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Draft picks RJ Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis face big expectations with Knicks

RJ Barrett, left, and Ignas Brazdeikis, smile during

RJ Barrett, left, and Ignas Brazdeikis, smile during a news conference as they are introduced at Madison Square Garden on Friday after they were drafted by the Knicks on Thursday. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

The Knicks put RJ Barrett and Ignas Brazdeikis on a stage Friday morning, the day after the NBA Draft. Expectations were not light.

Almost as soon as they settled into their chairs, the first question to Barrett was, “Are your shoulders big enough to carry this franchise?” Given that Barrett is 19 years old and had been a Knick for not even 24 hours, it might have been a big ask.

“That’s funny,” Barrett said. “Carry? I wouldn’t say carry. I’d say this is going to be a great group of guys that are going to be together. We’re all excited for Coach Fizdale. This is the biggest stage. So yeah, I’m excited to be here, I’m excited to play, but I haven’t even played a game yet, so how are you going to ask me that question?”

Knicks general manager Scott Perry leaned in and joked, “Welcome to New York.”

Barrett was the Knicks’ target once they fell to third in the draft, but with $70 million of cap space available, he hardly was the only piece on the team’s radar this summer.
But those expectations that stars will be coming to take the pressure off the young pieces and relieve the long suffering of the fans might not come to fruition just yet.

The team has a very small list of players worth those max- salary slots fans dreamed of through the 17-65 season. With Kevin Durant suffering a ruptured Achilles that will sideline him for the entire 2019-20 season, Kawhi Leonard basking in the afterglow of a title and Kyrie Irving appearing ready to take up residence in Brooklyn, it is Barrett and pray right now.

“I think we’re asking them to continue to be patient,” Knicks president Steve Mills said. “We laid out a plan when Scott came on board and then David [Fizdale] joined us, that we were going to build this team the right way. We’re going to draft well and we’re gonna be diligent about how we make this team and not take any shortcuts and follow a path.’’

The promise of signing free agents seemed to be the next step, but circumstances and the trade of Anthony Davis have put the team back into the step-by-step approach that they asked fans to endure last season.

“We believe these two guys are part of that process, the young guys that we added over the last two years, the draft picks that we acquired and adding good, young, quality basketball players that compete is important,” Mills said.

“Take a guy like [Brazdeikis]. Scott and I saw him play in Chicago and we said we were really impressed with his competitiveness, his toughness, the way he could shoot the ball. We actually said this guy is going in the first round, we’re not going to have a chance to get him. And as we were watching the draft play out, our analytics guys, he rates out really high as a rotational NBA player. When there was an opportunity to go get him,     we decided that was something that was important for us to do, because we didn’t expect that opportunity.”

Even if Barrett may have expected this — he said his late grandfather preached it into existence when RJ was just a child — even he had to be surprised by what has occurred.

Barrett and Brazdeikis are newcomers to the Knicks, but they hardly are unfamiliar with each other. They played together while growing up in Canada and have been aware of each other since they were 8 years old. Now, instead of a Toronto youth league, it was the Garden.

Brazdeikis flew in early in the morning and Barrett was in the city, having his picture taken by fans and his phone blowing up by well-wishers.

“It’s been great, but like you said, a lot of love, a lot of support,” Barrett said. “This is the place I wanted to be, so for everything to work out the way it did, for me to have my boy with me now, I couldn’t be happier.”

Notes & quotes: The Knicks signed UCLA small forward Kris Wilkes to a two-way contract as an undrafted free agent. They also signed Division II Shaw University’s Amir Hinton and Louisville’s VJ King to exhibit 10 contracts.

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