Reggie Bullock often defended the NYK opponent’s top wing scorer last year. RJ Barrett was asked if he might take on that role this year w/Bullock in DAL. Barrett says he takes pride in being a 2-way player. “If coach puts me in that position, I’m all for it. I won’t back down.”
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) September 27, 2021
Entering his third year in the league, Barrett's shooting and offensive game have been the most pinpointed aspects of his development with the Knicks and his future in the NBA. But what about his defense?
Barrett seems to think that he's more than capable of defending some of the best players in the league, a role that was often given to Reggie Bullock last year, and Frank Ntilikina in spots. Both of those two are gone to Dallas now, and the only “replacement” the Knicks really signed to fill that defensive-minded void was second round pick Miles McBride. While McBride might have some defensive highlights in his rookie season, it's likely that with Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker in place, “Deuce” will struggle to find more than situational or garbage time minutes.
Enter R.J. Barrett. Can he actually be the defensive stopper that the Knicks need when they face some of the best talents in the NBA? The numbers seem to suggest he could.
Per NBA.com/stats, players defended by Barrett last season shot 2% worse overall, and 2.2% worse from deep. The Knicks have to translate this into further growth.
Barrett also finished 10th in the NBA in defensive win shares (.138), a metric that attempts to quantify a player's individual defensive impact into how much they affected winning for their team. Barrett also finished 16th in the NBA in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) at 3.0, but interestingly scored a -0.3 from FiveThirtyEight's defensive RAPTOR, which uses tracking statistics to try to create a more accurate picture of a player's on/off rating than traditional statistics. The Knicks were also 0.4 points better with RJ on the court vs. off the court last year, per Basketball-Reference.
Making a direct comparison to Bullock on the Knicks, Reggie's assignments shot 0.9% worse overall, but a whopping 6.5% worse from three:
Reggie finished 26th in the league in DWS (.119), seventh in DRPM (3.74), a -0.1 in DRAPTOR and a -1.4 in on/off.
So it's pretty safe to say that, other than DRAPTOR, which seems to dislike both players, that both Barrett and Bullock scored well in advanced metrics for their defense last season. It's probably safe to write off Bullock's low on/off score, considering he didn't get to play as many minutes with the bench players as Barrett and Julius Randle did. Ironically, thanks to Elfrid Payton's futile efforts at the point last year for the Knicks, the bench would often outperform the starters in games last year, thus hurting some of the impact stats for all of the starters.
A better way to measure Barrett's desire to guard the other team's best guy might be to do some direct comparisons between him and Bullock to see who held some of the league's best in check. Enter NBA.com/stats again, which has a really useful head-to-head matchup tool to see how RJ and Bullock both fared against various players in Knicks games last year.
Barrett: 1:29 defending, 0-3 FG, 0 points
Bullock: 2:10, 0-1, 3 points
Barrett: 1:57, 4-7 FG, 9 points
Bullock: 10:19, 4-7 FG, 10 points
Barrett: 1:17, 2-3 FG, 4 points
Bullock: 2:37, 4-5 FG, 9 points
Barrett: 13:56, 7-19, 23 points
Bullock: 3:31, 2-3, 7 points
Barrett: 6:59, 3-9 FG, 8 points
Bullock: 12:45, 10-16 FG, 25 points
So, across the board, both guys seem to do pretty well when matched up with some of the game's best players on the wing. Barrett is a uniquely built player who has the size and strength to match up with the Kawhi Leonards of the world, but is also fleet of foot enough to stay in front of the Knicks' newfound nemesis, Trae Young, and speedy guards of his ilk.
Even though Bullock slid into the role last season for the Knicks, guarding elite talent on the other team is something that Barrett has been doing since the beginning of his career — it's just easy to forget some of the pre-COVID moments of RJ's career since it feels like so long ago.
Once upon a time, RJ Barrett was matched up against Kyrie Irving down the stretch of a game on Oct. 25, 2019, just the second of his young career. Unfortunately for Barrett, the night ended like this:
However, RJ Barrett played sound defense on Irving that night, even contesting that final shot admirably but just losing out to one of the best scorers in the league. It just goes to show that Barrett has been stepping up to new challenges since his rookie season — if he can do the same this year, he might be able to make good on his promise to be the Knicks' new go-to stopper on defense.