25-under-25: How far can R.J. Barrett carry the New York Knicks?

25-under-25, New York Knicks

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R.J. Barrett signed a four-year extension during the offseason with the Knicks and could be on the cusp of a breakout season. 

R.J. Barrett is no stranger to disrespect. As soon as he was drafted by the New York Knicks with the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, it began. Because of the team that he’s on and the market that he’s in, being criticized is an obstacle that Barrett’s had to become accustomed to in his first three years in the league.

The 2022 offseason brought more disrespect than ever towards Barrett, who agreed to sign a four-year extension before Donovan Mitchell was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. With New York once again missing out on another star, the spotlight on Barrett has gotten brighter due to the organization placing its future in the hands of the 22-year-old.

Barrett’s extension has left many asking the same question — Is R.J. Barrett worth it? Those five simple words have been the cause of many heated debates, and those debates will continue as the Knicks begin the 2022-23 season.

Will R.J. Barrett help propel the Knicks back to relevancy?

New York’s 2020-21 season was anything but ordinary. From Julius Randle being named an All-Star for the first time and winning the NBA Most Improved Player award to Tom Thibodeau winning the NBA Coach of the Year title, the Knicks had one of the best years in recent memory. It was all tied together with a playoff appearance, New York’s first since the 2012-13 season.

Everything that went right for the Knicks in 2020-21 went wrong in 2021-22. New York found itself at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a 37-45, just out of reach of the play-in tournament. During a year full of more downs than ups, fans became more attached to R.J. Barrett.

In what’s now an infamous story, Barrett texted his trainer Drew Hanlen on New Year’s Eve last year and vowed that he was going to reach his goal of averaging 20 points per game. From there, R.J. went on a tear and averaged 23.6 points, 6.0 points, and 3.5 assists in 41 games to close out the season. Barrett adjusted his game by finding ways to get to the rim, and in 2022, he averaged 7.7 points in the paint.

In 20 games from Jan. 17 to Mar. 4, the Knicks went 3-17, and while frustrations with Randle heightened, Barrett proved to be a source of promise for a lowly fan base.

On Feb. 25, Barrett dropped a career-high 46 points against the Miami Heat in a 115-100 loss at Madison Square Garden. He etched his name in history as the second Knick 21 years or younger to record a 40+ point game, which is something that hasn’t been done since Carl Braun did so in 1947. Following the game, Miami’s own Jimmy Butler recognized Barrett’s efforts and said that he wasn’t surprised. Butler took things a step further by saying that Barrett was going to be the face of the franchise.

Ironically enough, during New York’s Media Day, Barrett said that he wants to play more like Butler. Instead of primarily focusing on his jump shot, which is a weakness of his, R.J. spent the offseason working on his decision-making with the ball, his finishing, and his free throws.

With the Kemba Walker experiment fizzling out and Derrick Rose missing the majority of the year with an ankle injury, New York heavily relied on Barrett to handle the ball last season. That affected him on both ends of the court, most notably on the defensive end. But now, for the first time in nearly two decades, the Knicks have a true point guard in Jalen Brunson. His addition will benefit the team as a whole, but it’ll also allow R.J. to take his game to the next level.

Although one of Barrett’s goals entering the season is to earn his first All-Star honor, his value to the Knicks extends off the court. Because he was drafted in the first round and signed an extension with New York, he snapped the Charlie Ward curse. For reference, Ward signed his extension back in 1999. Barrett signifies change to a fan base that’s been desperate for something good. The Knicks didn’t sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the summer of 2019, nor did they draft Zion Williamson, but they were able to draft R.J. Barrett. Looking back, that summer played out in New York’s favor.

After watching Carmelo Anthony come and go without bringing a championship to NYC, the hope is that eventually, Barrett will be able to lead the Knicks to the promised land. It’s a process that can’t (and won’t) be completed overnight, but patience is a virtue. The best way to construct a team is to build through the draft, which hasn’t been easy for the Knicks to do in the past with their failed lottery picks. However, RJ Barrett — disrespect and all — is out to change the culture.

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