Marked Man: RJ Barrett unfazed as Knicks host Doc Rivers’ 76ers

New York Knicks, RJ Barrett

RJ Barrett will be a marked man when the New York Knicks host the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday night in their home opener at a fan-less Madison Square Garden.

But with or without fans, Barrett is ready to protect homecourt in The Garden, which he called “the best place to play basketball.”

Barrett is off to a solid start, leading the Knicks with 26 points on an efficient 11-of-15 shooting in a losing effort in Indiana.

The 76ers are expected to key in on the Canadian wingman on defense. But Barrett is unfazed.

“I think basketball is basketball. It’s a great system that we’re trying to run offensively. We have the whole team. If we move the ball, play together, I feel it’s going to be tough to keying anybody on the team,” Barrett told reporters on his zoom call after morning shootaround.

Playmaker and shotmaker

With their rookies Immanuel Quickley (hip pointer) and Obi Toppin (sore right calf) doubtful to play against the 76ers, Barrett is expected to take on a larger role. His five assists against the Pacers was a great indication that he can also be a playmaker on top of being the Knicks’ best shotmaker. That will be critical as defenses will start to pay extra attention to him the way Pacers did in the second half.

Barrett only scored six points after exploding for 20 in the opening half last Wednesday.

“They started playing the pick and roll differently, but like [coach] Thibs said, ‘we gotta adjust, and we gotta learn how to deal with when they start doing that.’ And that’s just part of growing up, being in a team. Just learning what to do in those situations and still be successful,” said the 20-year old Barrett.

Improved outside shooting

After getting snubbed in the All-Rookie Teams, the 2019 third overall pick took it personally. He attacked the offseason with a chip on his shoulder.

And the initial results have been encouraging. Criticized for his inefficiency and the lack of an outside shot in his arsenal, Barrett has responded with perfect 3-for-3 shooting from deep against the Pacers.

Asked what changed, Barrett pointed to experience as the best teacher.

“[I really improved on] Just a year of having experience. Just being able to know a little about the nuances of the game,” said the 20-year old Barrett.

Knowing now what to expect on defense, Barrett is beginning to play loose and relaxed.

Newfound confidence

Theo Pinson, who watched Barrett from the borough across Manhattan when he was still with the Brooklyn Nets last season, saw that change in the Knicks’ 2019 third overall pick.

“Just confidence. That’s the biggest thing in the world. You can tell the game has slowed down for [Barrett]. He’s letting the game come to him. When you get that one year under your belt, you just feel more relaxed,” Pinson said.

But Barrett knows it’s just one game, and much like the team as a whole, he is focused on only one thing.

“I definitely still need to get better. I’m nowhere near to where I want to be,” Barrett said.

He epitomizes what these young Knicks are undertaking in Tom Thibodeau’s first year.

Grow and get better each game.

Thibodeau said they were able to play 24 minutes of good basketball in Indiana. But that won’t cut it in this league.

“[We’re] Just trying to be a 48-minute team. That’s what we’re stressing. [To play] Elite level of basketball the whole game,” Barrett said.

Thibs, Austin vs. Doc

The Knicks’ season home opener will also pit Thibodeau against his former mentor in Boston and a good friend, Doc Rivers.

During his 18-month exile from the league, Thibodeau visited and observed Rivers and his former team Los Angeles Clippers.

Doc Rivers, who once played for the Knicks, was also instrumental in pushing his son, Austin, to go to New York instead of joining him in Philadelphia.

Austin Rivers is said to be progressing towards a return from a groin injury. It’s going to be interesting if he makes his Knicks debut against his father.

Maxey’s Garden debut

The Knicks will also have a good look at Tyrese Maxey, Quickley’s teammate at Kentucky, and one of the guards they passed up in the draft.

Maxey came off the bench and produced six points, two rebounds, and two assists in more than 10 minutes in his NBA debut.

Too bad Maxey won’t face Quickley in what could be a great matchup in the battle of second units.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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