The New York Knicks haven't been to the playoffs since 2013, and they've been searching for a new savior after Carmelo Anthony failed to bring them to the promised land. That was supposed to be Kristaps Porzingis, but things didn't work out and he got traded to the Dallas Mavericks in early 2019, leading the Knicks to search for another franchise cornerstone.
Enter RJ Barrett.
The Knicks selected Barrett out of Duke with the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and there was plenty of hype surrounding Zion Williamson's college sidekick. Landing a job on the Knicks with few standout players to play with, Barrett had a sizable role during his rookie season, starting 55 out of 56 games and playing over 30 minutes per game on a 21-win squad.
Barrett put up respectable numbers for a rookie, averaging 14.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.6 assists while shooting 40.2% overall and 32.0% from 3. There were certainly issues with consistency and defense as the raw rookie showed flashes at times but struggled during others.
Barrett was an All-Rookie snub, and he seems to have used that as motivation heading into this season. The 20-year-old buckled down and went to work during the long offseason, which has served him well so far playing massive minutes under new head coach Tom Thibodeau (38.4 per game).
In his second campaign in the league, Barrett is getting more and more confident in his game. While he did just endure a shooting slump featuring a four-game stretch of 0-of-21 shooting from beyond the 3-point line, the youngster quickly bounced back with two magnificent performances in surprising wins over the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks.
Barrett showed out with a double-double performance against the revamped Hawks on Monday, going for 26 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists in a 113-108 win. New York erased a 15-point second-half deficit to get the victory, moving to 4-3 on the young season in the process. The Knicks are undoubtedly one of the biggest surprises in the NBA so far, with Barrett playing a key role.
Through seven games played, Barrett holds averages of 18.3 points on 40.0% shooting along with 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. Alongside Barrett, the frontcourt of Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson has been terrific during this shocking start to the season. While Obi Toppin has been out, fellow rookie Immanuel Quickley has quickly made a name for himself as a spark off the bench. Others have been involved in this collaborative effort, allowing the Knicks to gain steam and surprise several playoff contenders (they also blew out the Milwaukee Bucks).
Of course, Thibodeau also deserves credit for the turnaround the Knicks are currently enjoying early in the season. New York's defense has taken a leap, and both Barrett and Randle recently praised Thibs for the work he has done with the young roster.
Thibodeau clearly trusts Barrett given the heavy minutes load. The former Chicago Bulls head coach showed a similar trust in Derrick Rose back when he rose to stardom. Barrett might not win an MVP at the age of 22, or ever, but he has the tools to become a legitimate star in New York. He is an aggressive scorer who can get to the basket, get to the free-throw line, and provide secondary playmaking while also playing stellar defense.
Though he is still far from reaching his full potential (that jumper still needs a lot more consistency), RJ Barrett has already shown that he is coming into his own and is learning from his rookie mistakes in order to become a better player this season. The 20-year-old still has plenty of basketball to play ahead of him, but it is safe to say he is looking like a franchise cornerstone who can help bring the Knicks back to relevance.