GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The standings and schedule can tell the Knicks that this season is essentially over, 5 1/2 games out of the final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference with just 14 games to play. But RJ Barrett, a disciple of head coach Tom Thibodeau, has no desire to ease up or slow down.
Barrett finished last season with the second-most minutes played in the NBA — behind his teammate, Julius Randle — and this season, his workload has been reduced, some due to injury and illness and a bit because of a slight drop in minutes per game from 34.9 to 33.9. But he still has goals for the team and for himself, some statistical and one bigger one.
Barrett was unaware that no Knicks’ first-round pick has signed an extension to remain with the team long-term since Charlie Ward, who was selected No. 26 overall in the 1994 NBA Draft. But he intends to break that streak.
"One hundred percent," Barrett said after the Knicks practice in preparation for Wednesday night’s game against Portland. "It’s also been a goal of mine. I’ve been trying to play my butt off and do everything out there to achieve that. Obviously, it’s not up to me what happens but that’s something I would like."
Barrett is due to make $10.9 million next season after the Knicks exercised the fourth-year option on his rookie contract, and he is eligible for a contract extension this summer that could earn him as much as $181 million over five seasons. While the Knicks have decisions to make, assuring that Barrett will not become a free agent would be near the top as he has developed into the most valuable player on the roster.
While there have been plenty of disappointments this season for the Knicks as they drop from a No. 4 seed in the East last season to a lottery team this season, Barrett has been the brightest spot, continuing to grow in his third season into a player who is the best perimeter defender on the roster and could finish this season as a 20 points per game scorer — currently a career-best19.3 points per game.
"Yeah, the thing that was impressive was the jump that he made last year with great impact on a winning team," Thibodeau said. "Came back, he had a really productive summer. He continues to get better. He’s got a great demeanor, great approach. There’s steps that you take. People forget that he’s 21 years old. He’s learning, he’s got a great work capacity. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him and he continues to get better and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I think he’s just built that way. So it’s a big plus for us."
Barrett has provided Thibodeau with a low-maintenance young star who models himself after a former Thibodeau star, Jimmy Butler.
"I think it’s a matter of doing it the right way, doing it in a smart way," Barrett said. "That’s why I love Jimmy Butler’s game. He just gets everybody involved and he’s able to still get his 20 in the right way.
"He’s brought him up as one of his guys that he coached. But like I said, just trying to do it the right way, that’s the most important part. Because a lot of people in the league, if you just say, ‘Hey go get 20,’ they can go get 20. But it’s, can you get 20 and affect winning?"
Notes & quotes: Thibodeau spoke of his own status, noting that he is ignoring the speculation. "I don’t worry about any of that stuff. Just coach the team. Coach the team, get ready for the next day. Never have. I know what I put into the job." . . . Quentin Grimes practiced with contact. How he recovers will determine if he plays Wednesday. Derrick Rose and Nerlens Noel did not practice.