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RJ Barrett is off to a torrid start to the season, but we’ve seen this movie before. Barrett is human confirmation bias: even now, in his best season, it’s easy to see exactly what you want to see in Barrett.
Has he really taken a leap this year, or is it simply an earlier-than-usual Barrett hot streak? I decided to lay out the case for and against Barrett with help from Hopeful Hal and Grumpy Gus.
Hopeful Hal: It’s easy to see that Barrett is making a bit of a leap in his fifth year.
Barrett is setting personal marks in points (22.6), assists (3.1), and three-point percentage (50%!) despite playing fewer minutes than he has since his rookie year. Lineups with Barrett have been in the 95th percentile leaguewide in both offensive and defensive rating; similarly, while on/off stats are unreliable this early in the year, it has to mean something that the team is useless on both ends when Barrett is off the court this season.
There could be a reason for his hot start from deep. Barrett reportedly changed his form over the summer, as analyzed in excruciating detail by The Strickland. Barrett shot 19/51, 37.3%, from the slightly closer FIBA three-point line — not quite his hot start to this season, but still an encouraging sign.
Grumpy Gus: He was also just 6-for-21 from deep in the preseason, and he’s been consistently below average throughout his career, so…
Hopeful Hal: *coughs* It’s the preseason, man! And Barrett hasn’t been shooting unsustainably on closely-guarded shots, either. He’s only even attempted two triples that weren’t considered “open” or “wide open,” speaking to his wiser shot selection.
He’s become better at floating around on the three-point line to open up clean passing lanes from his teammates:
Defenses haven’t adjusted to his accuracy yet, and he’s making them pay with warm-up shots. It’s a win-win: either teams ignore him on the perimeter, so he keeps getting easy looks, or they start guarding him tighter out there, opening up congested driving lanes.
Barrett is finishing a career-best 61% of his shots at the rim and 41% from floater range, and he is averaging a beastly 1.53 points per transition possession. His right hand looks better than ever, which is a low bar, but he’s looked better going in the devil’s direction, too.
This Knicks team doesn’t exactly provide Barrett a preponderance of space in which to operate. He’s consistently met by a wall of bodies in the paint, so the fact that he’s looked better operating in traffic matters a great deal.
Grumpy Gus: Those are all numbers, for sure. If we’re just spewing out stats, it’s worth noting that just 34% of his shots are at the rim, by far a career-low (although admittedly a solid number overall). That’s worked fine, thanks to his incendiary start to the season on threes. But that’s the sort of shift that can tank efficiency stats if the three-point percentage retreats too much.
That tick downward in rack attacks has also caused Barrett to draw fewer free throws — his 4.7 free throw attempts per game would be his fewest since the 2020-21 season.
Hopeful Hal: You left out that he’s making a superb 84.8% of his free throws (and went 18-for-21 in the preseason, too!).
But free throws are boring to talk about. The most interesting part of Barrett’s improvement this season is that he’s clearly trying to make quicker decisions. His 2.65 seconds and 2.11 dribbles per touch are by far the lowest figures of his career. Interestingly, he never receives the ball on the elbows or in the paint. He’s entirely a perimeter player now, and he’s doing more with less.
His improvement isn’t in the number of “wow” plays; it’s in the lack of woeful ones. There are fewer record scratches, fewer possession-eating dribbles to nowhere.
He still sizes up the defense a tad too long. Nobody will ever accuse RJ Barrett of being a 0.5-second player. But he’s consistently making the simple passes he missed for so long, and like a magic carpet, it’s opened a whole new world for the Knicks’ offense.
Grumpy Gus: Maybe that’s true, but it’s not like he’s creating major advantages with his playmaking: despite his slightly increased assist rate, his potential assists are down from last year. This means his tiny uptick in assists is more likely due to teammate shooting luck than any intrinsic passing improvement.
And for all that talk of improved decision-making, his pick-and-roll numbers aren’t great! In 44 P&R possessions, Synergy says he’s only generating .818 points per possession, in the 23rd percentile. Those are way down from last year.
