Toss out all your “small sample size” caveats. Discard any “let’s wait and see” reservations. Do you hear that wary part of your brain? The part that’s whispering cautious thoughts to protect your heart because it’s been broken too many times before. Disregard all that, Knicks fans. Abandon all doubt ye who enter here.
RJ Barrett is ready to be anointed.
I have to say, this is not what I expected. As someone who doesn’t watch much NCAA basketball (due to lack of time, not basketball snobbery), my perceptions of young prospects rely heavily on analysis from media members and, alas, Basketball Twitter. The criticism I saw levied against Barrett was the kind that scares me most: selfish, doesn’t make his teammates better, can’t create separation off the dribble, inconsistent shooter.
But it wasn’t just the media. Even fellow NCAA players who anonymously voted in a poll for The Athletic ranked Barrett as the most overrated player in the country. Sometimes, media and players evaluate talent incorrectly; sometimes, they misjudge how certain abilities will translate at the next level. This is one of those times. Even after just seven games played, I’ve seen enough. RJ Barrett is the real deal.
Some parts of his game have come as a pleasant surprise. Entering into the league, one knock on him was that, despite being a good playmaker for his position, he simply didn’t pass enough. But, he has already shown that he can be a smart pick-and-roll ball handler at the NBA level, willing to both score and pass depending on the situation. So far, he has already developed a strong pick-and-roll chemistry with Mitchell Robinson, the recipient of the highest number of Barrett’s assists. I’m consistently impressed with how patient Barrett is dishing out of the pick-and-roll. Watch here as he drives to his right and finds a rolling Robinson at the last possible second for the dunk:
This next play didn’t directly result in an assist, but it shows Barrett’s patience and savvy. As I point out in the tweet, note how Barrett’s no-look towards Kevin Knox freezes Marcus Smart, taking him entirely out of the play:
Here's the play Macri's describing. I was really struck by the patience/ timing of it. Watch the no-look completely freeze Smart on the help-side as he tries to read Barrett's eyes. https://t.co/bnOzk1TTb3 pic.twitter.com/UFrteNhXLj
— Tom Piccolo (@Tom_Piccolo) November 2, 2019
Then, there are aspects to Barrett’s game that we knew were projected strengths: getting to the rim, getting to the free throw line, rebounding. But, just because those were strengths in college, it didn’t guarantee they would be strengths against the best players in the world. It certainly didn’t mean they would be strengths right out of the gate as a 19-year-old rookie. But here we are. Prior to Sunday’s game versus Sacramento, Barrett was taking 54% of his shots at the rim – in the 94th percentile among wings per Cleaning The Glass. He’s tied for fourth in the entire league in shots attempted from the restricted area. The dude just gets to the rim at will. Granted, his accuracy from close range is in the 44th percentile, but “slightly below average” for someone his age with that kind of volume is exceptional.
Helping make up for his lower efficiency at the rim is the fact that he never turns the ball over on drives. Barrett has driven the ball 77 times through six games, by far the most on the team, but has only turned it over on TWO of those drives.
The frequency of shots at the rim is indicative of the element of Barrett’s game that has popped most while watching him: the force with which he plays. I’m sure you’ve seen it, but let me show you anyway. Watch here as he navigates a Spain pick-and-roll.
Notice how Elfrid Payton doesn’t even get a piece of Jakob Poeltl to slow him down. Barrett doesn’t care. He lowers his shoulder and barrels right through the seven-footer. The kid is already bullying full-grown men.
That ability to seek and absorb contact is what separates him from promising, young players who have come before. Compare Barrett’s physicality to another young wing on this squad, Kevin Knox. Their styles are night and day. Knox drives to the basket like someone trying to avoid contact, his long arms swooping over and around opposing defenders. He still gets fouled a fair amount because of his unorthodox moves, but when he does go to the line it’s because something didn’t go according to plan. He looks careful when he ventures into the lane, like someone trying to nimbly weave around brush during a hike in the woods.
Barrett brings a machete, clearing himself a path through sheer force. Watch Evan Fournier bounce right off the rookie:
Even Porzingis, as talented as he was, would settle for contested 15-footers over the outstretched arms of point guards. Barrett has no time for that. Watch him abuse this mismatch against Kemba Walker:
It’s refreshing to have a player who so visibly wants to win. But, he doesn’t just want to beat you; he wants to punish you for even standing in his way. He is going to score, one way or another, even if that means going right through you. Watch him go straight through the Nets’ starting power forward, Taurean Prince:
The word I keep coming back to with Barrett is “undeniable.” He plays with a competitive edge that, as the cliche goes, you really can’t teach. But, just the mindset alone will not lead to success. If playing with force were the only ingredient for winning basketball, then Julius Randle would be a perennial All-Star. It’s the combination of force, skill and basketball feel that makes me so bullish on Barrett’s future. So, even as the Knicks sit 1-6 following an embarrassing home loss to the struggling Sacramento Kings, take solace in what we have in Barrett. He will be a bonafide star…as soon as he gets a bigger sample size.
*All stats were pulled prior to Sunday’s game versus Sacramento.