RJ Barrett is the template. He is the prototype. You want to gauge where the Knicks were, where they are, where they are going? Barrett is the Knicks in miniature. He is the Knicks in a microcosm. Both have come far already. And both can still climb ever higher. The hard part was getting here.
The harder part will be getting there.
Wherever “there” turns out to be.
“He’s made a great jump already,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said of Barrett, his second-year forward. “He’s a gym rat. He’s in the gym all the time.
“Usually the ones who improve are the ones who work hardest to improve.”
That has been Barrett’s quest all season long. It is easy to say he is simply following the lead of Juius Randle, the Knicks’ alpha dog, whose own insatiable work ethic has quickly become a narrative unto itself. Except, this was Mike Krzyzewski talking on the evening of Dec. 18, 2018, in the media dining room at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“When you coach at this level as long as I have,” Krzyzewski said that night, “you are necessarily around a lot of guys who work themselves to the brink. Think of some of the guys who’ve come through here — Bobby Hurley, Jay Williams, JJ Redick, Trajan Langdon. You had to kick them out of the gym.”
“But this kid,” he said, “is something else entirely.”
The kid in question was Barrett, all of 11 games into his college career, all of 18 years old, already overshadowed by his social-media-rock-star teammate Zion Willilamson, but who, that night, dropped 27 on a good Princeton team in a 101-50 dusting. That came at the start of Krzyzewski’s 39th year at Duke, his 44th as a Division I head coach.
Matter-of-factly, Barrett talks about landing in visiting cities, dumping his bags off at the hotel, then finding an open gym where he could shoot. That has been his routine forever. Perhaps it has been helped by a lack of alternate choices in a time of COVID-19 restrictions, but this was a part of him from the start, since Duke, since his rookie year here.
The results, the improvements, are tangible. They are obvious. In a year’s time, Barrett improved on all of these numbers: points (14.3 to 17.6) rebounds (5.0 to 5.8) assists (2.6 to 3.0). His shooting numbers went from 40.2/32.0/61.4 to 45.7/40.1/74.6. His efficiency rating went from 10.7 to 13.4.
The numbers do not lie. But they tell only part of the story.
The eyes tell the rest, and if you’ve seen him this year, you’ve seen a more confident player, a more comfortable player, a player who isn’t afraid of contact and welcomes the basketball in a big spot. And there is something else that is imperative to remember.
“Sometimes you have to take a step back,” Thibodeau said, “and remember that he’s 20 years old.”
By the time he turns 21 in 3 ½ weeks, Barrett also will have had his first taste of the NBA playoffs. After a season in which he played all 72 games, and averaged almost 35 minutes in those games, he has already learned the value of simply showing up for work every day. It is not a skill to be taken for granted.
“I’m really proud of that, and really blessed,” Barrett said. “I thank God for that. Any time I’m available, little nicks and bruises that I have to play through, I’ve done that. I just want to show up for my team.”
And in his way, he serves as a guide post for the greater good. Like Barrett, there wasn’t a lot expected out of the Knicks this year. Like Barrett, they quickly proved the critics and skeptics wrong, and did all across four months of season. And, like Barrett, for the Knicks to take the next step, the quantum leap from respectability to reliably elite, there needs to be a coming burst of further improvement.
It is less mysterious if the player can do that than the team.
Thibodeau is reluctant to compare players because that becomes a parlor game no coach can win, but he is willing to liken Barrett’s work habits to the likes of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler, guys he coached with the Bulls and whose elbow grease — and career arcs — are a part of legend.
“They all got better each year because of the work they all put in,” Thibodeau said. “They’re all tough, serious-minded guys willing to make a commitment to improve and they improved.”
It is a good harbinger of what is to come with the Knicks. And a better one when it comes to Barrett.
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