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Grin and Barrett: Do the Knicks Have a Star in the Making or Something Else?

RJ Barrett has made noticeable improvements in his second season, but can he ever be the face of the franchise? And if not, what does that mean for his and New York’s futures?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ninety-five games into his NBA career, it’s tough to know quite what to make of RJ Barrett. That’s due in part to the fact that the 2019 NBA draft’s no. 3 pick often tends to be defined by what he isn’t—namely, the no. 1 or no. 2 pick in that draft.

Zion Williamson just started in the All-Star Game, looking like some unholy reimagining of Young Shaq as a point guard. Ja Morant is thriving as the high-end pick-and-roll conductor of one of the league’s most intriguing young teams. When you see them shining, often in jaw-dropping and eye-popping fashion, it can be kind of hard to turn to look at Barrett—lower scoring, less efficient, less evidently a Star in the Making—without feeling a little … well, if not underwhelmed, certainly not overwhelmed.

But comparison is the thief of joy, and Barrett’s position in the league deserves consideration on its own merits. Fresh off a career-high 32 points in New York’s win over Oklahoma City on Saturday, he’s on pace to be just the sixth NBA player ever to average at least 18 points, six rebounds, and three assists per 36 minutes before his age-21 campaign; before this season, only LeBron James, Chris Webber, and Luka Doncic had done it. He has improved in virtually every facet of the game—finishing in the paint, knocking down jumpers and free throws, handling the ball, facilitating offense, defending on the perimeter—and earned a permanent-marker spot in Tom Thibodeau’s starting lineup, logging the second-most minutes on the Knicks behind only All-Star Julius Randle.

And, for what it’s worth, Barrett’s not exactly devoid of sauce himself. He’s plenty capable of generating highlights with evil hesitation dribbles, slick Euro-steps, no-look feeds, and the occasional left-handed tomahawk:

There’s an attractive package here, one that has made Barrett—still just 20, younger than 29 members of the current rookie class—the clear second-best player on a team whose rise to playoff contention has been one of this season’s most pleasant surprises. The big question, for Barrett and the Knicks alike, is whether the pretty wrapping paper holds something that can become truly special.

Barrett ranks 123rd in the league in touches per game, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data; he averages a dozen fewer touches a night than Zion, and nearly 30 fewer than Ja. This makes sense: While all three were drafted to be centerpieces, only Barrett entered and continues to operate in a context that requires him to play a complementary role.

Last season’s Knicks featured a ton of players who worked best with the ball in their hands and were motivated to gun for numbers in search of their next contract. Those roster realities forced Barrett to learn how to contribute without being a primary option—an education that has continued this season while playing alongside the best version of Randle anybody’s ever seen. Factor in the presence of starting point guard Elfrid Payton and newly acquired sixth man Derrick Rose, and though Barrett’s touches are up slightly year-over-year, he’s still very much a secondary or even tertiary creator in most of his minutes.

Without a blank check to explore and experiment with the ball in his hands, Barrett’s development has had to come in other areas. He’s continued to support New York’s big men on the glass as one of the league’s stronger wing rebounders; he ranks 21st out of 125 qualifying guards in total rebounding rate. He’s not an aggressively disruptive defender, but he’s become a solid cog in Thibodeau’s system, making sure he’s in the right place at the right times, and using his prototypical frame (6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, 214 pounds), strength, and quickness to play major minutes and a major role in the NBA’s no. 3 defense. Barrett doesn’t lock down opposing scorers every night—Thibs often puts Payton on no. 1 guards and Reggie Bullock on top wings—but he’s already shown that he can credibly defend 1 through 4, posting the highest defensive versatility score of any member of the Knicks rotation, according to BBall Index.

That dependability on defense and the boards has helped Barrett establish a floor that, at minimum, already seems to amount to Pretty Good NBA Player. Growth on the other end, though, will determine his ceiling, and where he is in that process lies in the eye of the beholder.

The glass-half-empty take: Barrett remains an inefficient scorer without the explosive athleticism to finish through contact at a high percentage, and without a reliable-enough jumper to threaten defenses off the dribble or space the floor. That’s the flip side of the “context” argument in the comparison with Zion and Ja: They essentially demanded primacy in their teams’ offenses, and Barrett can’t, because he’s not nearly as efficient a shooter, scorer, or playmaker as they are—and in fact, ranks well below average in efficiency among NBA wings. A grim stat: Out of 39 players who have attempted at least 500 shots this season, Barrett ranks 37th in true shooting percentage, ahead of only Russell Westbrook, trying to shrug off Father Time for the curious Wizards, and no. 1 pick Anthony Edwards, misfiring away on the dismal and dysfunctional Wolves.

The glass-half-full slant: The bulk of that damage came early in the season, thanks to a four-game stretch in which Barrett missed 21 straight triples. Over his past 27 games, Barrett has shot 59 percent at the rim, 39 percent from midrange, 48 percent from 3-point land, and 75 percent at the foul line—all dramatic increases over his rookie season, and enough to produce a .576 true shooting percentage, just above the league average.

