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If RJ Barrett Can’t Help the Knicks Land a Star, Can He Be One Himself?

Barrett’s new extension likely takes him out of any trade packages for Donovan Mitchell. Is his future role in New York supporting a marquee player like Mitchell, or can the former no. 3 pick still be the centerpiece of an offense?

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For a player who spends quite a bit of time scoring in isolation, it’s a little odd how rarely we talk about RJ Barrett by himself. Barrett just averaged 20 points per game at age 21, and is a year removed from finishing second in the league in minutes for a playoff team, yet discussion of his game always seems to come in the context of others.

When we talk about the no. 3 pick in the 2019 NBA draft’s production, we’re really talking about how it stacks up next to that year’s first and second picks, former Duke teammate Zion Williamson and All-NBA lightning bolt Ja Morant. When we talk about his advancing command of the offense, we’re really talking about how he fits next to fellow point-forwardish-lefty Julius Randle on the waxing-then-waning Knicks. When we talk about how likely he is to become a star in his own right, we’re really talking about what role he stands to play in New York’s perpetual pursuit of that elusive rainmaker who might lift the franchise out of the decades-spanning doldrums and back toward, if not championship contention, then at least consistent competence.

It’s fitting, then, that even a late Monday night news break about the fourth-year forward achieving generational wealth was really a bank shot. In the course of relaying word about Barrett finalizing a four-year contract extension that could earn him up to $120 million through 2027, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski almost immediately pivoted to how Barrett’s new bag “complicat[es] the [Knicks’] offseason trade pursuit of Utah Jazz All-Star Donovan Mitchell.” It’s perhaps equally appropriate that Woj quickly noted Barrett is the first New York first-round pick to sign a multiyear second contract with the team since Charlie Ward back in 1999; more than any other Knick, Barrett stands at the crossroads of New York’s ramshackle recent past and its hoped-for ascendant future. Whichever path he takes, though, he’ll never walk alone.

First, the nuts and bolts: Unlike draftmates Zion, Ja, and no. 5 pick Darius Garland, Barrett didn’t get the max—and, in fact, got a hell of a lot less than the five-year, $193 million rookie-scale extension that would’ve represented his top possible dollar. Only (“only!”) $107 million of the deal is fully guaranteed, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, with the remainder tethered to a number of incentives. Ian Begley of SNY reports that the agreement includes escalator bonuses “tied to selections to the All-Star Game, any of the three All-NBA teams, or either of the two All-NBA Defensive teams.” The base-salary re-up will start Barrett out at just under $23.7 million for the 2023-24 season, which will put him in line to be something like the 22nd-highest-paid wing in the NBA for that season.

That pay grade doesn’t seem particularly onerous, especially in a post-bubble-and-no-fans-in-stands NBA, where the stonks salary cap line has resumed its climb to ever-more-unprecedented levels. It’s also one that you could argue Barrett’s play to this point hasn’t quite warranted, given his well-chronicled battles with scoring efficiency: Of 287 players who have logged at least 2,500 minutes in the NBA since 2019, Barrett ranks 276th in effective field goal percentage (which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers) and 277th in true shooting percentage (which also factors in the value of free throws).

Those grim figures merit their own contextual consideration, though, considering Barrett’s evolution into both a high-volume ball handler and, with Reggie Bullock heading to Dallas last offseason, New York’s top perimeter defender. He faced the toughest average matchup of any Knick player last season, spending significant time guarding across four positions, while also shouldering a major offensive load, especially late in the season. According to the BBall Index, Barrett’s combination of a high usage rate and a steady diet of defensive assignments on high-usage opponents last season put him in the company of a slew of All-Stars—Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Fred VanVleet, Jrue Holiday, Dejounte Murray, Andrew Wiggins—as well as other solid perimeter contributors capable of pulling high-leverage two-way duty.

What makes players like George and Butler superstars, of course, is their ability to create and convert shots efficiently while still taking on those significant defensive burdens. Whether Barrett can join their ranks as a perennial All-Star candidate will likely depend on whether he can return to the form that saw him shoot 40.1 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore; whether he can make strides as an off-the-bounce shooter after going just 38-for-147 (25.9 percent) on pull-up 3s to date; and whether he can develop the strength, burst, and touch to dramatically improve as an interior finisher after shooting just 54.6 percent in the restricted area through three pro seasons.

New York paying up for him now, then, represents a bifurcated bet. From a pure dollars-and-cents perspective, the Knicks are wagering that a deal for what amounts to about 18 percent of the projected ’23-24 salary cap—a percentage that, again, will decline as the cap rises, and especially as the deluge of cash from the NBA’s next broadcast rights deal hits the league’s financial system—for the ages-23-to-26 seasons of a durable and talented young wing will look like a bargain before long. (Barrett’s deal immediately calls to mind the four-year, incentive-bolstered extension that Boston gave Jaylen Brown back in 2019—a contract that has paid off handsomely for the Celtics.)

