ATLANTA — In the final minute of Wednesday night’s win over the Mavericks, the Knicks sent out a historical note that put RJ Barrett’s performance in perspective: With 32 points, he became the youngest player in franchise history to post back-to-back 30-point games.
And it’s the fact that he is just 21 years old, rather than the 30-point games, that might be the most important number for Barrett and the Knicks.
The back-to-back scoring flurry doesn’t mask that there still are wild inconsistencies in his game and that Barrett might not be ready to be the front man for the Knicks, but there are hints that it could happen someday.
While Julius Randle settles his own issues and the Knicks wait for Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose to return, Barrett has shown that the potential is there.
"There’s no ceiling really on what he can do," Evan Fournier said. "It’s like I said last game: When he scores on all three levels, he becomes less predictable. So that allows him to do what he does best, which is be aggressive and drive . . . Yeah, when he plays like that, it makes the job easy for everyone because he draws a lot of attention and he’s a willing passer. So hopefully he gets it going."
Entering Saturday night’s game against the Hawks, Barrett had carried the offensive load in the previous two games, not just piling up 63 points but doing it efficiently — shooting 25-for-42 overalland 7-for-11 from beyond the arc.
But compare that to the eight games before that: He averaged 17.6 points per game and shot 59.5% — but from the free-throw line. He shot 40.2% from the field and 29.8% from three-point range in those games.That’s inconsistent.
Since arriving as the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, he has had to live up to measurements against his college teammate and No. 1 pick, Zion Williamson, and the No. 2 pick, Ja Morant, currently rising as a star in the league. Now he has been reunited with another college teammate in Cam Reddish, who was chosen 10th in that draft.
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has seen a change in performance, but not in Barrett’s approach.
"No. That’s what I love about him," Thibodeau said. "RJ is steady. He never gets too high, he never gets too low, and he’s putting a lot of extra work in right now. He’s coming back at night, and I think that’s a big factor."
The biggest change for Barrett may simply be health. He suffered through a non-COVID illness earlier in the season and then went into the NBA’s health and safety protocols. After playing in all 72 games last season and finishing second in the NBA in total minutes played, he already has missed seven games this season. More important, his own illnesses and the NBA’s COVID outbreaks have limited his practice time, keeping him out of the gym and out of the work routine he’d set for himself last season.
"I would say, just consistently working and being healthy, I think," Barrett said of his recent outings. "And then honestly, us just as a unit figuring it out, figuring it out, being locked in on both ends. When we share the ball and then we get stops and run out like that, it’s tough to stop."
His play has had the Madison Square Garden crowd chanting his name and serenading him with "MVP" chants, calls that were reserved for Randle last season and may be jumping the gun on Barrett.
Early in the season, Barrett’s goal was to get noticed for his defense on the perimeter, and that might be the first steady step he can take. The rest may come with time.
"You know, like guys last year, they had success, but it was a different setting," Fournier said. "How they played, their rotation and their touches. I think RJ was the player who played the second-most minutes in the league last year? So you go from that and you get a rhythm and from one year to another it’s different and you have to kind of readjust, so maybe he was thinking, I don’t know, but he surely looks like he’s not thinking at all, and he’s just letting his game do the talking and he’s taking advantage of every situation, pretty much."