2 reasons that might keep Knicks from extending RJ Barrett this summer

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After Julius Randle fell out of the New York Knicks fans’ graces, RJ Barrett emerged as the new face of the franchise.

His strong performance since the turn of the new year and his palpable leadership on and off the court has made his case for a rookie contract extension stronger.

Barrett’s strides to finish the season averaging 20 points per game (including a career-high 46-point effort) after some rough patches have been one of the silver linings of a lost Knicks’ season. The former third overall pick was steady in the other facets of his game, duplicating his rebounding and assist average from last season (5.8 and 3.0).

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau was effusive in praising Barrett for his steady growth.

“I love him,” Thibodeau said of Barrett late in the season. “He works. [He has a] great demeanor. Great kid. Great teammate. [He’s] Young, learning and hungry.”

The Knicks have not re-signed any of their previous draft picks to a second contract since Charlie Ward in 1999. Barrett is the best bet to break the curse. But despite his linear improvement in production, a deeper look at Barrett’s shooting numbers doesn’t scream a surefire superstar, unlike his draft classmates Ja Morant and Darius Garland, who will likely command the $181 million, five-year rookie max extensions that he covets.

Barrett’s free throw woes continued in his third season, and his outside shot that seemingly improved in his second year has abandoned him. From 40.1 percent accuracy from deep, that number dipped to 34.2 percent.

With his outside shot starting to get shaky again, Barrett made a conscious effort to attack the paint more. While that resulted in a career-best 5.8 free throw attempt that bumped his scoring average to 20, the inefficiency is still weighing him down.

His free throw percentage slipped to 71.4 percent from 74.6 last season, which cost Knicks some games. And worse, he ranks only at the 15th percentile in shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass, the worst in his first three years in the league.

The Knicks might want to see more growth from Barrett efficiency-wise before they commit to him long-term. Perhaps they learned their lesson after locking Randle to a lucrative multi-year extension following an All-NBA season that looks more like an outlier than the norm.

While the inefficiency behind Barrett’s numbers would factor in as the first reason, the second one would outweigh that.

As ESPN NBA front-office insider Bobby Marks noted, a Barrett extension this summer will keep him off the table if a superstar becomes available suddenly.

Keeping the 21-year-old Barrett a restricted free agent after his fourth season is a prudent move that will give him another chip on his shoulder on top of another snub from ESPN’s top 25 players under 25. At the same time, it will give the Knicks some flexibility in roster-building. But it also risks alienating Barrett, especially if the Miami Heat sign Tyler Herro, the 13th overall pick of their rookie class, to a lucrative extension this summer.

That could give Barrett a reason to bolt out of the franchise down the road.

The Knicks have a big decision to make.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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