RJ Barrett ready to become Knicks’ top perimeter defender

RJ Barrett made a leap as a catch-and-shoot player last season. In Year 3, Barrett wanted to be known as a solid two-way player.

Someone has to step up after the New York Knicks lost their top perimeter defender in Reggie Bullock to the Dallas Mavericks in the offseason. Barrett is more than willing to pick up the slack.

“Being a two-way player is something that I’ve always strive for. Something that I want to do. It’s how I want to be known,” Barrett said Monday during the NBA Media Day. “So if coach [Tom Thibodeau] puts me in that position to be that guy guarding the [opposing team’s main] guy every night, I’m all for it. I’m up for the challenge. And I won’t back down.”

It’s also a pathway to reaching one of his other goals — becoming an All-Star in the league.

Last season, Barrett had shown he’s got what it takes to be a defensive force under Thibodeau’s defensive schemes. While everyone has been raving about Barrett’s remarkable shooting improvement (from 32 percent to a 40 percent three-point shooter), his tremendous improvement on defense got buried in the background.

Finally, Barrett’s stocky 6-foot-6 frame was put into good use that resulted in a 3.00 defensive real plus-minus (DRPM), according to ESPN stats. It was the third-highest DRPM among shooting guards behind Los Angeles Clippers’ Paul George (3.89) and Miami Heat’s Duncan Robinson (3.45).

DRPM is the player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions.

Barrett had a -2.68 DRPM during his rookie year, which ranked near the bottom (132nd) in his position.

For comparison, Bullock averaged 3.74 DRPM, the second-best among all small forwards behind Brooklyn Nets’ Joe Harris (4.00) last season.

The Knicks’ projected starting lineup will have Barrett at the wings, joining their new backcourt of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier and a frontline of Julius Randle and Nerlens Noel (while Mitchell Robinson will be eased back into the rotation).

Barrett has the defensive edge over Fournier, who only registered 0.16 DRPM last season, which ranked 32nd. In 2019, Fournier had a slightly better DRPM (0.27). Based on this statistic alone, it’s pretty apparent Barrett will take the most challenging defensive job on most nights.

Offensively, Barrett blossomed into Randle’s Robin to his Batman last season, averaging 17.6 points on 14.7 shot attempts per game. That could take a hit with the arrival of Walker and Fournier. But Barrett also sees this as an opportunity for him to get more open looks which could result in better efficiency. 

Barrett referenced something he saw on Twitter that read like ‘RJ Barrett going to the lane this year,’ and he would be left wide open as an immediate effect of Walker and Fournier’s addition to the team.

“It’s basically how I think it’s gonna be — more attention on other people. All of us can really play. So everyone’s gonna get an opportunity,” he said.

With more space to work on, Barrett projects to take to another leap offensively.

He has worked on his off the bounce game this summer under his trainer Drew Hanlen who has helped develop some of the league’s top wings like Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum.

“Really, I was just working on my shooting, working on threes and certain shots that I need to be able to hit. So yeah, just being able to kind of recreate what I did last year and add on to that,” Barrett said.

Walker and Fournier made the Knicks a deeper team this year. But Barrett also noted that other teams had gotten better.

Chicago Bulls reloaded with Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan. Miami Heat added Kyle Lowry. Boston Celtics re-acquired Al Horford. Three teams that the Knicks leapfrogged last season.

The Knicks were able to address their holes — especially their point guard woes which plagued them when Elfrid Payton was unplayable down the stretch, and the heavy minutes took their toll on Derrick Rose’s body late in the playoffs.

Walker and Fournier could be the Knicks’ answer to their most pressing need, which is more shot creation to an offense that stalled in the playoffs.

“I think it’s great. We really have a team. We have a lot of weapons. That’s what you need,” Barrett said of Fournier and Walker’s signings. “Every night is gonna be different, there’s somebody contributing in a different way. I’m very excited.”

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