Knicks need RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson to fulfill their potential
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Knicks, RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson

To escape the NBA’s cellar, the Knicks need RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson to fulfill their potential

The New York Knicks need to escape the NBA’s cellar.

A team can’t continually be in the bottom third of the NBA in wins and be competing for the number-one pick in the draft on a yearly basis and expect to magically turn a corner. The only way the Knicks are escaping this stagnated, rebuilding phase is if RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson fulfill their potential.

The Knicks have a handful of compelling, young players such as Barrett, Robinson, Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr., and Allonzo Trier, among others. However, Knox, the team’s first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, has been a reserve this season; Smith has struggled in limited playing time and supposedly wants to be traded; Trier has appeared in just 16 games.

Barrett and Robinson are the positives for the Knicks moving forward, and they need to do everything in their power to maximize their skill sets.

From an efficiency standpoint, Barrett’s rookie season hasn’t been anything to boast about. He’s shooting 38.5 percent from the field, 31.9 percent from beyond the arc, and a dismal 54.8 percent from the free throw line. On the other hand, he’s playing with confidence and aggression. He’s playing off the dribble, challenging big men at the rim, and showing little to no hesitation hoisting up open shots.

The key with Barrett is that he’s forcing the issue. Typically, rookies settle for jump shots to get into a groove and are inefficient. Granted Barrett has been inefficient, his tendency is to put the ball on the floor and get easy buckets. Him doing so and improving his perimeter game over his career is more sustainable than doing the opposite. Meanwhile, he holds his own defensively.

The Duke product is averaging 13.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and one steal per game. Barrett has also started every game he has played this season — which is great for his long-term growth, as it gives him exposure playing against a team’s best wing and the ability to play through growing pains.

Robinson is, for the most part, having another encouraging season. The big man is denying shots on a consistent basis, hitting the boards, and finishing relentlessly inside. He’s averaging 10.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game. However, there’s two knocks on Mitchell Robinson: he often gets into foul trouble and isn’t starting.

The downside of his shot-blocking prowess is if he’s too aggressive, he gets in foul trouble. Already fouling out of six games this season, it remains an issue for Robinson. With that said, the only way he’s going to improve that liability is with starting reps. He has started just seven games this season and been playing behind Taj Gibson.

The veteran starting over the second-year player is likely done to set the tone that Robinson has to become more mature defensively. But, at some point, he’s going to have to man a starting role. Perhaps it comes after the NBA trade deadline, where the Knicks, 10-24, will likely be sellers, and playing time could present itself for some of the youngsters.

RJ Barrett was the number-three pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and Robinson was a hidden gem who has the tools to be a dominant, modern-day center: rebound, block shots, and finish off alley-oops at a high level. The development of these two is vital to the Knicks’ well-being; that’s where the team’s uncertain coaching situation kicks in.

Although the Knicks have been better under interim head coach Mike Miller than they were under David Fizdale this season (Miller is 6-6 since taking over, whereas Fizdale was 4-18 before getting fired), it’s unknown if management views Miller as the long-term answer to their coaching dilemma. Heck, there’s rumors that president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry could get the boot in the near future.

The Knicks were relatively stable over the last two seasons, and now that stability is crumbling; the franchise’s talent can’t do the same.

Barrett and Robinson have the skill sets to be some of the best players at their respective positions. Barrett’s offensive game has transitioned well to the NBA game; Robinson is some fine-tuning away from being a preeminent center.

In all likelihood, the Knicks will hire a new head coach in the offseason, which will mark the third head coach of the youngsters’ careers. That’s bad, like really bad. Whether it’s Miller or a new face calling the shots, they need to be in place for the long haul. Barring a blockbuster trade, this core isn’t going anywhere.

There’s also no accomplished star coming to save the Knicks. They couldn’t lure one of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, and Jimmy Butler with $70-plus million in cap space this past summer; they didn’t get a big fish to sign on the dotted line in the summer of 2016 with Phil Jackson at the helm; they epically flopped on the open market the year prior.

The player perception of the organization hasn’t changed.

The upcoming free agent class is miles behind last summer’s class in terms of star appeal. The likely top-tier commodities are Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, DeMar DeRozan, and Brandon Ingram. Davis is playing for the top-seeded team in the Western Conference, Drummond plays Robinson’s position, DeRozan is a right-handed version of Barrett, and Ingram is a restricted free agent.

The Knicks will likely have a top-five draft pick in June. Maybe they get Anthony Edwards or Cole Anthony. They have to build through their youth and the draft. At the same time, the Knicks already have two talented, high-upside players in Barrett and Robinson. They can’t mess these two up.

The road to stardom is a two-way street: the player has to put in the work and adhere to his coaching staff, and the coaching staff has to maximize the player’s talents. The team can’t just expect a player to become great based on where they’re drafted or the general perception of the player by the fan base: the team has to put them in the right positions to succeed.

The Knicks have talent, but they’ve traditionally been unable to do anything with it. If they can’t develop Barrett and Robinson, who will they develop?