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Knicks' RJ Barrett making big strides in second season as hard work pays off

Knicks guard RJ Barrett shoots over Celtics center

Knicks guard RJ Barrett shoots over Celtics center Robert Williams II during the first half of an NBA game on Wednesday in Boston. Credit: AP/Charles Krupa

It seems like a futile exercise to search for a bright spot when the Knicks are in the midst of a stretch in which they’ve lost five of six games, tumbled from fourth place to eighth in the Eastern Conference playoff race and endured one torturously close loss after another.

But it’s also hard to ignore the timing right now, with RJ Barrett emerging as a rapidly improving sidekick to the team’s All-Star, Julius Randle, and the next test coming Friday night at Madison Square Garden with Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies coming to town.

After their rookie seasons concluded, there seemed to be a clear line from the top two picks in the 2019 NBA Draft, Zion Williamson and Morant, and all that followed, including Barrett, whom the Knicks selected with the third pick. Morant was named Rookie of the Year, picking up 99 of the 100 votes, and Barrett didn’t even get named to the All-Rookie first or second team.

That slight still stings Barrett, but even if that seemed an odd omission, there was little argument to be made that he belonged among the top Rookie of the Year candidates. This season, though, still just 20 years old, Barrett has established himself as a reliable and rising star. The Knicks likely are headed to the postseason, and he is a huge reason why.

There are more than numbers to his game. With an unusually strong body for a wing player, he barrels to the rim effectively and defends well with a hard-nosed style. But the numbers are there, too. Barrett is averaging 17.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists. But delving deeper, the difference is stark.

Barrett shot just 40% from the field last season and only 32% from beyond the arc. This season, those problems seemed bound to continue when, after a 3-for-3 opening night from distance, he missed his next 21 attempts over a four-game span. But since those first five games, he has converted 41.7% from three-point range.

Maybe most impressive is that he’s been doing it recently with pressure rising on the Knicks, the surprising start to the season putting them in position to contend for a playoff berth. And as one of the youngest players in the league, he has raised his game. He was 6-for-6 from beyond the arc Wednesday in Boston, scoring 29 points. In the last three games, he is averaging 21.7 points and has converted 84.6% from three-point range (11-for-13).

"I just work at it,’’ Barrett said. "Going to the gym at night, the more you put into the game, the more you get out."

While Randle has been mentioned as a Most Improved Player candidate, he might not have taken the biggest rise even on his own team. Randle already was putting up big numbers in recent years before taking on the leadership role in New York and serving as the primary playmaker. But Barrett has gone from a questionable lottery pick with clear, glaring flaws to a franchise cornerstone.

"He’s coming into his own and knowing who he is as a player," Randle said. "Down the stretch, he’s getting to his spots. He’s playing well. Very comfortable and continuing to grow as a player."

"I don't know if I'm surprised because I think I mentioned to you guys earlier I see the time that he's put into it," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "And when we've been home, he usually comes in every night to shoot and get extra shooting in. He's really worked hard improving a shot and I think he's gotten real comfortable behind the line.

"And I also think his teammates are doing a good job looking for him. There's been a lot of good rim reads and a lot of spray-outs and they're good rhythm threes. We just don't want to take any three. We want to make sure that they're good threes, where it allows us to also get back and get our defense set.

"So there's a combination of the two things, but I'm very pleased with his overall progress and I think he'll continue to grow."

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