The second-year swingman’s leap has been undeniable all season, no matter how hard we may try to discount it. He’s shown more than enough flashes to warrant the third overall pick, and his potential is up there with the two guys that were drafted ahead of him.

Some players are touted as undeniable franchise cornerstones before they even step foot onto an NBA court. Others force their way into the conversation through sheer force and hard work. Zion Williamson is labeled as the former, whereas his once upon a time Duke running mate has a chance to be labeled as the latter. That’s how impressive his second-year leap has been.  

We’re all familiar with the story by now. RJ was heralded as the top high school prospect upon graduating, but Zion overtook the spotlight after a mesmerizing season at Duke University. So far, throughout his NBA career, he’s been described as a consolation prize and a mediocre one at that.  

Rocky Rookie Season 

Playing for a desperate New York Knicks team doesn’t help to mitigate the scrutiny that he’s endured. Playing for a desperate New York Knicks team that consisted of a hodgepodge of ill-fitting players didn’t help his case either.  

Barrett had to learn to fit into a rotation that prioritized minutes for guys like Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, and Marcus Morris. Yes, I just named four power forwards. The Knicks had a lot of power forwards last year. The team found itself in this odd situation of trying to develop its young guys but also trying to win while allowing their players on expiring contracts to play their way into raising their trade value. It was an odd scene.  

As we all should know, an organization’s foundation is based on the culture that it’s established, and if a rookie; no matter how talented he may be, finds himself in a not-so-ideal environment, then they could be setup for failure. Luckily for RJ, that didn’t stick going into year two.  

David Fizdale (still don’t think that it was his fault) was jettisoned from the sidelines, Leon Rose took over as the president of basketball operations, and possibly most important of all, Tom Thibodeau was hired as the new head coach.  

Sophomore Surge 

It is rare that a player can make sizable improvements in multiple facets of their game throughout their careers. It’s almost unheard of to accomplish said feat in the span of one year. Yet here we are.  

Fortunately, we have quite a bit to unpack, and it only feels right to do so as it will truly illustrate just how impressive RJ has been this year.  

Scoring:

Let’s start with the sexiest and most straightforward stat. Last year, during his rookie season, Mr. Barrett averaged 14 PPG, with shooting splits of 40.2/32/61.4. Now, as we all know, rookies in professional sports are almost always bad. What we’re to focus on are the flashes that they display and how frequently they are triggered. That was not the case with RJ.  

Maybe it’s because he plays in New York, but his game was more so picked apart for not being Zion or Ja, as opposed to the magnificent bright spots that encouraged hope. Fast forward towards the final stretch of his sophomore season, and RJ is averaging 17.7 PPG with splits of 44.8/39.1/74.3. His attempts have hovered around the volume output of his rookie season, with minimal increase and decrease respectively, but his efficiency has SPIKED!  

This isn’t a product of averaging more points because he’s attempting more shots either. Since his output is roughly the same as it was last year, we’re seeing a profound testament to the absolute maniacal work ethic that he is known to exude. RJ is flat out maximizing his role by “simply” making more of the same amount of shot attempts. This is proof that he is fine-tuning his mechanics instead of trying to add more moves to his game.  

With the 3-point shot being heralded in today’s NBA, he’s legitimately gone from a hindrance in that area, to a pseudo sniper in a couple of months. That is mind-boggling! Could it all be a flash in the pan? Sure, why not? But the sample size is only growing larger, and the efficiency continues to rise.  

Let’s go back to the 3-point shot for a little bit. I respect the 3-point shot and I understand its value in smart basketball schemes, but I’m not a huge fan of reliance on the 3-point shot. The best players can sprinkle it into their repertoire (sans Steph).  

RJ isn’t trying to evolve into a marksman. Instead, he’s focused on becoming and staying a competent 3-point shooter. Because of his focus on quality rather than quantity (looking at you Russell Westbrook), he can avoid criticism for the lack of volume, by making sure that he can put the ball through the net efficiently.  

Defense:

There are more players in the NBA that don’t play defense than do. For one, it’s really hard to play defense because offenses are more efficient than ever, and secondly, most players just don’t give that much effort, especially when they have to carry a substantial load on offense. RJ Barrett was not a good defender his rookie season; in fact, he was pretty bad, save for a couple of bright spots.  

However, he has made massive strides in that area. The New York Knicks are fourth in the league in defensive rating while ranking first in points allowed. Across the roster, they have injected quality defenders into the rotation while also benefiting from internal growth. RJ is one of those players. He’s learning and honing the defensive principles of Tom Thibodeau while utilizing his 6’10 wingspan to his advantage.  

I often like to compare him to Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler; not because he’s an elite defender, but because the kid is strong as hell. Jimmy, Kawhi, and RJ aren’t the most athletic wings on the court, but they are often the strongest, and that plays a huge role in how they can control their opponent on the defensive side of the ball.  

According to The Knicks Wall, when Barrett takes the floor, the Knicks’ opponents have an effective field goal percentage of 51.3%. That places RJ in the 93rd percentile amongst wings. For the season, he’s boasting a 110.6 defensive rating. Referencing Kawhi Leonard again as a comparison, Kawhi has a defensive rating of 109.5, while Andrew Wiggins has a defensive rating of 111.3. Kawhi may go down as the greatest wing defender ever, and Andrew Wiggins has grown into one of the best wing defenders in the entire league.  

That is some damn good company to have.  

There’s also more to his defense than the counting stats suggest. The eye test, or the proverbial “sniff” test, paints RJ in a flattering light as a quality defender. Does RJ’s game on that side of the ball still contain holes? Of course. But he’s made almost as noticeable a stride on defense as he has on offense. Again, he’s still only 20 years old.  

Intangibles:

Murmurs have already begun floating around about Barrett’s maniacal work ethic. Praise from both his teammates and his coaches. Now, of course, everyone likes to say that they work on improving certain areas of their game, and that has evolved into monotonous hogwash at this point; but it cannot be denied with this kid. It is evident that he works his ASS off!  

He’s even been quoted as saying “I hate when things aren’t perfect.”  

I cannot stay away from the Jimmy and Kawhi comparisons because it just makes so much sense! Their reputations weren’t built on being the most talented guy, or the most athletic; they were built on being the hardest working guy, the strongest, and developing their skill sets to the point that they could no longer be denied. To make that kind of jump in efficiency on both ends of the floor, in one year is astonishing. And the kid loves the fact that he’s playing at Madison Square Garden.  

The Knicks are fun again. The Knicks are good again. He plays the second-most minutes on the team and averages the 17th most minutes in the entire league. This is after Thibs decided to scale back his minutes. What I’m trying to say is that he contributes a whole lot to the turnaround of this franchise, and he does it all without a peep. He does it with a child-like smile from ear to ear.  

Am I saying he will be better than Zion or Morant? No. But he’s a hell of a lot closer to their realm than we give him credit for. Especially Ja. He’s currently a better shooter and defender than both.  

Perhaps in a few years, when we all look back on how this draft class played out; maybe RJ will finally get to bask in the recognition that he deserves. 

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