After seven tumultuous seasons filled with uncertainty and little to no sign of resolution in sight, the New York Knicks, for the first time in a long time, have shown a small glimpse of promise and hope in 2021.
Surmounting already nine wins in 22 games played, new Head Coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive expertise and experience has spearheaded this young Knicks team into the next pivotal step of growth and development that they so desperately needed.
Allowing only 104.2 points per game to their opponents, the Knicks currently have the best defense in the NBA and have founded their success on locking down their opposition, holding teams to a shooting average of 43.3% from the field as well as only 32% from behind the arc (ESPN). One of the oldest philosophies in sports is “defense wins games”, and Thibodeau’s Knicks have proven first hand at how successful that approach can be.
However, on the other hand, the Knicks have not nearly had the same luck or success offensively. Sitting dead last in the league in points scored with 102.2 per game, the Knicks are also posting one of the worst field goal percentages in the league as well (44.5%) and have scored under 90 points in 5 different games this season (ESPN). Outside of Mitchell Robinson, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle, and Austin Rivers, everyone else on the Knicks is shooting 43% from the field or lower, which is largely why they’ve come up short 13 times this season (ESPN).
That said, the important detail to take note of here is that it’s one thing if you’re only taking an average of about 4-8 shots per game, such as guys like Obi Toppin (4.7 FGA), Kevin Knox (5.5 FGA), and Reggie Bullock (8.1 FGA) [ESPN]. But when you have your number two scoring threat in RJ Barrett, who takes an average of 15.5 shots per game (the second-most on the Knicks, mind you) but is only shooting 43% from the field along with 27.4% from 3-PT range, it’s a completely different ballgame that can have a far greater impact on your team’s offensive success, and it’s showed with the Knicks (ESPN).
In addition, Randle is also carrying a large load of the playmaking responsibility the Knicks need on offense, and as a result, isn’t constantly leading the charge with their scoring duties. In fact, Randle only averages 16.5 shots per game, which in comparison to Barrett, is not much of a difference from the shooting attempts he musters per game (ESPN).
Ultimately, Barrett’s scoring ability remains to be the biggest reason why the Knicks drafted him third overall in 2019, and as a result, they have become quite dependent on his offensive production. But with an on and off start to his second season where he’s only averaging a solid 17.8 points per game, the magnitude of this concern continues to increase each day that goes by, and it’s becoming somewhat unclear whether this will change at all this year.
Although he’s still very young, Barrett had 56 games under his belt as a rookie along with a lengthy offseason that granted him plenty of time to work on his shot (ESPN). Despite the noticeable progress he’s achieved this season, the next crucial step for Barrett is consistency. And whether he can deliver on that for the Knicks has become a dawning concern.
But all things considered, it seems that the lingering uncertainty with Barrett’s shooting woes appears to be a short-lived issue for now. In fact, over the month of January, Barrett presented the Knicks with encouraging signs of improvement and particularly with his shooting efficiency. Knocking down 45.9% of his shots from the field along with a much better 35.1% from behind the arc, Barrett averaged 18.8 ppg over a 16-game stretch during the month of January, demonstrating just how big of a difference a little progress can make (ESPN).
However, what continues to be the ever-present factor that will develop Barrett into the scorer the Knicks need, is the growth of his confidence and experience in the NBA. Coming out of high school and college where he was in a league of his own and had the ease of playing against opponents that were around his age and size, the NBA, on the other hand, is home to the best players and defenders in the world and has presented Barrett with a much bigger learning curve.
Back in high school and college, Barrett had the liberty of implementing his creativity and style of play at will, but in the NBA, he’s frequently caught himself forcing shots and has struggled to find and create high percentage shooting opportunities. This really showed over the course of his rookie season, but throughout the month of January, has significantly improved. His progress might not be fast enough for some, and that’s understandable. But because Barrett is only 20 years old, the development he’s mustered so far is a good sign of what’s to come in the near future.
In a MSG Network press conference interview following their victory against the Cavaliers last Friday, Thibodeau had high praise for Barrett’s play this season, expressing just how much he brings to the table:
“I think he’s playing with a lot of poise. From the beginning of the season, the rebounding and the playmaking has been there. He’s getting to his spots, he’s making the right reads, whether he should shoot or pass, and he can score so many different ways. He can score in transition, he can score in the pick n’ roll, he scores off the handoff, he can score in the post, and he can score off catch and shoot. But also, to put pressure on the defense, force the defense to collapse, and then make the right read and open up the three-point game for us. So I really like the way he’s playing. He’s playing very well off people, he’s playing very unselfishly, and he’s playing both sides of the ball.”
When all is said done, it’s important to keep in mind that Barrett has still so much to learn and experience in the NBA, and to think that he’s going to be shooting lights out by the end of the season, is certainly a stretch. In other words, will Barrett finish the year with a 45% field goal percentage or higher? Most likely not. But consistency like that is a work in progress and is closely linked to one’s ability to synchronize their developing talent with their understanding of the league and level of competition they face on a regular basis. Essentially, it can be difficult to build consistency when you’re still so new to your environment, and that acclimating process requires time. Although Barrett might not be able to muster much more than 44% from the field this year, the fact that it’s up over his 40% from last season is growth nonetheless that he will continue to build on. Though the lack of consistency might be worrisome, the Knicks (as Thibodeau confidently reassured) have nothing to be concerned about regarding RJ Barrett’s shooting and scoring ability.