LAS VEGAS — When RJ Barrett took the floor on Tuesday night for his third game in the NBA Summer League, he took the hard lessons learned from the first two nights and worked his way into the action. He passed to teammate, fellow rookie and childhood friend Ignas Brazdeikis on his first possession and went minutes without attempting a shot.
So far, so good. Then he attempted his first shot. It was swatted away. He retreated to the three-point line for his next attempt and put up an air ball.
But if the lessons have come painfully in his first tentative steps into the NBA, one thing that Barrett has shown is that he isn’t lacking confidence. He shrugged off the struggles of this game, just as he discarded the 7-for-33 shooting over the first two nights, and piled up 17 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots as the Knicks fell to the Raptors, 85-73, for their third straight loss.
He followed it up Wednesday with a 21-point, 10-rebound effort as the Knicks got their first win, beating the winless Lakers, 117-96. He began this night 0-for-4 but finished 6-for-17 and 2-for-8 from three-point range. The Knicks will play a consolation round game to finish their stay here.
“Obviously, you want to do well,” Barrett said. “As a competitor you don’t like not doing well. It’s just a game. It’s my first two games. Even this game wasn’t so good. So I’m just continuing to get better every day.
“I haven’t played the game in a while. Shake some rust off and just getting better. Trying to let the game come to me, get more comfortable, go back to how I play. I know how to play basketball, so I’m trying to get more comfortable.”
Summer League is a hard place to gauge any sort of opinion, good or bad. The Knicks, with three of their likely regular-season starters in the lineup and playing huge minutes, were the favorites here in Vegas to win the title and now will not even make the playoff rounds. But despite their expectations, Barrett is just 19 years old, Kevin Knox will turn 20 next month and Mitchell Robinson is 21.
Barrett was selected No. 3 overall in the NBA Draft last month — the highest pick of any player by the Knicks since Patrick Ewing in 1985 — and he is being counted on to lead the rebuilding efforts in New York. And if his performance is not shocking, considering his age and inexperience, there have been some head-shaking among league observers. One Eastern Conference scout noted, “He’s not fast enough to get by anyone and he doesn’t shoot it well.”
“I think they’re all learning,” Knicks summer league coach Jud Buechler said. “We just ask them to get better. That’s been our mantra, get better everyday, especially for RJ and Iggy, They’re trying to figure out the pace, the speed of the game. Iggy had a huge game last game. [Then Tuesday] he struggled a little bit. That’s going to happen. These kids are 18, 19 years old and we’re asking them to do amazing things right away. I was very pleased with RJ’s game and the progress that he made.
“He’s playing off guard right now. he’s playing a little small forward. We like the ball in his hands as well. We’re trying to get him comfortable, trying to get him a bunch of different looks with the coaching staff of how he’s going to help and impact our team this year. He’s been great with the ball. He’s been pretty darn good off the ball. It’s just this is all development for him right now. We’re trying to give him as much freedom as he needs.”
Barrett did show some of the things he can do by the end of Tuesday's game, scoring 10 points in the fourth quarter. He had a pair of righthanded drives, including one where he grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled the length of the court, eased past defenders and smoothly drained a three-point field goal.
“Everybody has just been really positive,” Barrett said. “From my teammates to the staff to literally everybody I know, everybody has been positive. This is just basketball, you know. It’s a fun game, so I know I’m going to figure it out.”