One of the larger consensus around the NBA is that when the New York Knicks are competitive, the league is simply more fun to watch. The atmosphere at Madison Square Garden makes for arguably the most electric arena in the league, especially when it’s packed with joyful, raucous Knicks fans.
Even after last night’s disappointing loss to the Toronto Raptors, the Knicks are still among the top three teams in the Eastern Conference with a record of 5-2. Keyed by the second most prolific offense in the NBA, the Knicks seem to be a legitimate playoff contender, putting to rest the murmurs that last year’s surprising playoff run was a fluke, for now.
Off-season additions Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier have injected some scoring punch into the offense, but RJ Barrett has been the primary catalyst for his team’s early success, and has as much upside as any young player in the league.
Coming out of Duke University as a one-and-done player, Barrett was pegged as a slashing, primary-ball handler who was a spacey defender and an inconsistent shooter. Since his rookie year though, Barrett has made great strides as a shooter after only making a mere 32 percent of threes as a rookie.
Similarly, he’s learned how to utilize his great positional size and strength to become an extremely physical and unsettling defender; in the Knicks’ season opener against the Boston Celtics, Barrett essentially clamped Jayson Tatum, holding him 20 points and 7/30 shooting from the field. Away from the ball, Barrett rotates extremely well too. Although Barrett doesn’t have Mikal Bridges or Matisse Thybulle instincts on defense, his footwork and strength make him an imposing presence.
At only 21 years old, Barrett takes pride in his performance on both ends of the floor – a rare mindset amongst the young core of talent in the league. While Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Ja Morant, and Jayson Tatum are all far more dynamic on offense than Barrett, they definitely aren’t as solid as he is on the defensive end.
After a 36-point outing against the Pelicans and an efficient 27-point encore against the Raptors, it’s clear that he can take his offense to the next level in due time. He may never match the scoring peak of fellow elite shooting guards like James Harden and Bradley Beal, but has the ability to be a better two-way player than they could ever be.
If Barrett can fulfill his potential on both ends of the floor while the Knicks continue to climb the upper echelon of the Eastern conference standings, he could very well be in the MVP conversation in a few years. The trajectory of the Knicks franchise seems to be alike route with Barrett’s development, similar to the Milwaukee Bucks during the mid 2010’s, when Giannis Antetokounmpo was transforming into one of the league’s most dominant players.
While Barrett’s ceiling may not be Giannis-like, it’s high enough for him to become one of the best players in the NBA.