Hopeful Hal: 44 possessions are barely worth looking at, and the eye test says that Barrett’s passing is better (do you even watch the games, Gus?). He’s showing a new command of the pick-and-roll, putting defenders on his back and consistently showing vision he rarely did before. Watch the patience here as Barrett waits for Hartenstein to free up before delivering a nice little pocket pass:
The Knicks have integrated a little more movement into Barrett’s role, too, and he’s been involved in more hand-offs than ever before (at the expense of spot-up opportunities). He’s taking and making right-handed layups, which is new, and his floater game is developing nicely. I’ll take a teardrop runner over driving in a straight line into the wall of defenders ignoring Julius Randle and flinging up an ugly lefty layup!
Grumpy Gus: You know what I would take? A rebound. It would be great if Barrett didn’t consistently miss box-outs and deigned to grab a defensive board.
Hopeful Hal: It’s still early, and that’ll stabilize. If you want to talk about regression, remember that Barrett has never averaged fewer than four defensive rebounds. I doubt he’ll start now (although, yes, the box-outs would be nice).
Despite the lack of boards, Barrett’s defense has improved this season! RJ’s been better on the ball than ever before, and if not lockdown, certainly above-average. He has solid physical tools and is usually in the right spots at the right times. The team doesn’t hesitate to put him on elite wings — he credibly guarded Jayson Tatum (allowing just 1-for-5 shooting as the closest defender) in their opening night matchup, and he also did well against Paul George and Brandon Ingram, among others.
It’s only been seven games, but it’s worth noting that his foul rate has been impossibly low — he’s only averaging 1.1 lawbreaks per game. Foul avoidance is an underrated part of playing strong defense.
Grumpy Gus: He never fouls because he never does anything! Not to sound like a casual, but it would be nice if he’d make a defensive highlight at some point. Barrett remains one of the league’s least effective defensive playmakers — his block and steal rates are perpetually among the league’s worst, as we talked about a bit here, and he only averages 1.1 deflections per game. The Bucks’ rookie, Andre Jackson Jr., has averaged 1.3 deflections across his six games and only plays eight minutes per contest!
While I concede his on-ball defense has been positionally solid, off the ball, he still looks like a man without a map. Watch him get so lost that he literally spins like a top trying to find his mark:
Even if the teamwide defensive numbers look great when he’s on the court, that’s due primarily to teams shooting an abysmal 29% from three while Barrett’s out there. I doubt he’s single-handedly forcing opponents to shoot like my nephew’s grade-school team.
Hopeful Hal: You have a nephew??? Anyway, you take what improvement you can get. This is perhaps the best Barrett has looked on that end and the first time I can confidently say he’s been a defensive asset overall.
Look: we’re diving deep into the weeds without acknowledging that he’s been, to this point, consistent and reliable. He’s scored 24 or 26 points in five of his seven games, and the team is 5-2 when he plays (including a feisty season-opening loss to Boston). Some three-point regression is coming, for sure. But Barrett has looked like a new man since last year’s playoffs. While the shooting determines his ceiling, the defense determines his floor, and right now, his floor at least requires some stairs to reach.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that Barrett is doing all this on a balky knee he tweaked in the first game of the season after a ferocious dunk. If that heals up, he could be even more effective around the rim and defensively.
Grumpy Gus: Or it could linger all —.
Hopeful Hal: I’m gonna stop you there. No bad juju today.
Is Barrett for real this season? He isn’t going to be this good all year long, but there are genuine reasons to believe he’s made incremental improvements as a decision-maker and as an on-ball defender. We’ve already seen him shine in the playoffs, and he looks even better now. If the shooting touch stays solid, Barrett could become the third-best player on a contending team — if he’s not there already.
Grumpy Gus: He’s not there already, and that’s a Garden-sized “if.” There’s a world of difference between Barrett ending up as, say, a 39% shooter from deep versus plateauing as a 35% shooter (which would still be the second-highest mark of his career, mind you). 39% opens up driving lanes for Barrett, Brunson, and Randle; 35% closes them off. How confident are you that he’s the former and not the latter?
Hopeful Hal: I bet your nephew hates you.