When the offensively challenged Knicks won at Golden State on Thursday to begin a four-game road trip, it seemed worth noting that RJ Barrett had led the way with a career-high 28 points.
When Tom Thibodeau talked about Barrett after the game, he gave him a number of compliments but never got to the scoring output as something worth praising. And that was with good reason, because the second-year wing has been inconsistent with his shooting and has yet to reach the lofty heights to which some of the players from his draft class have ascended.
But maybe as much as anyone on the roster, he has been molded in Thibodeau’s image as a versatile player who does more than just score.
"I think RJ’s played really well over, I’d say, like the last five or six games, playing at a really high level," Thibodeau said. "He started off the season where he had a big opening night and I think teams came after him pretty good. But he’s adjusting, and even during the stretch where he wasn’t shooting particularly well, he was rebounding great and he was playmaking.
"I think now he’s playing a great all-around game. His floor game is terrific. His defense is vastly improved. And he’s making the right reads. He’s got a good blend going of scoring and passing. He’s commanding a lot of attention, which is opening things up, so I’m very pleased with his progress."
While Julius Randle has been the offensive leader, Barrett has emerged as a steady sidekick. His offense has not always been steady, but his play has been. After Thursday’s game, they were tied atop the NBA in total minutes played at 593 (37.1 per game). They have teamed for a heavy workload, helping to spearhead a defensive unit that has allowed the fewest points per game in the league at 102.8.
And most important to Thibodeau: His young team is an unexpected 8-8.
"We’re just trying to work hard and grind every day," Barrett said after the 119-104 win over Golden State, with a game in Sacramento on Friday night. "That’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re really focused."
Barrett’s all-around play has helped cover up some of the still-troubling aspects of his game. Although he has shot 51.4% in the last five games, including 10-for-17 on Thursday (2-for-3 from beyond the arc), he still has struggled through protracted slumps, particularly from three-point range. After a 26-point game on opening night in which he connected on all three of his attempts from long range, he endured a 0-for-21 stretch from three-point range in the next four games.
Before this five-game stretch of solid offense, he had a four-game span in which he shot 30.3% overall and 6.3% from three-point range.
"I was just trying to play the game of basketball," he said of his career-high night Thursday. "Teammates were making a lot of great plays and I was just kind of open out there.
"I think I’ve just been watching a lot of film. My teammates, my coaches have really been having my back, encouraging me. Just really trying to play basketball to the best of my ability."
Said Thibodeau, "I’ve said this from the beginning, I love our young guys, particularly with their attitude and their approach. Every day they come in with a lot of energy. Some days we make mistakes, but the next day there’s a determination to correct mistakes and get better. If we do that each and every day, we’ll continue to grow.
"That’s what I love about them. Our vets are doing a great job. It’s a total team effort. Even the guys that aren’t in the rotation right now have been phenomenal in practice, and I think the quality of practice is critical for our development."