RJ Barrett isn’t the sexiest basketball player that you can think of. He is a score-first player that doesn’t score efficiently, and he doesn’t bear any special playmaking chops or shoot well enough to play without the ball. Last season, he shot 40.8 percent from the field, 34.2 percent from three, and averaged 3.0 assists per game as a primary option for the New York Knicks. He’s young, but he’s also far enough from a winning basketball player in this moment that it’s fair to wonder if his game can grow in that direction. On the surface, Barrett scans as one of those high-volume, low-efficiency scoring guards that this era of the game has passed by, and there’s a sort of trepidation that you can feel in talking about his new contract.
Last week, the Knicks signed Barrett to a four-year, $107 million extension that could go as high as $120 million through incentives. By the Knicksian standard, this is honestly just refreshing. In inking his new deal, Barrett becomes the first Knicks first-round pick to secure a rookie extension with the team since Charlie Ward in 1999, putting an end to a pained lineage of Michael Sweetneys, Jordan Hills and Kevin Knoxes. For a franchise that has historically neglected ground-up team-building to chase after shortcuts in free agency or trades instead, it’s nice to see them hold on to some young talent for once. This case specifically represents an about-face for the Knicks, after they balked at the going price of young players and assets — including Barrett — for Donovan Mitchell.
Now we get to the part where Barrett is going to be making north of $25 million per year after next season. Compared to some of the players that signed rookie extensions last year — Jaren Jackson Jr. at $104 million for four years, Mikal Bridges at $90 million for four years — it isn’t the easiest number to look at; we’ll see where Barrett’s draft classmates like Tyler Herro or Jordan Poole land on their next deals. Both of those players, albeit in supporting roles for far more successful teams, were able to post high-scoring seasons of their own on much better shooting percentages, including and especially from three. Barrett’s contract might be the one that sets the market for their extensions, if not the baseline.
Barrett is still figuring out who he is in the NBA. The Knicks aren’t paying him for what he is right now, so much as what he can be, and even as recently as the second half of last season, he was still going through the stage of discovery. With Julius Randle in a season-long slump, Barrett took over a greater share of the alpha duties for the Knicks — and he thrived. Barrett was the Knicks’ leading scorer after the All-Star break with 24.5 points per game, coming through often in the clutch and especially demonstrating a real craftiness in the lane that got him to the free throw line.
As a scorer, Barrett isn’t a straight-line speedster nor a high-flyer, and his jumper isn’t anything special. To get his, he has to work along the horizontal plane, criss-crossing the lane and using footwork to get to his spots. He’s an arrhythmic player, who pivots and hop-steps and changes pace in syncopated ways that can catch defenses on their back foot. He has the core strength and body balance to navigate the confines of the paint and play through, or around, contact. He’s a Mamba through and through, inspired by watching a young DeMar DeRozan in Toronto who was in turn taking his own footwork cues right from Kobe Bryant. Learning to play this way against superior athleticism can be more of a slow grind, as you learn the tools and tricks of an old head — Barrett’s finishing percentages at the rim last year were brutal.
However, after the All-Star break, only five players had a greater free throw rate than Barrett on at least the same usage: Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Trae Young, Kristaps Porzingis and Brandon Ingram. Being able to create scoring chances like this, as a player who wasn’t even 22 years old until after the season, is something of real value. Barrett has the skill foundation to become a special sort of player, a true shot creator. It doesn’t always look great to be a young player who can “create his own shot” with mostly poor percentages to show for it, but sometimes, the percentages can mask a path towards something that works. He wouldn’t be the first young scoring off-guard to beat the empty-calorie accusations, especially if we go back to the DeRozan comparison.
The next part is going to be consistency, and building out a broader scoring package that can produce results nightly against different defensive looks. Part of that is just going to be getting the percentages up — getting to the line is much less useful when you’re only making 71.4 percent of the freebies. His jumper shows signs of being workable (40.1 percent on threes two seasons ago, mostly from the corner) and his defense is encouraging; the passing needs work, although team context matters and the Knicks weren’t exactly a dynamic offense presenting great kick-out options. The introduction of Jalen Brunson gives Barrett the best backcourt mate of his career, and if Randle can have anything resembling a bounce-back year, then that helps too. (He’s due for a good one; history tells us that every bad Randle year is followed by a good one as immutable basketball law.)
The Knicks aren’t expecting Barrett to become a star, necessarily — he would’ve been a max player if that was his projection. It would still be a winning outcome if he turns out to be something like the third best player on a championship team. For now, he’s still figuring it out, and they’re still figuring it out, and that’s all good. After moving on from the Mitchell talks, the Knicks are sitting on enough young players and draft assets to move in many ways from here. They may not have any true home-run prospects, but they aren’t without the sort of upside that can alter a franchise’s trajectory. They aren’t without flexibility. (I have seen the talk about Quentin Grimes’ potential, and I have seen the tape, and I am buying into the talk.) They can chase the next star to become available, and if the cost is too high once again, they can wait and see with what they have.
Patience, instead of instant gratification, feels like the modus operandi for these Knicks now, and that isn’t something standard to the team or its city. They were booing the draft pick of Ousmane Dieng at No. 11 this year, and then they were cheering when Dieng was traded for three future first-rounders, and then they were booing again when Mitchell went to the Cavs instead of his native New York. Time is on the side of these Knicks, though. There are many directions that Barrett can take from here that would work for the team and their next steps as a franchise, and he’s still just scratching the surface of those. For a guy who was averaging near 25 points per game at season’s end, he’s still in the process of self-discovery. He’s got his money, now. Let’s see what he makes real.