Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz dribbles against RJ...

Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz dribbles against RJ Barrett #9 of the Knicks during the second half at Madison Square Garden on March 20, 2022. Credit: Getty Images

It’s easy to open up a boxscore and measure the improvement in RJ Barrett’s game as he has continued to step forward as a primary weapon for the Knicks in his third year in the league, his scoring average jumping in every season.

But that isn’t the way Barrett set out to measure his performance this season. And while his shooting percentages have slipped, like many after last season's outlier performances in empty arenas with unusual scheduling, he has done his damage while concentrating on his primary goal — to become an All-Defensive Team caliber player.

With Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton gone from last season’s squad, as well as defensive specialist Frank Ntilikina, Barrett asked for — and has gotten — the job of defending the best opposing wing or point guard nearly every night. So one night it’s LaMelo Ball, then Jimmy Butler and Sunday at times it was rookie Cade Cunningham or Saddiq Bey.

“I want to be a two-way guy,” Barrett said after the Knicks' win in Detroit Sunday. “I’ve been saying that for a while. Just been trying my best out there, honestly. Teams are doing good things. I’m normally matched up with the other team’s best perimeter guy, so I do what I can. It’s a team effort. And yeah, like I said, doesn’t matter [if his offense suffers]. I want to play on both sides of the ball.”

Some nights are better than others, but it is something that Barrett has worked toward, studying film, working in practice and utilizing his strength and size to try to mimic some of the players that have excelled in coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes.

“He’s hands on with all of us when it comes to defense,” Barrett said. “That’s our pride and joy, man. You play for Thibs, you’re going to play defense or you’re coming out.

“Right now, defensively, I feel like I’m OK. I feel like I’m solid. There’s definitely room for improvement. But I feel like I’m solid, especially just on-ball, one-on-one defense. I’m very confident in that right there. So, just try to figure the other little things out.”

Barrett has managed to nudge his way into becoming the face of the franchise this season at just 21 years old. Julius Randle has regressed from last season’s second-team All-NBA status and found himself at odds at times with the fan base.

Barrett has seen his shooting percentages dip as Randle’s has, but he has done so with a maturity belying his age. While Randle has sulked at times, Barrett has taken on all of the challenges with a determination that has endeared him to the fans. It may seem like a minor point, but it’s one that Thibodeau felt compelled to address Friday when he decried the social media noise's ability to create rifts in the team.

“It’s where we are in society today,” Thibodeau said. . “Social media, it’s a different animal. Look, hey, it’s part of the game. We love it. It drives the game. It’s as popular as it’s ever been. But to me, I don’t like anything that eats away at the fabric of the team. And so, people want to take one game, whether it’s a win or a loss and they went, ‘Well, this, this and this.’ No. And oftentimes, the things that they’re saying, a guy might make one good play in the game and he has nine bad plays or conversely, he makes nine good plays and he has one bad play.”

Barrett shrugged it off.

“We’re all on it,” he said. “I think it just depends on who you are. I’m really good with that stuff. That stuff don’t really bother me at all, clearly, because it doesn’t matter what they say; I’m going to go out and be me. That’s all you can do.

“But in terms of that, I think it’s just who’s in your camp, how confident you are, what voices do you have in your ear at home, just little things like that just to stay grounded. I know for me, I just turn my notifications off, so I don’t really see it. If I see something maybe pop up on my timeline, but I’m not looking. I don’t really care.”

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