Schmeelk: Breaking Down RJ Barrett’s Development

Plenty Of Positives, But Rookie Must Improve Efficiency

John Schmeelk
March 23, 2020 - 9:35 am
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With the NBA season possibly over due to the COVID-19 outbreak, now is a good time to take a look at where the Knicks core young pieces stand in their development and what it means for the team’s future. There’s no better place to start than the third overall pick for the Knicks in the 2019 draft, RJ Barrett.

He is the Knicks player with the most high-end potential offensively, and he did nothing to disprove that in his rookie season. His rookie per-game numbers, especially when it comes to volume, are impressive:

• 30.4 minutes
• 14.3 points
• 4.5 free-throw attempts
• 5.0 rebounds
• 2.6 assists
• 2.2 turnovers
• 1.0 steals

The problem remains his efficiency, which is the same thing that plagued Barrett throughout his amateur career. His .402/.320/.614 shooting numbers are very poor. His 44.5% effective field goal rate was the 25th worst among all NBA players who played in 20 games or more. His 47.9 true shooting percentage was 37th worst among all players in the NBA. For both stats, no player with worse percentages had a higher usage rate than Barret’s 47.9%.

New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) passes the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers during the first quarter on Feb 27, 2020 at Wells Fargo Center.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Barrett’s efficiency numbers are poor for a few different reasons. His 3-point and free-throw shooting are at the root of it.

There is, however, reason for hope at the free-throw line. After starting the season shooting 51.1% from the stripe in October and November, Barrett shot 67% for the rest of his rookie year. He had two months – January and March -- when he shot over 70% from the line sandwiched around a 54% month in February. His 67% post-November numbers nearly match his 66.5% shooting from the line at Duke.

Since Barrett is effective at getting to the free-throw line, shooting 4.5 foul shots per game, a steady increase in his shooting there would help his efficiency and make him a better offensive player.

The 3-point shooting is a bit more complicated. When you look at the breakdown of his 3-point attempts, the percentages line up as most would expect. He shoots 36% from both corner spots, which are easier shots to make since they are closer to the rim. On all other 3s, classified as “above the break,” he is shooting only 30%. This breakdown of his shooting should surprise no one.

Barrett’s 3-point shooting throughout the season did not show much improvement. After a hot October when he made 42% of his 3-point shots, he shot only 30.8% the rest of the season. In his last three months of the season, he shot 31.7%. There are ways to cherry-pick numbers to get more optimistic conclusions, but the truth is Barrett’s 3-point shot is very much a work in progress.

His seasonlong 32% mark from behind the 3-point line is an accurate representation of the shooter he is right now and aligns with his 30.8% 3-point shooting from his one year at Duke. This needs to be a continual focus for Barrett to get better for his game to jump to the next level.

There are things Barrett can improve upon to become a better shooter. Constant reps in the offseason is the easy answer, but one common item mentioned by many shooting coaches seems to be the placement of his off-hand too close to the front of the ball on his release. Barrett’s jump-shooting must become better if he is going to become an All-Star-caliber player.

The other source of Barrett’s inefficiency is his shooting around the rim. Of players who take at least two shots per game within 5 feet of the rim, he has the 21st-lowest field goal percentage from the range, at just 50.9%. According to NBA.com, he shot only 45.3% on layups this year. Shooting at the rim is supposed to be the best place for a NBA player to attempt a shot, but Barrett struggles finishing from point-blank range.

The answer as to why isn’t in the numbers, but it is clear if you watch him play enough: Barrett struggles to blow by defenders and explode through the lane. He has to use guile, strength and his physicality to finish through and over defenders at the rim, which makes his attempts more difficult. He often tries to draw contact in the hope getting a friendly whistle, which can result in awkward misses.

These problems are mitigated in transition when he has a running start going to the rim and his lack of elite quickness is hidden. In the half-court, however, they are magnified and often lead to misses when driving to the basket. Other than improving his athleticism or becoming more adept at drawing fouls, there is no clear solution to Barrett finishing at the rim more efficiently given how strong he already is.

From midrange, Barrett has flashed a step-back jumper, which could mitigate some of his problems at the rim long term. According to NBA.com, Barrett was 12-of-35 on those shots (34.3%) over the course of the season. He also tried a few step-back jumpers from behind the 3-point line. The fact he is working on this difficult shot is a good thing, but there is a long way to go.

Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism with Barrett is that the other areas of his game don’t have major weaknesses. He defends very well for a 19-year-old. When he runs the pick-and-roll, he does a nice job finding cutters to the basket and open shooters, though he needs to cut down on his turnovers. His mentality, aggressiveness, competitiveness and general approach to life and the game are exactly what you want in a player. He does not seem to be afraid of big moments.

Barrett’s rookie season should have been just about what should have been expected if you watched him at Duke. The skill that is going to make or break his career is his jump shot. Any player can improve his shooting, but not all do. Which will Barrett be? A big part of the Knicks’ future depends on it.

You can find John on Twitter at @schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports. You can find the most recent episode of his “Bank Shot” podcast, featuring Spencer Pearlman breaking down the guards in the NBA draft, on WFAN.com, RADIO.COM, Apple Podcasts and other popular podcast platforms.

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