RJ Barrett has carved a special place in the hearts of Knicks fans from the very beginning.
He was the ultimate consolation prize out of Duke when the Knicks missed out on the No. 1 pick and Zion Williamson in the NBA Draft Lottery two years ago.
He cried upon his selection by the Knicks at No. 3, promising that he would give a then-dysfunctional franchise and its starving fan base everything he had.
“I’m so overwhelmed, humbled, and just honored and very thankful that the Knicks took the chance with me, that they believed in me,” Barrett said on draft night. “I’m so happy to be a Knick, and I can’t wait to play in Madison Square Garden.”
He shook off a rookie season filled with growing pains and a 21-45 record to brashly tell us before the 2020-21 NBA season began that all Knicks eyes were going to be on the playoffs — even though they hadn’t come close to sniffing postseason play in each of the previous seven seasons.
“I’m trying to make the playoffs and trying to win,” he said back in December. “We shouldn’t expect anything less from ourselves. We have to try and go out there and be the best team we can be. We got a lot of talented players and hard workers. If we put it together with the coaching staff we have, we should be able to do very well.”
On Sunday, the 20-year-old put the finishing touches on fulfilling that promise by leading the Knicks with 22 points in a 96-92 victory over the Boston Celtics to clinch the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and the organization’s first playoff trip since 2013.
Who’s laughing now?
“It’s great to have brought Knicks fans back to the playoffs,” Barrett said. “Before I got drafted, this is something I envisioned. This is something I wanted to do. I always said I”m a winner and I just had a feeling that I was going to be able to be a part of a team or multiple teams that would get to the playoffs.”
Barrett took a noticeable leap in his second season, averaging 17.6 points per game — three more than his rookie season — while his field-goal percentage leaped from 40.2% last year to 44.1% this year. His three-point shot also turned the corner, improving over eight points from 32.0% to 40.1%.
Emerging as the bonafide No. 2 option behind All-Star Julius Randle, Barrett was vital down the stretch for the Knicks, averaging 18.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists over the final 16 games of the season, which saw New York go 12-4.
“It feels amazing, especially doing it with this group of guys that we had last year through some tough times,” Barrett said. “We were able to turn the program around, got some new pieces, worked hard and no one gave us a shot. But we’re here.”
Now comes a first-round date with the No. 5 Atlanta Hawks and Barrett’s first taste of the NBA Playoffs.
“It’s something to look forward to,” he said. “We’re fighting for something and that’s a good feeling. We’re a tough, resilient team and we made our name off that. I’m just really excited to go into the playoffs.”
So is the majority of New York City.