New York Knicks: Thibodeau believes Barrett will continue to grow

New York Knicks, RJ Barrett
Oct 7, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; New York Knicks forward RJ Barrett (9) reacts after shooting a three point shot durning the first half against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

On the day the New York Knicks saw next free agency’s biggest catch Giannis Antetokounmpo kept his name off the market, coach Tom Thibodeau heaped praise on the team’s brightest young prospect.

RJ Barrett, the Knicks’ lottery pick last year, is emerging as their best shot to having a star in the future.

Barrett has led the Knicks to a split of their two preseason games in Detroit with a 20-point scoring average. Thibodeau came away impressed with how his young prospect has handled himself in those two games.

“I like the way he’s mixing it up. He’s scored a number of layups off cuts. He’s running the floor a lot better. He’s moving without the ball. And then I think he’s gotten a lot more confident in his shot,” Thibodeau said on his Tuesday zoom call with reporters.

The game begins to slow down

After missing his first six shots, the 20-year old Barrett has since settled down, and he’s starting to find his rhythm. Barrett has hit 17 of his last 27 attempts. More importantly, he’s making good strides at the stripes. He’s made 5 of 7 free throws so far after hitting only 61.4 percent last season.

The difference, he said, is that the game has become “a little slower, a little more comfortable.”

“You know how certain teams and coaches, what their schemes will be,” Barrett said following his 25-point scoring explosion in a 99-91 loss to the Detroit Pistons last Sunday. “I’m just getting more comfortable.’’

Barrett has achieved that comfort level by preparing hard over the long break. With the All-Rookie team snub as an added motivation, Barrett continued to work on his shot with renowned NBA trainer Drew Hanlen. The trainer, whose long list of clients includes some of the biggest names in the NBA today — Bradley Beal, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum, also helped him prepare for the draft last year.

And since Barret’s arrival in New York, he’s been working closely with associate head coach Johnnie Bryant. The latter is widely credited for the development of Gordon Hayward and Donovan Mitchell while he was still in Utah.

“Like with most players, [with] the long layoff, he had a lot of time to work on his shooting, and I think he did. I think he’s got the benefit of having a year under his belt now,” Thibodeau said.

“So there’s usually a case where most young guys improve if they’re diligent in their work, and I think we’re seeing that. He’s worked hard on a lot of different areas of his game. I think we’ll see him continue to grow because of the way he approaches,” he added.

Star as a pillar

After Antetokounmpo joined LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Paul George in the list of stars who signed extensions with their teams, the Knicks’ choices have gotten smaller though still better than this year’s free agency.

Kawhi Leonard could opt-out if things get messy in Los Angeles. So is Chris Paul. Second-tier stars Rudy Gobert and Victor Oladipo seem to be the next big names to become available.

But as recent history suggests, it’s never good to bet on the stars to come to New York without foundational pieces.

While Thibodeau underscored the importance of having a star as a pillar, he also said there are still other avenues to get one aside from the open market.

“I think it’s critical [to have a star],’’ Thibodeau said. “When you look at every team in the league, particularly the playoff teams, and there’s a lot of different paths to getting stars. Sometimes it’s the development phase. I think when you looked at Jimmy Butler when he came in, he hardly played as a rookie. He played more each year, and then he’s become a top-10 player in the league. It’s a testament to his work ethic and how he approached things.”

“So some guys continue to get better year after year. Sometimes you have to do it through trades. Sometimes it’s free agency. But I think you have to be very aggressive in seeking out those opportunities. They just don’t happen by accident. You have to make them happen.”

Thibs’ next Butler?

In the Knicks case, wherein the stars have shunned them despite having enormous cap space and the lure of playing in the Mecca under the bright lights of the Broadway, developing their own remains to be the best way.

Barrett, a 6-foot-6 wingman, has a shot at becoming one. He may not have Butler’s swagger, but Barrett has been showing Thibodeau some signs that he’s charting the right path.

Improving his shot and his overall feel for the game is the next big important step for him to get closer to that goal.

While Barret’s mid-range game has improved, his three-point shot, though, remains clunky. He’s only hit 1-of-9 from afar so far. But Thibodeau can live with that the same way he did with Butler, who has never averaged more than one triple in his career.

“He can play without shooting well. There’s a lot of other things that he can do. I like the way he’s mixing it up. He’s scored a number of layups, off cuts. He’s running the floor a lot better. He’s moving without the ball,” Thibodeau said.

Finding rhythm

Thibodeau also pointed out that Barrett’s confidence with his shot also comes from shot preparation.

“When he takes good shots, he’ll have rhythm. And that holds true for the entire team. We’re stressing the importance of rim reads. When you drive the ball, there are three guys on you, hit the open man, make the extra pass, and when you do that, you usually get better shots,” Thibodeau said.

That’s one key area where Barrett wants to grow and become more efficient. His two assists against three turnovers won’t cut it. And he’s been critical of himself while adding that he’s been trying to make the right reads and the right plays.

“I need to do a lot better job,’’ Barrett said. “My teammates are ahead of me in great positions. I [have] got to do a better job getting it to them. I had too many turnovers. That kills the team. I’m just trying to get back to film again to help my teammates more.”

Without stars, Thibodeau will continue to bet on Barrett to become one.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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