Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

RJ Barrett deserves your respect, and he'll earn it soon enough

RJ Barrett’s entire career thus far has been marked by underestimation.
RJ Barrett’s entire career thus far has been marked by underestimation.
Photo: Getty Images

For whatever reason, RJ Barrett’s an easy target.

Let’s remember that amid the justifiable admiration for Zion Williamson, it was Cam Reddish, and not Barrett, who averaged 13.5 points on 35.6-percent shooting when the three played one year together at Duke. Barrett’s field goal, three-point, and free-throw shooting splits were 45 / 31 / 67, and he averaged 5.3 more shot attempts per game than Williamson, who equaled with 22.6 points per game. And because he was the headstrong scoring guard who sparked inefficiency concerns out of college, he became cool to disparage, especially in favor of trendy draft classmates like Ja Morant, Tyler Herro, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Coby White, and the aforementioned Reddish.

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Lately, Barrett’s not only turned the corner, but he’s producing in games that matter on a team that’s .500 and the seventh seed in the NBA playoffs. In an era where we’re excited by highlights, and just highlights, regardless if the same player making the highlight is down 20 or on a perpetually losing team, Barrett’s barely making any waves, and it largely ties to a distinctly premeditated assumption.

Remember the 2019 Summer League where Barrett shot 7-of-33 from the field in his first two games, but later bounced back with a near triple-double, and even the crickets didn’t say shit? That’s his career encapsulated to this point.

It’s not about making a big enough deal regarding Barrett’s second-year improvement; it’s that many of the same people who would for others, aren’t for him. The Duke-alum averaged 14.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.6 assists on 40 / 32 / 61.4 splits as a rookie and wasn’t chosen for either All-Rookie Team in favor of Terence Davis, who, while more efficient in a far lesser role, averaged just 7.5 points and 3.3 rebounds. This season, Barrett jumped to 17-6-3 points, rebounds, and assists on 45 / 36 / 75 shooting splits. His offensive rating has jumped from 95 to 107 despite having roughly the same usage rate in year two (23.9) than in year one (24.0). And his advanced metrics across the board have generally improved, in some cases, dramatically. After being a -9.2 on the court and -6.1 on/off per-100 possessions, he’s now at +1.0 and +2.9, respectively. And, again, on a team that matters.

Barrett’s not only improved, but he’s currently in the midst of the single best stretch of his young career, averaging 23-5-3 on 56 / 52 / 80 splits in his last seven games. A narrative is that he “can’t shoot,” but this three-point percentage is higher than that of Luka Doncic, Tyler Herro, Bradley Beal, and Victor Oladipo.

Included in Barrett’s recent outburst was a career-high 32 points on 12-of-21 shooting against the Oklahoma City Thunder. A 24-point, seven-rebound showing against the Indiana Pacers in a three-point victory. And in last night’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets, he’s to be credited with powering the Knicks back into striking distance during the fourth quarter. Despite shooting 3-of-10 to start the game, Barrett had 16 points because he hadn’t missed from the free-throw line. He ended the night with 23 points of 6-of-14 shooting, including a percent 10-for-10 on free throws. He also pulled down six boards and dished out four assists.

But where’s the excitement? The optimism? The allure that even Kristaps Porzingis received before becoming an All-Star (on a less relevant team)? Even for a top-three overall pick, and conversely, for a guy who plays in New York City, there’s nearly no national care for Barrett’s improvement. No acknowledgment that people have been wrong so far. And no indication that people have been even paying attention. Julius Randle, to some degree, didn’t become a story until closer to the All-Star break when people outside of New York began to really ingest his Most Improved Player campaign. And the fact that Randle and Barrett even functionally work as productive on-court teammates was a doubtful proposition heading into the season.

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And, shit, I’m not even a Knick fan. I don’t even like Duke! But let’s give Barrett the due he’s earned, especially when we’re so quick to laud others, and especially since he may average 20-7-4 next season, which would land him a max contract extension (or something close) the following summer.