Take a chair, make yourself comfortable. It’s time to have a serious conversation about RJ Barrett.
It’s an uncomfortable topic for a number of reasons, namely that $107 million expansion that hasn’t even started yet. There is so much hope attached to Barrett’s future, the hype complete of representing the franchise’s best pick since Patrick Ewing and its first rookie to sign a second contract in 23 years.
Just two months ago, Leon Rose, who hits well below the Mendoza line with his moves, justified the extension with comparisons that even Garden propagandists should have found bold.
“His numbers are in the company of the elite,” Rose told MSG Network while tinkering with three stat totals by players 22 or younger. “His numbers are in the company of Kobe Bryant, Luka Doncic, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.”
Which brings us to the present. And why we’re sitting by the fire for this heart to heart.
Barrett, as evidenced by much of his young career, has an efficiency problem. He misses too much. From too many parts of the yard.
There have been times over the past two seasons when it looked like Barrett would overcome that shortcoming when he converted enough to earn chants at MSG and that big extension. But as Barrett’s role grows in offense – and he supplants Julius Randle as team leader in shot attempts – the problem has only intensified.
Essentially, it’s a basic math equation. A player shooting 39% overall and 26% from beyond the arc – as Barrett has gone through 19 games – shouldn’t shoot that many times. He has the worst effective field goal percentage on the team and the most field goal attempts on the team. It’s not a winning formula.
Take away the pandemic season and Barrett is shooting 40.4% for his career, about 65 percentage points below the NBA average.
“Go to the gym, do the extra work,” said Tom Thibodeau. “That’s all you can do.”
As he did last season with Randle’s struggles, Thibodeau is dancing around the subject. The trainer’s knee-jerk response to questions about sags is a full deflection or “enter the gym,” which is fine until it’s not. Meanwhile, Barrett operates with a go-ahead on the field and post-game pshaws.
“Don’t worry about me,” Barrett said. “I’m fine.”
When struggles reach this level, there are fine lines between confidence, arrogance and delusion. It’s understandable, and perhaps encouraging, that Barrett, one of basketball’s top prospects for much of his life, feels confident and maintains his aggression.
An ego is required to reach Barrett’s level.
And yet, there is a contrast in responsibility from Jalen Brunson – who takes responsibility whether justified or not – to Barrett and Randle – who rarely give introspective answers about their personal struggles.
“I’m cool,” he said after Friday night’s 6-for-22 performance. “I always watch the film to see where I could have done a better job. But I’m cool.
If Barrett watched the movie carefully enough, he’d notice some fixable issues. Outside shooting can always improve. His tunnel vision when driving to the hoop may change. Its feel in the paint can evolve into something less abrasive. However, the reason for some of Barrett’s issues is difficult to rectify. Maybe impossible. We warned you that this conversation is not comfortable.
As understood about Barrett heading to the draft, he’s hardly an elite athlete. The lack of blast and lateral quickness shows in his struggles to finish on the edge and hold the defense. Barrett is awesome with a head full of steam in transition. The momentum benefits his strong build.
The half-court game? Problem.
“My game comes to the rim,” Barrett said. “I shoot open 3 when I got it. I know my game.
It’s good strategy if one of those shots lands, but the question now, after so many misses, is should Barrett’s game change? Should he lead the team in minutes and shot attempts? Should his offense be reduced? What’s the cost-benefit analysis of getting Barrett out of a slump?
On Sunday night, the Knicks take on athletic phenom, Ja Morant, the player taken directly past Barrett in the 2019 draft. We’d have a very different conversation if the draft lottery balls landed differently that night in Chicago.
But that’s part of the discomfort surrounding Barrett these days. He is judged on what he is not because there is so much desire left.