Knicks’ playoff hopes could benefit as RJ Barrett begins to turn a corner

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RJ Barrett of the Knicks defends Aaron Gordon
Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) shoots over New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 18, 2023, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

It’s been a tough year for RJ Barrett. The Knicks’ former 3rd overall pick has struggled to adapt to life as the team’s third option and has seemed to take major steps back on the defensive end. It’s led to criticism from fans and some questions about whether or not the team could trade him even before his contract extension kicks in. 

However, things have been turning around for the 22-year-old lately just in time for the Knicks to make a run in the postseason. 


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In the early parts of the season, the few main criticisms of Barrett were that his shooting hadn’t progressed in the way many hoped, he didn’t seem to be seeing the floor well, and his effort on the defensive end was poor. 

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks score 4.3 fewer points per possession and have a 1.4% worse effective field goal rate when Barrett is on the floor this season. He’s shooting just 43.5% from the field and 31.4% from beyond the arc with 2.2 turnovers per game and a -0.9 plus/minus. 

Yet, in the 12 games since the All-Star break, Barrett has clear real progress in a few crucial areas, some of which show up in the stats and others that don’t. 

For starters, Barrett appears to be making decisions quicker on the court. Prior to the All-Star Break, a clip went viral of Barrett missing a wide-open Obi Toppin cutting to the basket. It was the prime example of a young player who appeared to be so far in his own head that he was forgetting the basics of the game. He seemed to hesitate before attacking the basket and simply wasn’t seeing the court. 

Lately, Barrett has been processing what he sees faster, so the game appears to be slowing down for him. He’s moving the ball more effectively spacing the court in a way that sets up better drives for himself to the basket. 

On Saturday’s game against the Nuggets, he scored a few times against Aaron Gordon by getting past Gordon with a quick first step on the wing and taking a better angle to the hoop on his drive. Understanding those angles both on his passes and on his penetration has made Barrett more effective on his drives and has also led to a slight dip in his turnovers. 

However, he is also finishing better around the rim. A few times against the Nuggets, his drive to the basket was cut off, but he planted his pivot and shifted directions quickly and with a purpose. In a way, he looked a lot like Jalen Brunson, who has a knack for contorting his body and changing directions in the paint to leave defenders grasping at air. 

It appears as though Barrett has been taking notes from the Knicks’ star point guard. 

Barrett is shooting 46.7% from the field since the All-Break while scoring 56.9% of his points in the paint and 4.9% of his two-point shots from the mid-range. That’s up from season-long totals of 51.4% points in the paint and 2.9% of points in the mid-range.

In fact, he’s shooting 42.9% from mid-range and 55.2% from inside the three-point line overall since the break, which is a massive improvement from his 30.8% mid-range shooting on the season and his 49.1% rate inside the arc. 

Barrett is becoming a more efficient scorer and a smarter offensive player overall. However, it hasn’t all been good on the offensive end. 

RJ Barrett Knicks
New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) drives to the basket against New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley (5) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The lefty has still fallen into his bad habits of forcing drives on a few occasions. If he thinks he has a mismatch, he is sometimes hell-bent on getting a shot up, even if his driving angle has been taken away, as was the case a few times against Jamaal Murray in Saturday’s win. 

His three-point shooting also continues to be a bit of an issue. Barret is shooting 27.1% from deep in the 12 games since the break, which is worse than he had been shooting earlier in the year. He’s getting good looks, but they’re simply not falling, and the Knicks could really benefit from him helping to stretch the floor, so they need to find ways to keep him better from beyond the arc. 

On the season, he is shooting 37.1% on threes from the right corner and just 22.9% on threes from the left corner, so perhaps the left-hander is simply not as comfortable feeling like he’s shooting from behind the backboard on the baseline. 

While the three-point shooting could still stand to improve, the Knicks may benefit the most if Barrett can continue to make strides on the defensive end. 

For the season, the Knicks allow 8.4 more points per possession and 2.9% higher opponent’s effective field goal rate when Barrett is on the floor. They also force 2.1% fewer turnovers; all of which are bottom 11th percentile in the league in terms of a player’s impact. 

According to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric, Barrett is the 94th-ranked small forward in basketball in Defensive RAPTOR. There are only 100 small forwards that qualify

To put it bluntly, Barrett has been a liability on the defensive end. 

However, his defensive effort has been noticeably better of late. He has taken better angles on his help defense so that he can close out on shooters, and he’s had active hands, which have forced opponent’s to make extra passes and give up shots that would have otherwise been easy. 

He still has a ways to go in terms of mastering defensive positioning and footwork, but the effort and energy being there is a crucial development for such a young player and provides some hope for even more growth. 

If Barrett continues to become a more diverse scorer in the paint and is able to use his length to his advantage on defense, it would be a huge win for the Knicks. Even by becoming just an average defender, he would remove a liability for opponents to attack on offense and the continued evolution of his offensive game would give the Knicks yet another consistent scoring option, which is crucial for a team with no superstar. 

Perhaps the acquisition of Josh Hart and the subsequent reduction in Barrett’s minutes was a wake-up call for the young small forward. If so, his emergence couldn’t have come at a better time for New York.

For more Knicks coverage, like this RJ Barrett article, visit amNY Sports


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