How R.J. Barrett turned a corner in his second season

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New York Knicks wing R.J. Barrett is a much better player in year two, thanks to some improvements in his approach and a breakthrough as a shooter.

For many prospects, especially those not considered stone-cold locks for stardom, that which can tip the scales between success and disappointment is context. Roster construction, schematics, coaching, geographical factors — anything tied to whatever franchise selects someone on draft night — all contribute. With R.J. Barrett, the New York Knicks have not provided a favorable context through his first year and a half.

They’re short on floor-spacers to complement his downhill-oriented offensive approach. A credible lead facilitator, or even various credible secondary ball-handlers, is absent from the roster. He spent much of his first season playing under a lame duck, interim head coach. Their first-round selection of the 2020 NBA Draft was exhausted on a play finisher in Obi Toppin rather than any of the available guard options (Tyrese Haliburton, Kira Lewis or Cole Anthony, for example). That last decision may not prove imprudent, but the process was flawed because it did not prioritize the development of Barrett, whom the franchise used its third overall pick on a year prior.

Despite these factors, the 20-year-old wing is a much-refined player in his second season. The Knicks, too, are significantly better, sitting seventh in the East at 20-19 (half a game back of fourth), touting a Most Improved Player candidate and first-time All-Star in Julius Randle, and owning a top-five defense under new head coach Tom Thibodeau.

They’ve assembled a squad capable of competent basketball, and while it’s still not conducive to fully accentuating Barrett’s maturation, it’s a notable step up from last season. Barrett himself is also adapting to these suboptimal circumstances, exemplifying that a profitable outcome is dependent on both prospect and organization taking ownership, though the latter often skirts responsibility in hindsight analysis.

What’s changed for R.J. Barrett this season?

Compared to year one, he’s averaging more points (25.7 vs. 22.9) per 100 possessions. He has an improved assist-to-turnover ratio (1.56 vs. 1.15). His relative true shooting percentage — how far above or below league-average one’s true shooting percentage is — has risen from minus-8.6 to minus-4.2. He’s shooting five points better from the field (45.2 vs. 40.2), 3.9 points better beyond the arc (35.9 vs. 32.0), 4.8 points better on 2s (48.0 vs. 43.2) and 11.6 points better at the line (73.0 vs. 61.4). As a summation, if you wish, his Estimated Plus-Minus is up from minus-4.6 (443rd overall) to minus-1.5 (246th).

All of this data explains how Barrett is better but not exactly why he is better, the second of which is much more compelling. The numbers are the dish, it’s time to publicize the recipe. Notably, he’s tweaked his approach as a driver, exhibiting greater discretion, savvy and patience.

Last year, too many of his attacks resulted in him barreling into a congested paint, aiming to spark something for himself or others before the possession crumbled. His premier physical asset is his strength for a wing, but he didn’t leverage it in a beneficial manner enough. The Knicks’ cramped offense, and Barrett’s lack of burst, explosive leaping and wiggle, led to many futile field goal attempts at the rim. He’d slither into the lane without a shrewd plan or an improvisational disposition.

Over 40 percent of his shots in the half-court have come at the rim each season, but thriving as an interior scorer is a two-fold process. While he could, and can, frequent the rim, he couldn’t deliver upon arrival because of his own limitations and external influences. This season, he’s craftier and increased his floater volume/success to achieve success, more cognizant of the barriers he and the surrounding context present for him.

Through 39 games, according to Synergy Sports, he’s shooting 50 percent in the half-court at the rim, a minor jump from 45.7 percent in 2019-20. Both rank in the 30th percentile or lower, so they’re poor marks. The small improvement matters because he is showcasing savvy to compensate for athletic deficiencies or a sea of defenders.

Since Jan. 13, a 28-game stretch, he’s shooting 59 percent (92-of-156) in the restricted area, per, after shooting 53.4 percent as a rookie. In the initial 11 games, he shot 50.6 percent (44 of 87). Segmenting more than a quarter of the season may seem like cherry-picking, but a shift has occurred since that cutoff. Smaller samples are more pertinent for young guys than established players, the former of whom have introductions to the NBA and growth curves that can be stark, harsh or rapid.

Over this span, Barrett is applying more patience, counters and deception as a finisher, wrinkles intermittently hinted at prior to this period but short on regularity. He’s isolating defenders on his back using his sturdy, 215-pound frame, slowing and varying his cadence, and allowing plays to develop rather than immediately pressing upon maneuvering into the lane.

The bigger difference between the past two seasons, though, is his runner, which composes 11.8 percent of his half-court shots (8.5 percent last year, 14-of-49 shooting) and he’s knocked down 50 percent of them (75th percentile, 28-of-56 shooting).

While he’s polished his finishing approach, hurdles still exist. That’s why a newfound floater success is critical. When option A is taken away, his touch around the basket is quite underwhelming. He doesn’t have the high-end speed to separate from defenders. His driving routes are often too rounded and indirect, failing to efficiently travel all the way to the bucket and providing helpers time for rotations. Scoring over the top of long-limbed rim protectors is challenging because of poor vertical pop.

So, he’s incorporated a runner to still support a paint-preferred shot profile while mitigating some of the aforementioned shortcomings. It enables him to dictate the type of shots he attempts without defensive interference throwing a wrench into his plan. Unscripted field goals are not his forte. The floater is scripted and aids him.

That 28-game stretch featuring his finishing growth has also ushered a broad scoring leap. He’s averaging 17.5 points on 57.6 percent true shooting (.493/.469/.752 splits) during this interval, solidifying the mechanical changes he worked on in the offseason.

After shooting just 32 percent beyond the arc and 61.4 percent at the line last year, Barrett and his trainer, Drew Hanlen, “rebuilt” his jumper. They streamlined the process from two motions to 1.5, slightly moved his elbow out and aimed for more upright posture. Although the early returns were discouraging, as Barrett hit 9-of-50 3s across the first 11 games of 2020-21, he’s settled into a groove, knocking down 46.9 percent (38-of-81) of his triples over his past 28 games.

These alterations are subtle but existent with a careful eye. Below, the first two shots are from 2019-20. The final two are from this season. Watch the clips a few times if necessary to see his improved posture, which gives him more lift, how he’s reduced how far back he cocks the ball and an added elbow flare. Together, the amendments make for a more fluid and succinct release.

An important step for Barrett is embracing the long ball even more. Despite shooting nearly 47 percent beyond the arc since Jan. 13, his 57.6 percent true shooting is only marginally above league-average, in part because his 3-point rate is .215. Almost 25 percent of his shots have come from inside the paint but outside the restricted area, and he’s shooting 41.7 percent there, which ranks 56th among 87 players with 50-plus attempts during that time.

He’s shooting far worse from a region worth two points than he is from a region worth three points. Trimming down on the frequency of those shots and swapping them for 3s would be a boon for his scoring efficiency.

R.J. Barrett will not turn 21 until mid-June. In molding his game to account for restrictive team- and self-induced factors, his second-year progress should be encouraging for himself, his proponents and the franchise. He’s a better scorer in various ways and more impactful, disciplined passer. The outline of a complementary, multifaceted wing is crystallizing, helping guide the Knicks back to the postseason for the first time in eight years.

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