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RJ Barrett improved his defense, and Knicks will need it

RJ Barrett of the Knicks defends against Bradley

RJ Barrett of the Knicks defends against Bradley Beal of the Wizards during the first half at Madison Square Garden on Friday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — RJ Barrett smiled Monday as he entered the Knicks’ interview room and noticed a giant photo of himself standing in front of Madison Square Garden.

So much has changed since that photo was taken of him in 2018, days after the Knicks made him the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Barrett has gone through three coaches, one management shake-up, one horrible losing rookie season and one surprisingly good one.

The one thing that hasn’t changed? The team needs him to take another leap forward in order to propel it ahead.

Barrett’s 40% three-point shooting and improvement in his overall play helped the Knicks reach the playoffs last season. They’re looking for him to make major contributions on defense now that they are without Reggie Bullock, who was the heart and soul of last season’s defense. Barrett added some extra muscle in the offseason to help with that effort.

"I put on a couple of pounds," he said. "Just trying to be a little heavier, especially since I will be guarding a key guy most every night. So it’s just to have that strength, hold my weight there, hold myself down against the other competition.

"I feel like I’m trying. I’m trying to do something out there, trying to just be better, trying to be that guy for our team."

Coach Tom Thibodeau believes Barrett is ready to take on the challenge of guarding some of the best players in the league.

"I think his defense is a lot better than it was a year ago, I can tell you that," he said after practice Monday. "He’s done a really good job; he can guard multiple positions, he can guard two, three and four. He can guard some point guards. He’s shown a lot."

Thibodeau said he is impressed with the commitment Barrett showed in the offseason.

"RJ has been terrific with the extra work that he has put in," Thibodeau said. "He’s gotten a lot better. I think he also has experience on his side now. Obviously, the first few times you play against someone, you don’t know them as well as maybe the 40th or 50th time you play against someone. So I think as time goes on, he has a good understanding of what the tendencies are of not only the players but the team."

Derrick Rose said he has seen a lot of growth in Barrett.

"Just confidence. His confidence, and taking the challenge on the defensive end, where we don’t have [Bullock] down anymore,’’ Rose said. "He has to take the matchup every night. It reminds me of old school where he can’t run from any matchup. He’s got to take the matchup. Not only that but produce on the other end.

"If anything, it’s going to make him a better player, and he’s going to take that challenge. He has goals — crazy goals — and it’s great to see that in a young player, be that confident about his game."

New York Sports