If the Knicks want to make their leap, RJ Barrett will have to make his, too.
Last season, Year 1 of Tom Thibodeau, the team found a star in Julius Randle, an identity in a defense-first, grind-it-out bunch and a surprising fourth seed in the Eastern playoffs.
If the Knicks have hopes of making it past the Hawks this year and competing in a conference that projects to be deeper, they can hope Kemba Walker stays healthy, that Evan Fournier is a legitimate upgrade over the departed Reggie Bullock and that they can uncover another budding star to complement Randle.
Their best hope is a third-year shooting guard with All-Star aspirations, a bigger defensive role and a game that has consistently improved since they made him the No. 3 pick in 2019.
“I feel like I have just a little bit more experience, I would say, just a little more comfortable being out there on the floor,” Barrett said about how his game has changed since this time last year. “More comfortable knowing also playing for Thibs where my shots are going to come from, who I’m going to guard, what I’m going to do. Just because my first couple years, I was under a couple different coaches.”
There is little doubt where Barrett resides as a two-way player tasked with upping his offensive profile and locking down the opposing team’s best wing, which was Bullock’s responsibility last year.
From his first to second year, Barrett raised his shooting percentage from about 40 to 44 percent and became a better 3-point marksman (from 32 to 40 percent). He saw the floor more while learning how to play in Thibodeau’s system — which this year will see a stronger focus on shots from the beyond the arc.
This season, the former Duke star wants to build further on the offensive gains while turning his weight gains into a stronger defensive game. His transformation is not quite Mitchell Robinson’s, but Barrett has put on weight, too, in hopes of more properly filling Bullock’s shoes.
“RJ has been terrific with the extra work that he has put in,” Thibodeau said at practice Monday, two days before the Knicks’ season tips off at the Garden against the Celtics. “He’s gotten a lot better. I think he also has experience on his side now. Obviously, the first few times you play against someone, you don’t know them as well as maybe the 40th or 50th time you play against someone.”
The early returns have been promising, and while the preseason does not matter — although it matters at least a little bit to Thibodeau’s 4-0 squad — the 21-year-old continues to do everything a bit better, shooting 48 percent from deep en route to averaging 16.2 points per game.
And yes, there is the fact the Canadian only became legally able to drink in this country in June. Derrick Rose also came to the NBA after one college season and knows about the learning curve. Rose’s first All-Star Game arrived in Year 2. The Knicks hope Barrett’s comes in Year 3.
Rose said Barrett has “crazy goals” for this season. How good can he be?
“Who knows? Nobody knows,” Rose said. “He could be as great as he wants to be.”
Especially on the defensive end, where Barrett “can’t run from any matchup. He’s gotta take the matchup,” Rose said. “Not only that but produce on the other end. If anything, [the added duty is] going to make him a better player, and he’s going to take that challenge.”
Last year Randle took the challenge and elevated himself from a six-year veteran big man to a seventh-year All-Star. Taj Gibson shot much better last season and now is trying to infuse the 3-pointer into his arsenal. Rose had been a poor shooter from deep throughout his career, then expanded his game and put through 41 percent of his 3s after getting traded to the Knicks.
Thibodeau called his group a “bunch of gym rats,” and pointed to their individual games’ growth as reasons for optimism.
But in terms of taking the next step, there isn’t a player better positioned to do so than a guard overlooked on his own college team, when Zion Williamson was the star, and now trying to stand out.
A more experienced, stronger and heavier Barrett could be the difference between the Knicks being respectable or formidable.
“I think the feeling is just to take it further,” Barrett said after last year’s five-game loss to Atlanta. “We got a little taste of what the playoffs are like and just kinda what winning and success is like, and we want more.”