The summer is a time to dream big about newly drafted rookies. But paths to NBA stardom are never linear, and every rookie has a unique set of roadblocks to overcome before they can capitalize on their potential. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will be examining some of the 2019 draft’s top talents and how their team’s situation will affect their freshman season. Welcome to the Rookie Curve.
The good and bad of RJ Barrett was on display at Las Vegas summer league. Barrett, who was called “Maple Mamba” as a teenager in Canada, played like a bad parody of Kobe Bryant in his first two games with the Knicks. The no. 3 pick forced the issue on offense and hunted for his own shot without any regard for his teammates. He was a different player in their last three games: He played within himself, moved the ball, and took what the defense gave him.
The difference in his statistics was staggering. Not only did Barrett rack up more assists while turning over the ball less, he also became a more efficient scorer:
Barrett’s Summer League Stats
|First 2 games||9||21.2||1||5|
|Last 3 games||19.7||55.9||6.3||1.3|
Barrett has a lot going for him. At 6-foot-7 and 202 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he’s a 19-year-old with the chiseled frame of an older player. He knows how to use his size to get into the lane and score over smaller defenders, as well as to create space to shoot off the dribble. Barrett is an aggressive player who finds ways to score even on nights when his shot isn’t falling. He always plays hard and has a nose for the ball.
But for all his talent, he’s not talented enough to be a one-man offense in the NBA. The biggest issue is his inconsistent outside shot. Barrett shot a lot of 3s in his one season at Duke (6.2 per game) but didn’t make enough (30.8 percent) to force defenders to guard him on the perimeter. His poor free throw shooting (66.5 percent on 5.9 attempts per game) is an even bigger red flag, as that number is often a better indicator of a prospect’s ability to shoot from the deeper NBA 3-point line.
Barrett also doesn’t have the über-athleticism to get to the rim at will and finish in traffic. He’s a good but not great athlete who depends on being able to bully smaller defenders. He doesn’t have a Plan B when matched up with NBA-caliber defenders who have the size and athleticism to hang with him physically. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Barrett was only in the 43rd percentile of NCAA players last season when scoring in the lane. Most of those attempts came in traffic, when he tried to force something instead of finding an open teammate after he drew a crowd.
Barrett is at his best as a point forward, where he can balance scoring and passing. He’s a smart player who can see over the top of the defense and whip the ball across the court while driving to the basket. Moving the ball also makes him less predictable. Without the threat of the pass, it’s too easy for defenders to anticipate what he will do when he lowers his shoulder and tries to finish every drive that he starts. That’s why he racked up so many offensive fouls in his first two games in Vegas.
The same pattern played out in college. Barrett averaged 21.9 points on 47.3 percent shooting in the eight games in which he had seven or more assists last season, compared with 22.8 points on 44.9 percent shooting in the 30 games in which he had six or fewer assists. The difference wasn’t a product of worse competition, either. His season high for assists (11) was in the Sweet 16 against 4-seed Virginia Tech.
Barrett averaged 4.3 assists per game, but he should have passed the ball even more at Duke. He came into the season gunning for shots and never changed despite all the evidence that he was making the game harder than it had to be.
He had the highest usage rate (32.2) of any Blue Devil since Jabari Parker in 2013-14 (32.7) even though he was playing with Zion Williamson (the future no. 1 pick) and Cam Reddish (no. 10). Something is wrong when a player with a 53.2 true shooting percentage (Barrett) refuses to turn the team over to one with a 70.2 true shooting percentage (Williamson). Barrett often turned both Zion and Reddish into bystanders on offense, and his tendency to force up difficult shots in crunch time was a recurring pattern in their losses, including their season-ending defeat to Michigan State.
Duke lost three games with Zion Williamson in the lineup this year.— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) March 31, 2019
RJ Barrett went ***0-for-9*** in the final minute of those three games. The rest of the team had three total shots. Zion had one.
Barrett has to decide what type of player he wants to be. It’s not going to be as easy for him to dominate the ball in New York as it was at Duke. For the first time in his life, he will have to adjust to a smaller role in the offense.
The Knicks were extremely active in free agency, despite striking out on all of their top targets. They will have a completely different team than last season, when they were so lacking in talent that an undrafted free agent like Allonzo Trier could walk into a featured role on offense. New York now has a crowded roster with a lot of players who need the ball in their hands. It will not be easy for head coach David Fizdale to keep them all happy, especially since many are on short-term contracts that give them little incentive to sacrifice for the good of the team.
Look at the 2018-19 usage rates for the top 12 players on the Knicks roster. Add up the five most likely starters—Barrett, Dennis Smith Jr., Marcus Morris, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson—and you get 117.8 percent. It won’t get easier for Fizdale to find guys willing (or able) to take a step back when he goes to his bench:
PG: Dennis Smith Jr. (24.8), Elfrid Payton (18.3)
SG: RJ Barrett (32.2), Wayne Ellington (17.2), Allonzo Trier (21.5)
SF: Marcus Morris (20.9), Kevin Knox (22.3), Reggie Bullock (15.8)
PF: Julius Randle (27.8), Bobby Portis (24.6)
C: Mitchell Robinson (12.1), Taj Gibson (17.2)
Randle, not Barrett, will likely be the primary option. He signed a three-year, $62 million contract in the offseason (with the third year only partially guaranteed), and is coming off the best season of his NBA career, in which he averaged 21.4 points on 52.4 percent shooting, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game with the Pelicans. He had far more offense run through him than Zion, who was used primarily as an energy big man at Duke.
There are a lot of mouths to feed on the perimeter, too. Neither of the top two point guards in New York (Smith and Payton) is a good enough 3-point shooter to play off the ball, while the top two wings besides Barrett (Morris and Knox) are just as shot-happy as he is. The Knicks made a big financial investment in Morris (one year, $15 million), and Knox was the no. 9 overall pick in last year’s draft. These players are not the type to be willing to stand in the corner so that Barrett can play one-on-three.
Barrett has a lot of other teammates who will push back if he dominates the ball. Smith, the no. 9 pick in the 2017 draft, forced his way out of Dallas because he didn’t want to play off of Luka Doncic. Portis, who signed a two-year, $31 million contract in the offseason, expects to contend for Sixth Man of the Year, and is perhaps best known for breaking the face of a teammate (Nikola Mirotic) with whom he was competing for playing time. Trier went from a two-way contract to a guaranteed deal that will pay him as much as some first-round picks ($3.6 million) by hunting for his own shot.
The Knicks need Barrett more on defense than on offense. They had the no. 26-rated defense in the NBA last season, and the only defensive-minded players they added are Bullock, who is out indefinitely with a back injury, and Gibson, an undersized big man whose athleticism is fading. Barrett is the rare young player who could contribute immediately on that end of the floor. Not only does he have the physical tools to match up with players at multiple positions on the perimeter, he was the primary perimeter defender on the no. 6 defense in college. Barrett had good defensive numbers: He was in the 72nd percentile of NCAA players when defending the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, and in the 80th percentile when defending isolations.
Emphasizing defense is the best chance that Fizdale has to keep the peace in the locker room. Getting stops will allow the Knicks to get out in transition and take advantage of their athleticism instead of being forced to execute in the half court against defenses who pack the paint and dare them to shoot. Plus, the more possessions they generate in a game, the more shots there are to go around.
Barrett is walking into a difficult situation as a rookie, and every mistake he makes will be blown out of proportion by the New York media. The key to his success will be to become a more well-rounded player. The more he focuses on passing and defense, the better he will be. His five games in Vegas could be a microcosm of his rookie season. The Knicks need to do everything in their power to convince Barrett to play more like he did in the last three.