New York Knicks‘ second-year wing RJ Barrett’s chip on his shoulder is getting bigger by the day.
Anthony Edwards’ mockery of his missed game-winning shot.
But each time Barrett is getting snubbed and mocked, he rises.
The 20-year old Barrett has blossomed to become the New York Knicks’ No. 2 option behind All-Star Julius Randle from a questionable third overall selection after his uneven rookie season.
“My game speaks for itself,” Barrett said Friday ahead of his matchup with last year’s Rookie of the Year Ja Morant. “You know you can go and look at my numbers and our team’s success. It doesn’t really matter as long as I keep getting better as a player every day. I’ll be happy.”
For the first time in the last seven years, the Knicks are playing meaningful games this late in the season, and a big part of that is because of Barrett’s much-improved play.
His numbers have all gone up.
Entering Friday’s game, he’s averaging 17.5 points on 45/38/74 shooting splits with 5.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists against only two turnovers in 34 minutes.
Last season, he averaged 14.3 points on 40/32/61 shooting splits with 5.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists against 2.2 turnovers in 30.4 minutes.
His questionable jump shot has become a vaunted weapon in his arsenal.
“During the summer, I made little tweaks and adjustments, but I’m just getting reps,” Barrett said.
But he was quick to add: “All credit to my teammates. You see, Julius gets in there. Sometimes he’s halfway into a shot and kicks it out, and I get wide-open shots, wide-open looks. I mean, when you get wide-open looks like that from your teammates, it’s kind of like just breakfast.”
Since the All-Star break, Barrett is averaging 20 points on 47/44/75 shooting splits.
According to NBA.com tracking data, his three-point attempts increased from 3.3 to 4.3 per game, with two of those attempts coming from a Randle pass. During the same stretch, Barrett has been the top recipient of Randle’s playmaking with 19.5 percent frequency resulting in 11.9 passes and 2.3 assists per game.
In contrast, Barrett only ranked second (16.5 percent) to Elfrid Payton (25.8 percent) among recipients of Randle’s passes during the first half of the season.
The improving chemistry between the Knicks’ top two guys has pushed Barrett to take another leap. Barrett is making 53.3 percent of his three-point attempts coming directly from Randle since the All-Star break.
“I don’t know if I’m surprised because I see the time he’s put into it,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “And when we’ve been home, he usually comes in every night to shoot and get extra shooting in. He’s really worked hard improving the shot, and I think he’s gotten real comfortable behind the line. And I also think his teammates are also doing a good job looking for him. We’ve had good rim reads and a lot of spray-outs, so they’re good-rhythm 3s.”
His game-tying three-pointer with 54.6 seconds left in their loss to the Celtics came off a Randle kick-out pass underneath the basket.
“He’s coming into his own and knowing who he is as a player,” Randle said. “Down the stretch, he’s getting to his spots. He’s playing well. Very comfortable and continuing to grow as a player.”
It was a catch-and-shoot, wide-open shot—the kind of shot Thibodeau wanted his team to take.
This season, Barrett has been shooting 38.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3’s, a significant uptick from 33.8 percent last season, per NBA.com. Since the All-Star break, he’s hitting it with much better accuracy at 43.3 percent on four attempts per game.
For Thibodeau, it’s not only about the volume of outside shots. It’s the quality.
“We just don’t want to take any three. We want to make sure that they’re good threes, where it allows us also to get back and get our defense set,” Thibodeau said. “So there’s a combination of the two things, but I’m very pleased with his overall progress, and I think he’ll continue to grow.”
That clutch 3 in Boston was Barrett’s redemption after his unforced error over the previous play that led to a Jaylen Brown fastbreak layup.
“After I had that turnover in the game against Boston, during timeout I went to the bench, and the whole team, everybody picked me up,” Barrett said. “I have to get it back. And then, you know, the next play, I made the shot and tied the game. So it’s great to have vets like that around.”
Thibodeau’s player development revolves around accountability. He doesn’t dole out playing time like it’s a gift.
Earned, not given.
It’s the opposite of the rebuilding that some teams and fans prefer, much like in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder management decided to shut down Al Horford and shipped away their other veterans to develop their rookies with a long leash on the floor but without veteran guidance.
Rookies Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski, the undrafted sophomore big man Moses Brown and the Thunder young core have been putting insane numbers. But have also been routinely losing by a wide margin.
Barrett prefers the Knicks’ current rebuilding style, where they have a shot at winning each game, learning from pressure-packed situations.
Thibodeau and the Knicks front office have surrounded their young core with veterans who they can lean on and learn from.
“Most definitely,” Barrett said when asked if he’s benefiting from playing and sharing the floor with veterans. “They know a lot. The coaching staff knows a lot. So you know I’m kind of like a sponge every day. I’m going in and getting the chance to grow and make mistakes and keep learning. So it’s great to have vets. They always pick you up.”
Barrett made it known he wasn’t happy with the snubs. He laughed off Edwards’ comments.
So let the snubs and mocks keep on coming because Barrett likes to turn those chips into fuel. Like the wide-open looks. Like it’s breakfast.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo