That was the kind of big-time performance from RJ Barrett that the New York Knicks believe will become commonplace in the near future.
The third-year Duke product, who is still just 21 years old, dropped a career-high 35 points that were especially efficient on 12-of-18 shooting from the field and a 6-of-8 output from three-point range during a 123-117 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday.
He became the youngest player in Knicks franchise history to post 35 or more points on at least 65% shooting — the latest reward for an ever-increasing work ethic.
“RJ has a great work capacity. He wants to be good, it’s important to him,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s very coachable, he’s a great teammate. When you see how he approaches things, he has toughness.
“He has basketball IQ and he has competitiveness. When you have those three things to go along with your talent, you usually improve.”
Even more noticeable was the fact that Barrett was the man tasked with holding off a late Pelicans rally to preserve the victory, improving the Knicks’ record to 5-1 on the season — their best start since the 2012-13 campaign.
“That was [Thibodeau],” Barrett admitted. “Thibs was running those plays for me at the end. Just reading the defense. I know I’m the type of player that can have nights like that and I’m happy that I was able to show that.”
Twenty-five of Barrett’s 35 points came in the second half, including nine points and a big-time assist to Taj Gibson in the final 1:40 to preserve the victory.
He nailed a three-pointer with 1:40 to go when the Pelicans drew within two points before a wraparound dish to Gibson for an easy layup on an aggressive drive 35 seconds later when New Orleans got back to within a pair again.
“I think that that’s something I’ve been able to do over the course of my career. It’s not anything that I feel is different for me,” Barrett said of his closing abilities. “All the guys we have on the team, it could be someone different every night. In Boston, Evan was going crazy in overtime and Julius was playing great that came. It could be anybody… it’s a big part of our team that anyone can go and get it.”
Barrett’s game has only been helped by the realization that he can’t simply bully his way to the basket as he did in college. It’s an adjustment that has taken some time to adapt to, but Saturday night saw him pick and choose his moments to perfection.
“I’ve always been told that I have a natural strength. I was blessed with it,” Barrett said. “It’s great when I’m able to use it. I’m learning how to use it… When I first came in, I was head down, always trying to go.”
The improved decision-making looks even better when his shooting is this efficient, which he owes to all the work in the gym — solidifying his head coach’s complimentary assessment.
“The reps and all the work over the summer… just all the shooting that you do every day,” Barrett said. “Our preparation from the summer into the season, we’re always prepared. Thibs is serious and he has us jelling together pretty well so it’s been fun.”