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RJ Barrett shows off elite defensive chops by shutting down Jayson Tatum

RJ Barrett, Knicks, Jayson Tatum

Much was made of Jaylen Brown’s career-high 46 points for the Boston Celtics against the New York Knicks on Wednesday night, but what flew under the radar was Jayson Tatum’s extremely rough 7-30 shooting game — more particularly, why Tatum had such a rough shooting game. That reason is RJ Barrett, who made Tatum’s night an absolute hell on earth via some suffocating 1-on-1 defense.

RJ Barrett said prior to the season that he wanted to assume the Reggie Bullock role on this year’s team — taking on the best opposing wing players in the marquee 1-on-1 matchups. So far, between the preseason and the first game of the regular season, it seems like he’s ready to make good on that assertion.

As cited in the stats from Michael Nania above, RJ Barrett forced players he defended to shoot just 18.5% on opening night, best in the NBA through one game. That also meant players he defended on the Celtics shot 15% worse when guarded by him than when they weren’t.

Obviously, this is a single game sample size, so not too many conclusions can or should be drawn from it. To contextualize RJ Barrett’s feat from the Celtics game, here’s the leaders in that same category from last year (minimum 20 games played, via NBA.com/stats):

Hi there… Obi Toppin? That’s maybe a little surprising. But otherwise this list is a who’s who of great defenders. On the wing, Matisse Thybulle and Jae Crowder force opponents to shoot 7.3% and 5.6% worse, respectively, than they would normally. So if Barrett can have even half the impact he had on Tatum and the Celtics throughout the entire season for the Knicks, he should enter the elite company of some of the best (if not THE best) wing defenders in the league.

The film suggests there was nothing flukey about Barrett’s defense, either. Just take a look at one of the most important possessions of the game. Tatum, with nearly a full shot clock at his disposal, came down the floor and had every opportunity to exploit Barrett for a game winner:

Barrett had other plans, forcing Tatum to the baseline and contesting his shot extremely well, forcing a big adjustment by Tatum that resulted in the shot soaring over the cup. If that wasn’t enough, RJ Barrett did it to Tatum again with just seconds left in the second overtime, creating the opportunity for Derrick Rose to drop in the dagger for the Knicks on the other end:

It’s worth noting that Barrett probably isn’t too fond of Tatum on the basketball court, either. Tatum gave him one of his “welcome to the NBA” moments as a rookie, making a shot on the baseline to win the game for the Celtics in almost the same spot that RJ Barrett denied Jayson Tatum in the first overtime on Wednesday:

At any rate, once again, it’s a single game. Barrett has 81 more games (plus playoffs, ideally) to go before he proves that he’s truly a defensive stopper. But the groundwork was laid in the first game of the season, and the league should probably start looking at RJ Barrett like the type of player that can credibly shut down a star wing on any given night.