2019-20 Rookie Review: RJ Barrett Has Superstar Potential But Needs Work

By Matt Esposito

In 7th grade Health class my teacher, Mr. Green, knew students would have opinions on the difficult topics we were covering. To protect identities, he made us use an, “I know someone who…” model.

Well, I know someone who argued that RJ Barrett has a greater chance at becoming a top tier player than Ja Morant. This person made a solid case, too! Yet, this person also recognizes that Morant performed far better than Barrett this season. But he still believes RJ could be the better long term prospect.

Okay, you got me. I am that person. and if I have any credibility left with you so far, I urge you to read on. Uncover what Barrett did well this year. Learn about the aspects of his game that could hold him back from fulfilling his potential. Finally, for dessert, read expert opinions on his rookie campaign.

Pick & Roll Playmaking

There are a lot of analytics folks in the nerdery right now who will grow upset when I discuss Barrett’s pick and roll passing as a strength. After all, he finished in he 23rd percentile for pick and roll ballhandling this year. This is where game film comes in handy, people.

RJ ran pick and roll with a frequency rate of 27.7 percent this year; an impressive number for a rookie who is not a nominal point guard. Now, the Knicks surely lacked a traditional, effective offensive initiator. This played a role in Barrett’s high PnR usage. It also suggests, however, that New York may wisely be considering him as their primary initiator.

I’ll give you a second to recover from reading wisely in a complimentary sentence about the Knicks. It surprised me too. So, let’s turn to the film. RJ showed wonderful patience in the pick and roll. What’s more, his vision is truly elite for someone of his size and position. He slings difficult, one-handed passes and can do so with either hand. There is remarkable potential here.

Drawing Fouls

As a rookie, Barrett’s shooting efficiency proved to be lacking. He had some hot streaks from the perimeter but ultimately left fans wanting. You are correct to question if RJ will ever become an efficient shooter, especially from deep. Yet, his ability to get to the line could greatly mitigate that deficiency.

Barrett had a Free Throw Attempt Rate (FTr) that was better than Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Chris “State Farm” Paul, and Russell Westbrook. Just like that, I won back the analytics crowd. Why is FTr important? Free throws are easy ways to score points and help maintain efficiency for players with average or struggling shooting percentages. It’s one of the main reasons Carmelo Anthony was once revered as a scorer.

How does RJ get to the line so much? Keeping defenders off balance is key. He deploys crossovers, hesitations and some sexy footwork that gives him what amounts to a running start despite being in a standstill. Plus, Barrett loves to barrel into dudes (more on this later.) Now, he must learn to make those freebies at a clip north of 61.4 percent!

Capitalizing On His Brute Strength

Dating back to his college days, RJ has loved to bully around other players. He is built with a frame to pack on even more muscle or good weight. It is one of the reasons he loves attacking the paint. According to Cleaning The Glass, Barrett placed in the 91st percentile for field goal attempts at the rim.

Yet, he is having a hard time converting once there, as evident in his 21st percentile ranking for at rim field goal percentage. Sure, Barrett’s playing style is a coach’s dream but why is he struggling to finish these plays?

Below, watch Barrett create some serious separation with his body during drives. He routinely bumps players off him or sends them into a vulnerable defensive position.

Still, he finds it difficult to convert. He does a good job at administering the physicality but often opts into a handful of counterproductive scoring moves. These include moving away from the rim during layups, spinning into his non-dominant hand or jumping back into the man e just dislodged. Barrett must grow learn how to finish after doing the hard part.

3-Point Shooting

There was a moment when I thought Barrett had maybe figured out how to become a legitimate 3-point shooter. His percentage trend throughout the season tells a different story, one which shows a streaky shooter who has the potential to at least be league average from deep (which is all he needs, by the way!)

Courtesy of Cleaning The Glass

Some may look at this and chalk it up to the inconsistency that most rookies endure during their first pro season. But the tape suggests Barrett is in need of some serious fine tuning. Specifically, he must figure out what on God’s green Earth he is doing wit his guide hand. Pay special attention to it in the clip below.

Showing up to work with your shirt on backwards is bad, but it isn’t alarming. My coworkers will back me up on this. Having your guide hand collide with your shooting and after the release, however, is most definitely alarming.

RJ’s concern for what his right hand does during his shot is palpable. Nothing about it looks natural, as if he is actively thinking about it when taking the jumper. Fortunately for the Knicks, Barrett is already a notoriously hard worker and can call on his godfather, Steve Nash, to help him out.

Offseason To-Do List

I’m still incredibly high on Barrett as a prospect. His style of play is ripe for stardom and analytical success. He gets fouled, go hard into the paint often, and can create easy, high percentage scoring chances for his teammates. Plus, he is willing to take 3-pointers.

Yet, Barrett must improve his free throw shooting if he wants to cash in on his great FTr. Additionally, he needs to work on converting at the rim. Of course, his 3-point woes are well documented. There is one more area of improvement, however; one that should leave New York fans encouraged.

RJ demonstrated that he can create space to get off his own jumper Did he sink a lot of these? Heck no. But he has some wiggle to his game and knows how to send defenders in the opposite direction of where he is going.

BONUS: What Are The Experts Saying?

Although I’m a bit closer to New York than Boston, I’m a Celtics fan at heart. So, I reached out to some real New Yorkers for their opinions. The type of Empire Staters who think Timberland boots are religion and that FUBU still has time for a fashion comeback.

Geoffrey Campbell – Elite Sports NY

“For me Barrett embodies NY basketball. His game meshes the spirit of a construction worker clocking in for a day’s work with the gracefulness of Fred Astaire. Barrett has no problem working hard for his points and his decision making, in tight spaces, has been impressive, given his age. RJ makes plenty of advanced reads in the PnR and has proved to be much more a willing passer than his than his days at Duke would’ve suggested. But for me Barrett’s maturity is probably his most impressive trait. He forgets bad possessions, stays focused on the defensive end, and doesn’t let bad shooting affect the other parts of his game.”

Chip Murphy – Hoops Habit

“I thought RJ played really smart, aggressive basketball especially for a rookie. He showed no fear in attacking the rim despite his struggles to convert on drives. That should come in time. RJ needs more touches. There was too much Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton this year. He needs to improve his shot but he’s a 19-year-old rookie and what rookie doesn’t struggle with their shot? Also, the free throw shooting really improved after a terrible start. That’s a good sign.

Jonathan Macri – Knicks SI & The Step Back

“I’d say the two things that stood out the most is that for one, nothing was ever too big for him – the moment, the NBA game, the New York media, not being put in an ideal situation basketball-wise (and that’s putting it kindly) – he took it all in stride.”

“While the shooting (from both outside and in close) was obviously an issue, I think RJ showed a very good ability to draw fouls, but despite that being the part of his game that came easiest this year, he never drove with his head down. That’s not to say he didn’t miss a pass from time to time, but he developed a nice connection with Mitchell Robinson. His touch on lobs was that of a point guard…really solid.”

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for Theplaygrounder.com and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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