Since the start of the new year, the New York Knicks have been playing good basketball, to the point that it’s placed them in fifth within the Eastern Conference. With less than ten games to go in the regular season, the Knicks are playoff bound once more, marking their second appearance in three years.
With a 44-33 record to show for it, the Knicks have already surpassed their regular season success from their 2020-21 campaign (which ended their playoff draught) and are headed for one of their best finishes over the last decade.
A season ago, the Knicks were 26th in the league in scoring (106.5 points per game), finishing in last in their division with just 37 wins. A season later, the Knicks are now scoring 115.4 points per game (11th in the league) and are on pace to secure over 45 wins this season.
The Knicks have produced this big leap in scoring production and efficiency as a result of a handful of their star players who’ve improved significantly. Naturally, some have had a greater influence than others, such as newcomer Jalen Brunson. However, this can’t be said about everyone, with others struggling to generate the same growth with their development. And one of those very players has been small forward RJ Barrett.
With his fourth season as a Knick just about complete, Barrett has been one mystifying spectacle to behold ever since he entered the league. When the Knicks drafted him third overall in 2019, the ultimate goal for Barrett was to groom him into an elite scorer the Knicks could rely on. In his sole season at Duke, Barrett dropped 22.6 points on average to go with a field goal percentage of 45.4 on 18.5 shot attempts per game.
The Knicks still haven’t seen the best of RJ Barrett:
As a Knick, however, Barrett has yet to match his field goal percentage from college and has never averaged over 21 points per game in any of his four seasons in New York. Yes, Barrett has yet to average 18.5 shot attempts per game in the NBA, either. But that doesn’t really provide him much justification for having such a sub-par shooting efficiency output when he’s receiving ample minutes and opportunities to do so.
In fact, you can make an argument that Brunson was signed to take over the scoring role Barrett was supposed to deliver on, which has paid off in a major way. And even with the extra space to work his offensive game with Brunson and Julius Randle playing as well as they are, Barrett has still struggled with his consistency to produce at a better level. But why? And should the Knicks be concerned headed into the playoffs?
Answering why is the ultimate mystery, that quite frankly, many might not know the answer to besides Barrett himself. That said, the most consistent narrative around Barrett’s struggles that he has showcased throughout his career, is this driven intent to try to translate a style of play he had success with in college, over into the NBA.
Since coming into the league, Barrett’s game is one that’s been founded on finding his spots that he can maximize, be it inside, from mid-range, or catch-and-shoot looks behind the arc. In college, he tore it up this way, forcing defenders into tough circumstances that he was great at taking advantage of. And even in the NBA, we’ve seen spurts of that same explosiveness pop up on occasion.
But with Barrett, it always comes down to consistency, making him a liability all too often on the offensive front. Take this 2022-23 season, for example. In each of the months of December and January, Barrett averaged 21.4 points per game, shot over 45% from the field, and over 35% from behind the arc. However, the very next month in February, Barrett only shot 40.8% from the field and 28.3% from 3-point range to average just 16.8 points per game.
The Knicks coincidently played some of their best basketball in February, only losing two of their 11 games during that month. But not because of Barrett’s offensive production, which died off following a 30-point game against the Miami Heat on February 2.
In short, though Barrett played well in the month of March and more recently over his last ten games (averages 18.9 points per game on 45.9% shooting from the field), the Knicks should be concerned about their young star talent heading into the playoffs. Even with these numbers, there’s no knowing how long Barrett will be able to sustain this kind of production into April, particularly with a three-point shooting percentage that plummeted to 26.5% in March (mind you, he’s shooting roughly five threes per game).
To top it off, the last and only time Barrett played in the playoffs, which was following the 2020-21 season, he didn’t produce the way he needed to. In that five-game series against the Atlanta Hawks, Barrett averaged 32.4 minutes per game but only scored 14.4 points to go with a 38.8% average from the field and a 28.6% output from behind the arc.
Fast forward two years later, and not a whole lot has changed from Barrett’s game to warrant the conviction and confidence that he will produce at a higher level offensively heading into the playoffs. We can certainly expect to see better numbers in comparison to their playoff run from two years ago.
But will it be enough and up to the standards that are expected from him, is the worrisome two-part question the Knicks will have to prepare for. As of right now, Barrett has certainly become a concern for the Knicks heading into the playoffs. And the arrival of Josh Hart over the trade deadline was already a sign that the Knicks are gearing up for any setbacks that might come from Barrett.