NEW YORK — Hours before the New York Knicks were embroiled in yet another self-inflicted PR fiasco due to reviled owner James Dolan's signature pettiness and unprofessionalism, rookie RJ Barrett was garnering all the attention.
Barrett, 19, had the best performance of his up-and-down rookie season on Monday night, tying his career-high with 27 points while adding five rebounds and five assists. Even better, with the game on the line, Barrett drove right at P.J. Tucker and converted a tough layup with 7.6 seconds remaining to seal the Knicks' 125-123 upset victory over the Houston Rockets at Madison Square Garden.
The Canadian teenager's heroics even made a winner out of Leon Rose in his debut as the team's new president. The Knicks are about to embark on yet another multi-year rebuilding project following the failures of former executives Phil Jackson and Steve Mills, but at least they may have something in Barrett, who is averaging 14.1 points, five rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
“I've been impressed. I think he has the potential to be an All-Star,” Knicks legend and resplendent color commentator Clyde Frazier told Yahoo Sports. “He has a good work ethic, and he knows the game.”
Barrett came out firing on Monday night, scoring 14 first-quarter points while shooting with confidence. He actually air-balled his previous shot in the fourth before connecting on the game-clincher, a testament to his unflappable demeanor. “Sometimes the best thing you can have is a bad memory,” Knicks interim coach Mike Miller said.
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft also earned plaudits from James Harden.
“I like [his game], especially as a rookie,” Harden said. “He's not timid at all. When you're aggressive and confident in your game, you look good out there. As long as he continues to build his confidence, keeps being aggressive and gets the opportunity, which he will, he'll be great.”
Barrett will always be compared to Nos. 1 and 2 overall picks Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, who already look like future superstars. The Knicks finished with the worst record in the NBA last season, and had eyes on teaming Williamson with the likes of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in free agency. But the draft lottery ping-pong balls didn't bounce their way, and Irving and Durant ended up in Brooklyn.
After going back to the drawing board and putting together a miscast roster replete with power forwards, New York's 2019-20 campaign has been an abject disaster, with fans chanting in unison for Dolan to sell the team on multiple occasions. All the losing and embarrassment ultimately cost head coach David Fizdale and longtime survivor Mills their jobs (though Mills failed upward to an MSG board seat).
In typical fashion, Dolan is currently feuding with superfan Spike Lee over where the 62-year-old Academy Award winner is supposed to enter MSG. It's a deplorable culture for Barrett as he tries to develop amid massive expectations and something Rose has the near impossible task of trying to fix. As Lee, who said he was done attending home games for the rest of the season, aptly put it to the New York Times, the Knicks (19-42) are a “f---ing laughingstock.”
“I don't know if he'll be a superstar,” an Eastern Conference scout said of Barrett. “But he can get to the rim and score, he defends and he plays hard.”
Barrett's ceiling could hinge on the development of his shot. According to NBA.com, he ranks 415th in the league in true shooting percentage (47.3). He has always shot the ball with his left hand, even though he's a natural righty, and coaches have said his shooting form with his right hand is better.
“He's always cool and calm, he never seems to get rattled,” Frazier said of Barrett's maturity. “Obviously, he needs to work on his shooting, better shot selection (40 percent overall) and his free throws (59.2 percent). But I like his defense at times, his rebounding is strong, and getting into the paint.”
Still, Barrett has a knack for being efficient with his forays to the basket.
“That was his forte coming out of Duke, and I'm surprised teams are not trying to take away his left hand, which is his strength,” Frazier said. “You let him do that, I don't care how tall you are, he can take you on and just muscle you to the hoop, so he's been very successful at that.”
Miller credits Barrett's recent surge (averaging 20.3 points in his last three games) to him being healthy again. He had recently missed nine games with a right ankle sprain. “Just learning my spots, learning the game more,” Barrett told reporters after Tuesday's practice. “I felt like I was doing good until I got hurt, and coming back, now I'm relaxing. I feel like when you come back, it takes you a little bit to get in your groove. Every day I've just been working trying to get it back.”
Rose has his work cut out for him. On the docket: finding a GM, finding a coach and figuring out whom to draft in 2020. Finding a difference-making point guard would be nice. Guard Frank Ntilikina and forward Kevin Knox haven't developed as hoped, though alley-oop artist Mitchell Robinson has been shining of late. And, thanks in large part to the ill-advised Kristaps Porzinigis trade, the Knicks have seven first-round picks over the next four years.
Plus, they've got RJ Barrett, so they've got some hope.
The question is whether he's ultimately just a piece or an actual foundation piece. But as Barrett proved on Monday night, he certainly has the potential to be special.
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