the previous night’s game.
With the way the Jazz have been playing, facing the struggling Knicks on a back-to-back was almost a guaranteed win, but Barrett still learned a lot from his opponent.
“Experience is really an advantage, a team that has been together for that long you can tell,” Barrett said. “They know where each other [is], they’re knocking down shots, cheering for each other.
“A team like that, you hope one day we could get something like that too.”
The Knicks’ latest retool is still in its infancy stages, but with a few more draft picks and signings — added to a suddenly-budding core of contributors and expectations will rise quickly. But, until then, Barrett can only take his lumps, push to grow and adapt to the much more challenging NBA landscape, both on the court and on the road.
“I be chilling, to be honest, I’ve kind of learned that, you know, the game is just going to be the way it is and you can’t force it or you can’t get too down, can’t get too high,” Barrett told Basketball Insiders.
“Stay even-keeled every game. I’ve been more poised, more calm — it’s been working out a little better for me.”
From there, the conversation turned toward his former college teammate and close friend, Zion Williamson. When asked about how he feels about Williamson’s injury situation, he offered some sterling advice.
“I hate seeing him hurt. I hate not seeing him be able to play the game he loves, but at the same time, I think, we are 19, so he has a long career ahead of him,” Barrett said. “At this point I really just want him to continue to get better and get healthy and not try and rush back but, just come back when he’s ready.”
Wise words from someone who is only, as he said, 19 years of age. Together, although now apart, both have so much room to grow professionally. Even better, the former allies have used each other as a springboard half a coastline away.
“We keep in touch from time to time, picking each other‘s brains a little bit,” Barrett continued. “The one thing I like is that he’s happy, he doesn’t get too down on himself, he knows he has a long career ahead of himself, just gotta get healthy.”
Barrett mentioned the season is almost halfway over and, luckily for the Knicks, he’s been playing with more and more confidence. Preparation is key in the NBA, obviously, and the sooner players like Barrett can evolve, both mentally and physically, the better off his career will be.
“Just being more poised,” Barrett reiterated to Basketball Insiders about his new-found confidence. “[Knowing] how the defenses are going to play me so I’m just trying to figure out how to play within that.”
Needless to say, the Knicks have a slog ahead of them before they can rejoin the playoff conversation. Still, Barrett, prospect and skill-set wise, is about as good of a start as they come. Of course, he’s young and extremely raw in some categories — but he certainly doesn’t lack confidence and he has plenty of attributes necessary to be a star in the league.
When asked what needs to be done for the Knicks to get back on the right track, Barrett quickly responded, “Go home, feel good again, regroup, get back to it.”
With Barrett continuing to improve by the day, New York, finally, might have found the leading hands they so desperately need.
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