Knicks president Leon Rose and Co. are banking on being able to create a better on-court context for Barrett to succeed than he’s been in since he arrived in New York. In Barrett’s first two seasons, the Knicks ranked 29th and 27th, respectively, in 3-point attempts per game before leaping up to 10th last season; he’s spent most of his first three years playing in largely cramped lineups featuring an array of non-shooting/miscast point guards like Elfrid Payton, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., and Alec Burks. The Knicks offense will still likely feature some congestion, with coach Tom Thibodeau’s commitment to playing rim-protecting/non-stretch centers like Mitchell Robinson, Jericho Sims, and new arrival Isaiah Hartenstein. But the addition of Jalen Brunson—a young, smart, stabilizing agent at the point who’s shot just under 39 percent from 3-point range over the past two seasons—gives the Knicks another scoring and playmaking threat, which could help turn some of Barrett’s less successful shot attempts into higher-value chances. It also gives defenders another perimeter playmaker to worry about, which could help open driving lanes for Barrett’s bruising rim attacks:

You know who else might draw defensive attention, unclench the middle of the floor, and help break down coverages before swinging the ball to Barrett so he can slash to the paint in a second-side action? Mitchell, whom the Knicks sure would love to snag from the evidently-about-to-rebuild Jazz, but whom Utah jefe Danny Ainge seems loath to let go for anything less than the sun and stars. That asking price may or may not have included Barrett at varying points in the negotiations; now, though, Barrett’s almost certainly off the table due to a “poison pill” provision in his new contract that would make it difficult for both sides to match salary in a deal that included him.

According to Charania and Tony Jones of The Athletic, the Knicks recently offered veteran guard Evan Fournier, 2020 lottery pick Obi Toppin, “additional salary,” and five future first-round picks, two of which were unprotected, for Mitchell. After Utah demurred, Marc Berman of The New York Post reported that the sticking point in negotiations remained “the amount of unprotected first-round picks in the package” that the Knicks would send, with the Jazz seeking more—perhaps as many as four unprotected firsts. The gap between offer and asking price is notable, and would dovetail with Marc Stein’s reporting that “there’s a decent chance that the Lakers,” armed with Russell Westbrook’s massive $47.1 million expiring contract, “will be involved in” any eventual Mitchell deal, since “the two future first-round picks that the Lakers possess in 2027 and 2029 are the kind of top-shelf draft picks that Ainge is believed to covet.” It’s also notable, though, that the distance between yes and no doesn’t seem to depend on which young players wind up heading from New York to Utah.

Maybe Ainge really did “covet” Barrett, as SNY’s Ian Begley reported, and “greatly value” the 22-year-old, as Woj wrote. Maybe, as Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report reported earlier this summer, the Jazz weren’t really all that interested in Barrett, viewing the prospect of handing him a nine-figure extension while also undertaking a wholesale rebuild as, to some degree, hustling backward. (Jones of The Athletic recently reported that, on top of the picks, Utah wants “young players on manageable contracts that come with a significant amount of team control.” It seems reasonable to harbor a healthy dollop of skepticism that Ainge views $120 million of Barrett as more “manageable” than, say, $8.96 million of Quentin Grimes.)

Maybe the truth’s somewhere in the middle: that Ainge likes Barrett, but likes the idea of unprotected future Knicks picks more, and thus wants them all; that Rose was willing to include Barrett in talks, but as a replacement for more unprotected picks rather than in addition to them; and that when neither side budged on those positions, Rose decided to just lock up a good 22-year-old two-way wing with a chance to be more, believing that he’s still got what it takes to make the best offer for Mitchell in the weeks and months ahead. With no other obvious suitors in play—though you count out Pat Riley and the warlocks in the Heat front office at your own peril—he may well be right.

If Rose does indeed have the best possible offer, then between $107 million and $120 million is an awfully healthy spoonful of sugar to help Barrett swallow the medicine of what could be a curtailed offensive role and even greater defensive responsibility alongside a Mitchell-Brunson backcourt. If Rose doesn’t get a Mitchell trade done, the new deal marks Barrett as a foundational piece of the Knicks’ plans on both ends of the floor, and a significant investment in the project of turning him into the franchise’s first true homegrown home run since Patrick Ewing. And if Barrett can take the kind of leap from Year 3 to Year 4 that Brown did after getting paid in Boston, he could be well on his way to cementing himself not as the kind of player you flip for a star, but rather as the kind of star other players wind up orbiting. Not the contingent piece on the fringes of a broader context—the focal point, at the center of the frame, finally by himself.