RJ Barrett Is Making Strides On The Path To Stardom

Updated: November 9, 2021
RJ Barrett Pic

Few asides from New York Knicks fans and dedicated Canadian hoop heads will remember the following words:

“He’s going to work in the offseason, he’s going to get bigger, he’s going to get stronger, he’s going to get more skilled. We’re just scratching the surface of who he’s going to be.”

These were the words of Rowan Barrett Sr. moments after an emotional embrace with his son RJ, following his selection No.3 overall by the New York Knicks in 2019. Looking back it reads less as a prediction and more as a pact: RJ is going to do these things, he’s going to improve, he’s going to constantly work and add both to his game and his body. That’s the deal. That’s who he is.

If you happened to be watching RJ when the Knicks visited the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday, October 30th, you’d have seen the results of that work. The Knicks, who have struggled to hold leads so far this season, were in a nailbiter against the depleted Pelicans. And in the second half, RJ simply took over. With New York’s other starters struggling, Tom Thibodeau decided to give the keys to RJ. He responded with a career high 35 points on 12-18 from the field, 6-8 from 3, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists, including a stretch in the 4th where he scored 9 straight points to seal the win. 

It was a scene that would have been unthinkable for Barrett just a few short months ago. Even his performance for the Canadian National Team this summer didn’t auger this. Barrett has clearly been in the lab.

So it is that RJ Barrett, entering just his 3rd season a pro, seems to be reaping the benefits of all that hard work. RJ Barrett is on the path to NBA stardom.

Barrett’s no stranger to expectations. Both as the son of Rowan Barrett Sr., the general manager of the Canadian Men’s National Basketball Team and the godson of Steve Nash, Canada’s only MVP, he’s the closest thing that Canada has to basketball royalty. But when he got to New York, he arrived to a textbook scene of dysfunction. 

Like so many top picks before him, Barrett found himself on a rudderless team, crewed by a mishmash of veteran talent that added up to much less than the sum of its parts. The Knicks that year won 21 games, and head coach David Fizdale was fired after a 4-18 start.

Barrett himself still frequently refers to what he feels was his snubbing from the NBA All-Rookie Team in his first season, but in reality, his counting stats that season were overshadowed by worrying inefficiency. Media and fans both inside and out of New York were prepared to write him off already. But Barrett stayed the course.

As reported by Michael Grange, RJ built his own Bubble to work on his game in Florida while the rest of the NBA played out the remainder of the 2019-20 season in Disney World. There, he and his trainer Drew Hanlon (who also works with NBA stars including Jayson Tatum and Zach LaVine) tweaked RJ’s mechanics.  Accounting for the fact that as a left-handed shooter, they made the non-traditional decision to actually move his elbow slightly further out – allowing him to get his hand better positioned under the ball.

RJ and Hanlon actually made the same adjustment to his shot before his rookie season, but the Knicks coaching staff then headed by then soon-to-be-fired David Fizdale forced him to return to his traditional mechanics in training camp. The disruption to RJ’s shooting plans now seem an obvious explanation for his poor efficiency that season, but a full offseason to recommit to the new form paid off. Big time.

Barrett ended up shooting over 40% from the floor as a sophomore, an elite mark, making an unheard of jump from Russell Westbrook levels of inefficiency to one of the top spot-up shooters in the NBA. Combined with his strength, wing size, and commitment to defense, he was immediately an impact player for a Knicks team that made a Cinderella run to the 4 seed in the East.

Still, even with this massive shooting increase, there were noticeable holes in Barrett’s game. Despite being one the NBA’s best at breaking into the paint, he was struggling to finish at the rim. He was so pedestrian from this normally high efficiency spot that he had an effective field goal percentage of below 50% on the season, despite his newfound effectiveness from deep.

And the respect for RJ’s game didn’t keep pace with his development either. ESPN left him off their Top 25 under 25 list. Seth Parthnow of the Athletic further inflamed Knicks fans when he neglected to include RJ in his tiers-based list of the top 125 players in the NBA. There were murmurs that the Knicks were a fluke, and that the shooting transformations made by RJ and Julius Randle were the result of empty arenas. But a closer look at the numbers told a different story, as RJ’s 3-point shooting came on stronger later in the year, as fans were back in Madison Square Garden and arenas around the NBA.

But the criticisms of RJ’s finishing were valid. The same concerns had dogged him since Duke. RJ’s poor finishing wasn’t happening in a vacuum though. He had among the worst surrounding spacing for any player of his position. Of the 2511 minutes Barret played in 2020-21, 2195 were while he shared the floor with Elfrid Payton, who was a complete non-shooter and limited passer.

RJ entered this season with big expectations, the talent around him had improved dramatically with the acquisitions of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, and the team had let go of their best perimeter defender in Reggie Bullock. RJ was going to get the toughest opposing player every night, and the offense – where he might be even a 3rd or 4th option – was considered an afterthought.

And he’s met the challenge. RJ has made life hell for the likes of Jayson Tatum and DeMar DeRozan, leading to two critical wins against the Celtics and the Bulls.

But starting in that Chicago game, RJ seemed to have something figured out. It wasn’t just that he was hitting outside shots anmore, suddenly when he was getting to the hoop – he was finishing with ease. RJ’s previous high around the rim for a season was 55%, well below league average and particularly poor for his wing designation per Cleaning the Glass. 

So far this season through 8 games though, RJ is scoring on an absurd 72% of his attempts at the basket – a leap from 23rd percentile to the top 71th percentile of all wings. Barrett is currently making a jump as a finisher that is almost as big as the one he took as a 3-point shooter from his first to second year. This way lays the path to stardom.

So how is he doing it?

Only 3 of RJ’s buckets at the rim have been the result of uncontested or lightly contested breakaway dunks, even taking those out of the equation, he’s shooting 23/32 – or 69%. Ironically, many of Barrett’s misses came in the exact kind of high efficiency situation one would expect to be buoying his numbers – open floor attacks against backpedaling opponents.

While most of these buckets came with Barrett’s dominant left hand, a few were two handed dunks, and six of those finishes came with his right hand – a big deal for a player who came into the NBA so left-hand dominant.

In RJ’s first two seasons he often struggled to use glass. He’d frequently put too much force on the ball, either because his drive carried his momentum into the shot or he wasn’t putting enough spin on the ball. It led to a lot of bad misses off the backboard.

This season though, there’s something noticeably different about Barrett’s forays to the rim. RJ has seriously elongated his strides, so while his first gather step is still typically about a foot or so in the paint, he’s making a more fluid movement to the rim. While he’s covering the same distance, instead of a shuffling drive to the hoop, his longer strides allow him a different cadence of motion.

Those longer strides are letting him wrong foot his defender more often too, rather than a straight line drive, opponents are charged with stopping a moving target as Barrett Euro steps to the basket. And he’s so strong that when he’s attacking the hoop from the right side, he can gather step left – bumping his opponent off balance, then return to his right foot for an open layup. He’s figuring out how he can use his unique tools to create quality looks at the rim, using his combination of physical strength and Harden-like deceleration.

It’s cliche to say that the game is slowing down for a developing player, but the game appears to be moving at a glacial pace for RJ in his third year. Year on year he’s added to his game, building on a foundation of defense, he’s added shooting, and now a path to efficient finishing. It’s no longer foolhardy to see All-Star games in Barrett’s future.

And for all that, what RJ’s dad said on draft night remains true. We’re just scratching the surface of what this kid could be.

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