R.J. Barrett is leading the Knicks to new heights in playoff chase

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R.J. Barrett is only 20 years old, and yet the former Duke standout is taking center stage for the New York Knicks in their Cinderella playoff chase.

R.J. Barrett isn’t old enough to have a cocktail at Madison Square Garden. But he’s old enough to make it rock.

On Friday night, Barrett had five points through three quarters against the Memphis Grizzlies. He then suddenly erupted, scoring 15 points through the fourth quarter and overtime, including three critical free throws in regulation’s final minute to tie the score. New York wound up winning, 133-129, snapping a two-game skid.

Barrett, 20, was initially a disappointment for the New York Knicks and their fans.

After finishing with the league’s worst record in 2018, they hoped for Zion Williamson in the NBA Draft Lottery. Incredibly — and yet predictably — the Knicks got the third pick in what many believed was a two-star draft, the other being Memphis’ Ja Morant.

After a shaky, COVID-shortened rookie campaign, Barrett has come to the fore. New York is 26-27 and the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed entering the weekend, one of the shocks basketball has given us this spring. While Julius Randle’s All-Star development has rightfully earned top billing, it’s Barrett’s revised ceiling which could be the long-term game-changer for Gotham.

Afterwards, head coach Tom Thibodeau spoke to the media about Barrett’s evolution throughout the first 51 games of this sprint-like campaign. Per Ian Begley of SNY:

“The shooting piece has been huge. And then he’s finishing is vastly improved as well. His all-round play has been terrific. His work ethic is top of the line, his attitude and approach are top of the line. He’s a team-first guy. He’s 20 years old and he’s only going to get better.”

Indeed, Barrett’s shooting has seen considerable growth. In April, he’s unconscious from downtown, knocking down the 3-pointers at an absurd 68.2 percent clip. The delivery and mechanics look bang-on, and the results are coming.

And yet his scoring prowess is more than that. After being reckless with drives at moments last year, he’s far more controlled at the rim in 2021. Last night was a showcase in such growth.

In his first 28 games this season, Barrett averaged 16.1 points per game while shooting 35.1 percent from downtown. In his last 25 games, Barrett’s numbers have jumped to 18.9 points/game while connecting on 48.4 percent on three-balls.

There’s also the free-throw shooting, which after being a ghastly 61.4 percent as a rookie has climbed to 73.4. Finally, Barrett has been immensely durable, playing in each of New York’s 53 games despite Thibodeau playing him 34 minutes per game, ranking 26th in average. However, his 1,802 total minutes check in third, behind Randle and Denver Nuggets’ star Nikola Jokić.

Barrett remains a work in progress for the Knicks, but the signs are pointing to a player with ample ascension ahead.

For now, New York will take the thrill ride, rocking on 33rd Street towards the unlikeliest of playoff berths with its 20-year-old star leading the charge.

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