The sigh of relief quickly turned into excitement when the buzzer sounded at The Garden on Sunday, signaling New York Knicks return to the playoffs after seven dreadful seasons.
RJ Barrett’s 22 points were enough to withstand the Boston Celtics stringers’ late charge to pull off their 41st win of the season. A 20-win jump from last season in which Barrett got snubbed from the All-Rookie Team.
The sophomore wing responded with a giant stride that helped the Knicks’ playoff drive this season.
“It’s great to have brought Knicks fans what they want, brought them back to the playoffs,” Barret said after the Knicks’ regular-season finale.
Julius Randle takes much of the credit for being the engine of this surprising Knicks team, and rightfully so. But beneath his wing is Barrett, who followed his lead and learned to spread his own wings.
There was trepidation that he’d turn into a bust after an uneven rookie season. But Barrett used that as motivation.
He returned this season determined to prove his doubters wrong.
The 2019 NBA Draft was widely believed to yield two superstars on top — Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. Barrett wasn’t even a consensus choice behind the two rookie studs. But Knicks’ GM Scott Perry had a feeling that Barrett is cut in the same cloth and shunned offers to trade down.
Barrett is proving Perry right.
The former Duke star has outraced his more illustrious Draft classmates — Williamson and Morant — in reaching the playoffs.
“This is something I envisioned. This is something I wanted to do,” Barrett said. “I’ve always said I’m a winner. I had a feeling that I’ll be a part of a multiple playoff team.”
All signs point toward that direction. There’s confidence around the league that the Knicks can sustain this newfound success with a new culture in place, synergy in the organization, and large cap space.
Barrett’s rapid improvement is one of the big reasons why the Knicks are ahead of their timeline.
Barrett didn’t miss a game and placed second in the league in minutes played next to Randle. He finished the regular season averaging 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.0 assists in joining Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and Williamson as the only NBA players under 21 who have achieved that feat. But what stood out was his outside shot that was deemed as his weakness even in college.
With the help of his long-time trainer Drew Hanlen, he widened his stance and corrected his hand position and shooting motion.
The result was an unbelievable 8-percent jump in his three-point shooting clip. Barrett is now shooting 40.1 percent of his 3s. He just became the third player aged 20 and under in the NBA history who has shot over 40 percent of his 3s with at least 125 3-pointers. The other two on the list are Bradley Beal and Mike Miller.
Barrett has complemented Randle well as a solid catch-and-shoot threat. Heâ€™s one of the five Knicksâ€™ players shooting at least 40 percent from 3.
“When you look at a guy like RJ Barrett, and he’s only 20 years old, and the way he’s playing and the way he’s growing, I think he’s going to be a special player in this league,” Tom Thibodeau said on Tuesday at the Breakfast Club.
Barrett has drawn comparisons to Thibodeau’s former player Jimmy Butler, who blossomed into one of the league’s stars. But unlike Butler, who was a late bloomer, Barrett has been afforded with opportunity right away. And he’s not shying away from the challenge.
Barrett’s mental makeup is a big part of his major turnaround.
“I had an opportunity to coach with coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) with the Team USA. And when I got hired, I talked to him and learned about RJ,” Thibodeau revealed.
“Everything that he told me about him has been true. His commitment to the team. His commitment to work — how he wanted to learn, how he wanted to grow. Usually, when you get those types of guys, and he’s a gym rat, those guys always get better. He’s driven to succeed.”
Barrett is just starting to scratch his potential. According to Hanlen, Barrett’s next step in his learning curve is to develop a three-point shot off the dribble.
But more than his rapidly developing outside shooting, Thibodeau sees the overall value of Barrett as his true gift.
“He’s put a lot of time into his game. It’s an all-around game that he develops. He drives the ball, pick and roll, he makes plays. Defensively, he really challenges shots; he rebounds the ball. So he’s a complete player, an all-around player. I think he’s got a huge upside,” Thibodeau said.
With Randle expected to draw much of the Atlanta Hawks’ attention on defense, Barrett has the chance to become this playoff’s breakout star.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo