It’s hard to make a much better first impression than Josh Hart has with the New York Knicks.
In his first game against the Jazz, Hart scored 11 points, with seven rebounds, four assists, and four steals. Head coach Tom Thibodeau trusted him with key minutes down the stretch, and Hart’s rebounding and defense helped propel New York to a 126-120 win.
He followed that up with another tremendous effort in a 126-104 victory over the Nets, scoring 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting with four rebounds, two assists, and a steal. His energy, effort, and swagger have already endeared him to Knicks fans and he’s become a fixture in the rotation, playing in some of the biggest minutes in each of the last two games.
But some Knicks fans want more.
Online fervor for Josh Hart to join the starting rotation is growing, and it’s hard to blame fans. Hart’s ability to scrap for rebounds and loose balls frequently leads to transition buckets the other way, and the pace and fire that he plays with have proven to be contagious.
Thibodeau even went as far as to compare Hart to Jimmy Butler after the Brooklyn game: “Watching Jimmy in college and the things he did at Marquette, Josh reminded me of that with the things he did at Villanova. I think those types of players give your team heart, toughness, and that goes a long way.”
Whether Hart comes off of the bench or moves into the starting lineup, he is going to play 25+ minutes on any given night, especially if his three-point shooting moves back to career levels, as it has these first two games. However, the biggest issue with Knicks fans clamoring for Hart to move into the starting five is what it says about the player he would be replacing.
It’s evident that RJ Barrett is falling out of favor with many in New York.
The fourth-year pro and former third-overall pick simply hasn’t developed in the way many fans envisioned. He’s averaging 19.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists on the year while shooting 42.9% from the field and 33% from beyond the arc. For all the off-season reports about him working on his jump shot, his three-point shooting is actually the worst it’s been since his rookie year.
Barrett has also become a liability on defense.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric, Barrett is the 93rd-ranked small forward in basketball in Defensive RAPTOR. There are only 99 small forwards that qualify. Last season, he ranked 83rd of 125 qualified players, and in 2020-21, he ranked 61st out of 103 qualified defenders, so he has always been below average and appears to be getting worse.
That regression is supported by another NBA analytics metric called DARKO, which is a continuously-evolving projection system that uses NBA box scores, tracking data, and other game-level information from Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com, and Darryl Blackport’s pbpstats.com to provide an understanding of player talent. It’s similar to the more often cited advanced stats used in baseball, like Steamer or ZiPS.
Barrett’s profile for 2022-23 shows a player who is in the 80th percentile as an offensive player and gets to the free-throw line at a strong rate but is an average three-point shooter and one of the worst-graded defenders in the league. As a result, he ranks below the 50th percentile as an overall player in the DARKO metric.
If you specifically focused on his Defensive DARKO, you can see that Barrett has actually become a worse defender. He had a -0.5 score in his rookie year and bumped up close to average in 2020-21 but has done a nosedive since then, ranking below -1.0 this season. It’s hard to see that and feel optimistic about his ability to develop as a defensive player.
What’s more, the image of his career progression from his rookie season to now is flatter than Knicks fans would like to see. While there has been some growth, he still ranks as a negative overall player and hasn’t taken any meaningful step forward since his second season.
Now, plenty of top-five or ten picks in the NBA Draft have failed to develop in the way their teams envisioned. If you just look at the Knicks’ picks alone, they have not gotten the return they hoped for on Obi Toppin (2020 8th overall pick), Kevin Knox (2018 9th overall pick), Jordan Hill (2009 8th overall pick), and Danilo Galinari (2008 6th overall pick), to name a few.
There’s also a strong case that RJ Barrett has been better than all of the names mentioned above, as well as many other top-five picks who could be called “busts.”
RJ Barrett is not a bust; however, what many fans are beginning to see is that he is likely a bad fit with the Knicks as they are currently constructed.
I covered this earlier in the season, but Barrett is a poor fit next to Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle. Both Randle and Brunson are high-usage players with Randle ranking 22nd in the NBA in usage for players who have appeared in at least 30 games and Brunson ranking 39th.
Randle and Brunson are also both competent three-point shooters who prefer to score by slashing or posting up. This season, 56.2% of Randle’s shots come from two-point range and 45.8% of his points come inside the arc (not counting free throws). Brunson shoots 74.4% of his shots from inside the three-point line and 55.9% of his points come from two-point shots. Similarly, Barrett shoots 66.4% of his shots from inside the arc for 52.1% of his points.
Even Coach K said in an interview with Forbes last year that RJ is “a basketball player. He’s not a shooter. He’s a scorer.”
That might be fine on many teams, but the Knicks already have two players like that. Two players who are both playing at All-Star levels and deserve to be playing the most minutes of anybody on the team. That makes Barrett the most expendable of a trio that isn’t a great fit together.
When they’re on the court together, you have three below-average defenders who prefer to attack the basket, and only one of whom (Randle) is a particularly strong rebounder. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks are 0.7 points per possession worse as an offense when Barrett is on the court. Even more alarming, they are 9.4 points per possession worse on defense when he’s on the court. Only 3% of players in the NBA have a worse impact there.
They also allow a 2.7% higher effective field goal percentage, force 2.5% fewer turnovers, and allow 2.2% more offensive rebounds. All of those metrics put Barrett in the bottom 20th percentile in the NBA in terms of how his presence on the court impacts those stats.
This isn’t a new development but seeing how much better Josh Hart’s style of play fits with this team has created some real concerns among Knicks fans, and rightfully so.
The Knicks just signed Barrett to a four-year, extension that will begin next season. Making $26.75 million per year will make it tough for the Knicks to trade Barrett and his contract has a Poison Pill restriction until July 1st. Perhaps there is a team that needs a scorer who will only contribute marginally in other areas. Maybe somebody is willing to take a risk that they can develop the 22-year-old better than the Knicks can.
But if not, we could be looking at a four-year-long conversation about whether or not the Knicks’ third highest-paid player even fits on their team.
For more Knicks coverage, like this Josh Hart and RJ Barrett article, visit amNY Sports
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