On Saturday at the Garden, RJ Barrett was on the free-throw line with 14.9 seconds left and the Knicks leading the Pacers by two points. He missed both attempts, but the Knicks still hung on to pull out the win.
Barrett’s misses were an anomaly as he closed out a fine February when his game seemed to finally all click.
Last season, Barrett’s 3-point marksmanship was alarming – as was his free-throw shooting. His accuracy from the line is key to his productivity because he’s a candidate to draw fouls with his relentless drives to the basket.
Barrett ended February with back-to-back big nights — 24 points vs. Indiana and 21 vs. Detroit. In 14 February games, he shot 47.4 percent from the 3-point stripe.
His 3-point percentages still is below average — at 34.5 percent compared to last season’s 32 percent. But it’s edging closer to respectable.
Barrett’s free-throw shooting is much better, however. He’s gone from shooting 61.4 percent last season to 72.9 percent.
In averaging 16.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists, the former Duke star from Toronto will undoubtedly be named to the official Rising Stars Game roster for the World Team on Wednesday.
While the Rookie-Sophomore Game won’t actually be played during All-Star weekend because of the condensed pandemic format, it’s still a step in the right direction for Barrett.
“I’ll just say everything,” Barrett said when asked about his statistical improvement before facing the Spurs in San Antonio on Tuesday. “I’ve been working hard. It feels good to see it translate on the court. Still got a lot of things to work on.”
Early in February, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau started to ease back on Barrett’s minutes. Some nights the coach didn’t have the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft close out games. That’s likely because Barrett’s fourth-quarter shooting percentage was below 40 percent. But he’s gaining Thibodeau’s trust and traction.
“It’s just work,” Barrett said. “Working every day, getting shots up every day. Get shots up at night. Always shooting, always making sure so I can be in the game and knock them down when my team needs them.”
Last All-Star break, Barrett made the World Roster as a rookie and the night became one of his finest hours. He racked up 27 points — one of the few players on the court who took the game seriously. Even his Duke buddy Zion Williamson got angry at Barrett for intentionally fouling him to break up a dunk attempt.
However, the Knicks’ systemic losing and his inefficient stats cost him a spot on the two All-Rookie Teams – a major blow considering his lofty draft standing. During training camp, Barrett said he took the snub to heart.
“He still can’t shoot from the outside well, but he can score,” one NBA scout said.
Indeed, the lefty Barrett is tough to stop from getting to the rack – even if scouts don’t see him as an elite athlete. He’s got a lot of craftiness. It was pointed out last season that Barrett almost exclusively goes left. However, this season he’s mixed it up a bit more.
“I work on it every day,” Barrett said. “Teams try to ice me, try to make me go right. So I just try to snake it and try to go back to my left.”
Barrett made his NBA debut in San Antonio on opening night when former coach David Fizdale pulled a surprise and started him at point guard.
It didn’t work out well with him running the show as Barrett had three early turnovers. But he finished the night with 21 points on 9-for-13 shooting.
However Barrett hasn’t been back at the point much since. In fact the Knicks prefer him more as a small forward with less ball-handling responsibilities.
“It feels like forever ago,” Barrett said. “But I do remember it. It was a great night, a night I’ll never forget.”