RJ Barrett has been in the spotlight since high school. Now, he’s on the New York Knicks. Will his talent shine bright enough to earn Rookie of the Year?
From April to the beginning of July, it’s almost impossible to avoid NBA Draft, NBA Combine or NBA Summer League news, especially for New York Knicks fans. Now that it’s October, quite the opposite is occurring. That said, there are a few weeks left until the beginning of the regular season, so it’s fair to bring those recently drafted rookies – specifically RJ Barrett – back into the spotlight.
Before enrolling at Duke University, Barrett was the top-ranked high school player in his class and was projected to be the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. With the benefit of hindsight, we know he slipped to the No. 3 pick following the selections of Duke teammate Zion Williamson and Murray State point guard Ja Morant.
The Knicks selected the Canadian wing with the franchise’s first top-three selection since Patrick Ewing was selected first in 1985. Barrett enters the season with the third-best odds, +550 according to Oddsshark, of taking home Rookie of the Year honors.
But with two elite rookies in Williamson and Morant in the running, is Rookie of the Year out of the question for Barrett?
Not necessarily, but it’s going to be harder than most believe.
The Knicks had a busy summer, even after missing out on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The organization loaded up its frontcourt with Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson, while also adding guards Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington.
Barrett will have the benefit of playing alongside veteran players, unlike most top picks in recent years. However, this will limit Barrett’s role within the offense and the number of touches and minutes he receives each night.
Since 2010, 10 rookies have been awarded Rookie of the Year honors. Those players, excluding Malcolm Brogdon – who averaged 10.2 points per game, 4.2 assists per game and 2.8 rebounds per game – averaged 18.8 points, 5.1 assists and 6.8 rebounds per game.
Given a lesser role, Barrett may fall short of these averages, while fellow top-three pick Ja Morant is set to be the focus of the Memphis Grizzlies’ offense, giving reason to believe he will tally up plenty of counting stats.
Limited touches and more-than-enough offensive options may be best for Barrett, though. He can use this opportunity to work on two of his biggest flaws: inefficiency and shot selection.
Also, it allows the Knicks to slowly insert Barrett into their offensive schemes, unlike what they did with Kevin Knox. Because of the depleted roster, head coach David Fizdale had no other choice but to play Knox significant minutes as a 19-year-old.
Looking back, we can see that Knox’s workload – seventh-most minutes played by a rookie in 2018-19, according to Basketball-Reference – was a big reason behind his inefficiency and lackluster rookie campaign.
It’s also noted that the lack of talent around Knox was a big reason why he had such a role. Now, with more than enough depth at each position, Barrett shouldn’t endure Knox’s struggles.
So yes, Barrett will benefit from having talent around him, even if it does limit his counting stats. More importantly, though, Barrett’s efficiency will improve. He shot 45.4 percent from the field, 30.8 percent from three and 66.5 percent from the free-throw line in his 38 games at Duke.
Barrett’s 45.4 percent mark from the field is solid for a perimeter-based player, but his 3-point and free-throw percentages are unacceptably low for his position.
Compared to 2018-19 NBA averages, Barrett’s college averages are 0.7 percent below the average field-goal percentage, 4.7 percent below the average 3-point percentage and 10.1 percent below the average free-throw percentage.
Among the past 10 rookies to win Rookie of the Year, eight are considered to be perimeter players like Barrett. These players, excluding Ben Simmons – who failed to make a 3-point shot in his rookie season – shot 44 percent from the field, 33.2 percent from three and 78.6 from the foul line.
Again, Barrett falls short in free throws and 3-pointers but was 1.4 percent above the average field-goal percentage.
It should be noted that Barrett’s averages were accumulated with him being the focus of Duke’s offense alongside Williamson. The aforementioned depth that the Knicks acquired in free agency should boost Barrett’s shooting splits.
Along with improved efficiency, Barrett will benefit from multiple top draft picks being selected to sufficient rosters.
Williamson (No. 1), De’Andre Hunter (No. 4), Jarrett Culver (No. 6), Coby White (No. 7) Jaxson Hayes (No. 8), Rui Hachimura (No. 9), Cam Reddish (No. 10) and 2018 first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14) were drafted to teams with either established players, ample talent or a superior player at one’s position.
That leaves Morant and Darius Garland as the two top-10 rookies with less-than-stellar rosters, allowing them to immediately take on key roles in the offense. Williamson may also find himself in the same boat – playing a key role in the offense – but with Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Lonzo Ball, Derrick Favors, Jaxson Hayes, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram and J.J. Redick in the rotation, he may struggle to consistently be the main focus.
With this in mind, Barrett should be looking at Garland, Morant and Williamson as his competition for Rookie of the Year.
What puts Barrett ahead? Potential efficiency and lack of players with great opportunity. The potential lack of counting stats, though, could ultimately hurt Barrett’s chance and be the reason he loses out on some hardware in his first season.