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David Fizdale sees stamina of Kawhi Leonard in RJ Barrett

RJ Barrett of the Knicks puts up a

RJ Barrett of the Knicks puts up a shot against Zach LaVine of the Chicago Bulls in the second half at Madison Square Garden on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

BOSTON — It’s a dangerous thing to make comparisons of players, to label someone as the next Michael Jordan or the next LeBron James or even the next Julius Randle.

You could just ask Enes Kanter about that last one after he went on television ahead of the NBA Draft this past summer and said of Zion Williamson, “I kind of feel like he’s overhyped. I feel like he’s Julius Randle with hops. That’s how I believe. Some players are even scared to say it, but you know me, I’m not scared to say anything.”

Randle wasn’t afraid to answer back either, tweeting, “Yo @EnesKanter last time you guarded me I had 45 relax bro lol.” 

Those two have since patched up any feud, but you see the danger. It’s particularly risky to make the comparisons when a player has barely stepped into the NBA, but David Fizdale didn’t hesitate to set a high bar for his own rookie, RJ Barrett. Fizdale has effusively praised the 19-year-old Knicks rookie and shown his belief by putting him on the floor for more minutes than any other player on the team — and on pace to play more minutes per game than any rookie since Damian Lillard in 2012-13.

But asked Friday if Barrett was physically ready for the workload that the coach has thrust on him, Fizdale raised this point — Barrett reminds him of Kawhi Leonard, the two-time NBA Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

“For sure. He’s really put together,” Fizdale said. “This kid, there’s times he’s running by me and he’s not sweating. I’m like, ‘Are you going hard?’ But he is. He’s playing really hard. There’s only one other guy that I saw that I’ve coached against that just doesn’t look like he’s breaking a sweat. That was Kawhi. Kawhi doesn’t look like he’s breathing. And RJ kind of has that same knack where he’s out there and his face doesn’t change and he’s steadily going about his business.”

Now, Fizdale isn’t comparing Barrett’s skill set to that of Leonard, but he has noted that the reason he plays him so much is because the team needs him. 

“A lot of it is it’s hard to take him off the floor,” Fizdale said. “He does so much for us. I know it’s a lot to ask of a rookie, but he’s handling it well.”

Learning curve

The Knicks have lost five of their first six games and they have remained mostly optimistic through the struggles, pointing to the learning curve of putting together a team with so many new pieces.

“We all know this and it’s almost a cliché, but to break a habit or make a habit, it takes two months. Eight weeks,” Fizdale said before the Boston game. “That’s whatever habit it is, for any human. Again, we’re talking about guys coming from all different systems. All different places, all trying to figure this thing out. 

“Am I saying it’s going to take us two months? No. But I just know it doesn’t happen in a week. We played our first regular season game on the 23rd. It’s the 31st. It feels like, for all of you too I bet, it feels like, holy crap, these guys have played like playoff series. The Spurs, the Nets game, the home opener, the Chicago game was wild. We’ve led in three out of the four games in the fourth quarter. That’s a positive sign for me as a coach that we’re putting all these new faces together and we’re right there. Where these other teams were playoff teams and they’ve been together. With some new additions, I don’t want to knock the fact that they don’t have new additions, too. But nobody’s dealing with 10 new faces.”

But it is more than just players acclimating to their new teammates or new roles. Fizdale has flipped through lineups and combinations with the team, sometimes with puzzling reasoning. With Dennis Smith Jr. away to be with his family after the passing of his stepmother and Elfrid Payton sidelined, Fizdale still opted in Orlando to not start Frank Ntilikina, his only true point guard. 

And his reason he explained was that he didn’t want Ntilikina to get in foul trouble. But the fallout of Ntilikina foul trouble would have been to fallback on the lineup that Fizdale decided on would be the worst-case scenario — so to satisfy a hypothetical he opted to make it real. He also said Friday that Ntilikina was his best on-ball defender — but didn’t play him at all against Kyrie Irving and the Nets and for just 18 seconds in the first meeting with Kemba Walker and the Boston Celtics.

Ntilikina then started Friday in Boston after Fizdale originally had said that he would keep him coming off the bench. Ntilikina played well — although oddly, the Knicks game plan was to switch nearly everything on defense, meaning that Ntilikina was rarely the primary defender on Walker, who finished with 33 points.

Morris makes his mark

Marcus Morris scored 29 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter Friday, but his heroics weren’t enough as the Knicks lost in Boston. But he was happy to visit the city where he spent the last two seasons — even if he wasn’t happy with the parting, the Celtics never making an attempt to sign him in the summer.

“The biggest thing is I came and I was myself,” Morris said. “And when I come back in here and I see everybody, the ball boys, down to the trainers, they all embrace me. That’s all I want to do. If I don’t win a championship I want to come down to being a guy that everybody loves, everybody enjoyed being around, a leader. Just leave my mark.”

If the results haven’t shown on the court, the Knicks believe that Morris has done the same things for them already.

“His leadership has been unbelievable,” Fizdale said. “I just didn’t know that going into it. I knew he was a tough guy and I knew he could play. But the way he’s been leading has just been really unbelievable, one of the better leaders I’ve been around in this game, the way he approaches the guys, the way he never goes off on the guys. He always calls it for what it is, he never does it where he’s pointing fingers. He always owns it first and then he tries to make sure he’s leading the group."

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