It was lost in the shuffle Monday night between the welcoming of new team president Leon Rose and then the screaming from Spike Lee. But what Knicks rookie RJ Barrett did in leading the team to a win over the Rockets didn’t go completely unnoticed.
After Barrett matched his season-high with 27 points and scored the decisive basket with 7.6 seconds left, Houston’s James Harden took note.
“Aggressive. I like it, especially as a rookie,” Harden said afterward. “Not timid at all and when you’re aggressive and confident in your game, you look good out there. Want him to continue to build his confidence and keep being aggressive and have the opportunity, which he will, to be great.”
For Barrett though, that confidence is the thing, an important thing because as a rookie those moments are countered by nights like Wednesday when he looked very much like a rookie. Plagued by foul trouble much of the night, Barrett had just 14 points as the Knicks never led, falling to the Utah Jazz at Madison Square Garden, 112-104. It marked the first loss for Leon Rose in his brief tenure as team president, at least on the court after three days of chaotic activity off the court.
Julius Randle led the Knicks (19-43) with 32 points and 11 rebounds. Bobby Portis came off the bench with 11 points and Elfrid Payton had 20 points with nine assists.
Bojan Bogdanovich and Donovan Mitchell each had 23 points for the Jazz (39-22).
Barrett, after spending one season at Duke where success seems frozen in time with championship banners raised regularly and Mike Krzyzewski in place for 40 years, has endured not only his own roller coaster, but has done it in the glare of another bizarre season at Madison Square Garden. He has seen his first coach fired, a team president dismissed and nights like this where the final minutes of a one-sided loss were accompanied by chants of, “Sell the team.”
“There’s ups and downs for everybody, every single player,” Barrett said. “Year One. So I’ve just got to stick with it.”
“I think you see a guy that really has a lot of confidence, has abilities obviously to do things,” Knicks interim coach Mike Miller said. “I think people are starting to see it. I think the biggest thing, I don’t see any big changes. I think he’s growing as you would expect him to grow with the work that he’s put in, with the talent that he has. I think the big thing now is he’s just feeling so much better. When he came back it probably took him five games or so to kind of get where he was feeling more like himself, doing the things that he does. I think we were seeing prior to the injury a big jump in his production and more importantly his efficiency in doing those things.”
Barrett has had his share of both the ups and downs this season. Facing the task of comparisons to the No. 1 and 2 picks in the NBA Draft - Zion Williamson and Ja Morant - he has come up short for much of the season. While Williamson is being measured against historical figures as he wreaks havoc on the NBA and Morant is compiling highlight reels nightly, Barrett has been a rotation piece, but not one who is being counted on yet as some sort of foundational fixture in New York.
He began the season struggling with his shot, confoundingly bad at the free-throw line and erratic from beyond the arc. He relied mostly on his strength for a 19-year-old with one year of college ball to power to the rim. But his shot - other than after missing nine games with a sprained ankle - has begun to round into form on most nights. And then there are nights like Wednesday when he was just 5-for-12 shooting - aided by two garbage-time baskets, including a layup with less than a second remaining.
“I feel like when you come back, it takes you a little bit to get in a groove,” Barrett said. “And every day I’ve just been working, so kind of getting back. Just been kind of learning and learning my spots, learning the game more, especially. I felt like I was doing good until I got hurt. So just coming back now and relaxing.”