That long-distance mark is bound to regress at least a bit, but going from one of the NBA’s least-efficient shooters to a league-average threat in the space of a year offers cause for optimism about how Barrett’s shot—and with it, how dangerous he can be as a half-court threat—might continue to develop. One big thing to watch in the years to come: whether Barrett can add the pull-up 3 to his game. Right now, he’s taking almost entirely catch-and-shoot 3s created by a teammate, attempting just two pull-up triples total during this 27-game stretch. Those pull-ups have become the coin of the realm among top scorers; the list of players who take several of them per game and make them at a league-average clip features an awful lot of guys who either have made All-Star teams or appear to be on their way to doing so. If Barrett can become someone who punishes defenders going under screens by pulling up and raining fire, it could dramatically change both the geometry of the Knicks offense and the trajectory of his career.

Barrett still has a long way to go to be counted on as a consistently viable operator in the two-man game, but he’s logging more possessions as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll than he did last season, and scoring more efficiently than he did as a rookie. He looks more comfortable navigating through tight spaces, snaking around the big to get back to his dominant left hand, get to his preferred spot, and either pull up or make a play.

He’s shown better touch from floater range—again, not elite, but better—which gives him a more diverse menu of options when attacking the paint. As a rookie, he’d often just try to bulldoze his way to the rim and wind up getting enveloped by waiting rim protectors. Now, he’s still got the strength to bump sliding defenders off balance and create space, but he’s also got enough confidence to let the shot fly a beat earlier, before shot blockers can pounce:

That increasing comfort off the dribble has shown up in Barrett’s playmaking, too. He’s looking more comfortable as a drive-and-kick facilitator, taking advantage of the fact that this season’s Knicks roster features more teammates who can actually knock down a 3-point look if he creates one. As noted by Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic, Barrett has already assisted on more 3-point makes this season in just 39 games than he did in 56 as a rookie:

He’s also shown a penchant for slipping a deft interior pass to a rolling big or cutter:

Those glimpses of off-the-bounce playmaking pique your interest, leading you to wonder what it might look like if Barrett more frequently got to run the show himself. Those opportunities have been few and far between: No two players in the league have logged more minutes together than Barrett and Randle. But the me time mostly hasn’t gone so hot.

While New York has outscored opponents in 140 RJ-no-Randle minutes, it has done so on the strength of its defense, scoring just 103.9 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions—an anemic rate that would slot in below the league-worst Cavaliers for last place in offensive efficiency over the full season. When flying solo, Barrett is also shooting just 18-for-62 from the field (29 percent) and 1-for-11 from deep. His usage rate has also essentially stayed flat in those minutes—meaning he’s not exactly seizing the chance to take on a larger share of the shot-creation load when Randle sits.

A lot of that, though, has to do with who is on the floor. Ideally, those second units would give Barrett the chance to handle the ball more, run pick-and-roll with a rim-pressuring center, and make plays for himself or others. This Knicks roster gives him the rim runner in either Mitchell Robinson (once he’s back from a fractured hand) or Nerlens Noel, but it also ensures he’ll share the court with a ball-dominant point guard who can’t/doesn’t shoot 3s (Payton) and combo guards who are more effective with the ball in their hands (Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, Austin Rivers) than playing off of it to maximize space and opportunities for Barrett to cook.

Surrounding Barrett with lower-usage shooters and emboldening him to create could unlock his nascent facilitating game … or, at least, offer a better context in which to evaluate his capacity to serve as a real offensive centerpiece. Given the pivotal role he plays in the Knicks’ future plans, placing an emphasis on Barrett’s development as a playmaker seems like it should be one of the new Knicks brain trust’s top priorities. As the Knicks’ ongoing flirtation with .500 has sent visions of a postseason berth dancing through fans’ heads, though, Thibodeau has started to show a tendency to lean the other way: Barrett has averaged seven fewer minutes per game since Feb. 1 than he had through the end of January, including four games in which he didn’t get any fourth-quarter burn.

In that way, Barrett represents the unexpected quandary in which New York finds itself. A rebuilding team with the league’s lowest payroll that is in line to have more than $40 million in cap space this offseason and controls nine first-round picks in the next seven drafts should probably take the long view when it comes to player development and expanding the skill sets of the young talent likely to stick around for the long haul. A team that’s in seventh place, that has what’s looking like at least a coin-flip chance of making the play-in tournament, and that is coached by someone for whom “the long view” amounts to “looking to the end of the bench to see if he can find any other former Bulls, perhaps Keith Bogans, to sub in” will likely have different priorities, though.

The Knicks, for now, are both. That, to be clear, is a much better problem to have than the ones most fans expected to be dealing with this season. It’s still one they have to solve, though, and while the franchise is kind of stuck between stations, so too is Barrett—starring in his role, but now on a team too good to put him in the kind of role that’d allow us to see whether he’s a star.