When RJ Barrett misfired on his first four three-point attempts and went to the locker room at halftime of his first NBA preseason test with just three points, he couldn’t have been blamed if he hung his head and wondered just what he’d gotten himself into at 19 years old.
While there have been questions about his speed or his shooting, there is little question that Barrett has arrived to the Knicks with no lack of confidence. So he kept shooting, finishing with 17 points to help the Knicks to a preseason opening win at Washington.
“He’s just fearless,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said of the No. 3 overall pick in June's draft. “The thing I was most proud of was how he competed defensively. [Wizards guard] Bradley Beal is one of the best two guards in the league. RJ really took the challenge to battle him. When the game was starting to get a little lopsided there, you could just see when the lights are on, this kid has an edge to him and he took over the game there for a stretch.”
Barrett not only had 14 of his 17 points in the second half, but he hit both of his three-point attempts after halftime. He finished tied with Marcus Morris for the team-high in scoring.
“Everybody on the staff was telling me to keep going, to keep pushing,” Barrett said after the game. “It was great to have that support. No, no nerves. Just had to figure the game out.
“I did the same thing I was doing all game. I just played defense and let the game come to me. My teammates were finding me. As I kept scoring, they kept finding me, kept making plays, and getting stops. It was fun to be out there.”
He certainly had a chance to find his way. If there were no nerves, there was a learning curve for the speed and strength of the NBA game. Barrett played 39 minutes and 20 seconds, hardly getting a breather. It’s not out of character for Fizdale, who put Kevin Knox on the floor for at least that many minutes nine times last season in Knox’s rookie campaign.
“He’s 19 and he’s got to play,” Fizdale said. “It’s the same thing I did with Kevin. These guys have to play, they have to see situations, they have to feel out the game. But at the same time I wanted to keep him out there because he was playing so well.”
“I just played,” Barrett said. “However long coach wants or however short coach wants me to play, I’m cool. It was fun for me.” Asked if he hoped those sort of minutes continue for him, Barrett added, “Who wouldn’t?”
Barrett got a starting assignment in the preseason opener, alongside three of the more veteran players on the roster — Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Elfrid Payton — and second-year center Mitchell Robinson. He was pleased with that, but even happier with how he finished the game — hitting a pair of free throws in the final seconds with the Knicks' 18-point lead down to just two points.
It didn’t escape his mind that he did it at Capital One Arena, where he missed a free throw with six seconds left that could have tied the game for Duke in a loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament on March 31.
“For sure,” he said. “Especially same arena I missed the free throw in and we lost to Michigan State. It was good to kind of redeem myself.”