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Poised and fearless, RJ Barrett looks like a Knicks prodigy

Knicks forward RJ Barrett (9) looks on in

Knicks forward RJ Barrett (9) looks on in the second quarter on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019 at Madison Square Garden. Credit: Corey Sipkin

RJ Barrett found himself on an island Friday night, alone in the spotlight as he got into a defensive stance, staring down Kyrie Irving.

The clock was ticking down, the crowd was on its feet — a pretty equal number voicing support for Barrett and the Knicks even though the game was at Barclays Center. Think about what he was facing: perhaps the greatest ballhandler in the NBA, maybe in NBA history, readying to take him one-on-one in front of a crowd at full volume and even both teams’ benches standing to watch, and doing it in just his second NBA game.

And he loved it.

“It was great, especially as a 19-year-old, that’s the atmosphere you want to play in,” Barrett said afterward. “I’m very honored that I got to play in this game today.”

Irving did what he does, what he has done before and will do again, dribbling Barrett onto his heels and then sidestepping back beyond the arc and calmly draining the go-ahead three-point field goal to ruin the Knicks hopes. 

“I mean, he’s earned it, great player, champion,” Barrett said. “Great players make great plays and that’s what he did tonight. Same shot he hit to win the championship against Golden State. It’s tough. I was right there, nothing else you could do about that one.”

Whether it was isolated against Irving on the floor or describing the scene afterward, Barrett just didn’t feel like what he was, a rookie with just one year of college behind him and now in his second game. Maybe it is the pedigree of coming from parents who were athletes here in New York — his father Rowan a key piece to St. John’s basketball and then playing professionally all over the world and for his country, Canada, where he now serves as general manager of the national team, and his mother Kesha was an elite sprinter raised in Brooklyn. Maybe it is growing up with Steve Nash as his godfather that prepared him.

But he has begun his career playing 37 minutes in San Antonio and 36 against Brooklyn, starting the first game at point guard — a position he has played, but is not his natural spot. He has made the mistakes that you might expect from a player this young — turning the ball over five times in Brooklyn and missing all three of his free-throw attempts. But he has also scored 21 points against the Spurs and 16 against the Nets, hit a pair of three-point field goals in Brooklyn and also took the ball to the rim intent on dunking on whoever gets in his way.

After beating his fellow Duke product, Irving, who had spoken to him at times throughout the game, had only kind words for Barrett.

“I’m in the league my ninth year now, so seeing RJ be so young and be so poised and really just play fearlessly is really great,” Irving said. “Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] really prepared him for it. Like I said, I’m going to see him for a few more years in the league. I just told him to stay calm, and I’m always here. But obviously, we want to kick each other’s butts on the court, and that’s the way it should be.”

Knicks coach David Fizdale has experimented with limited success through the first two games trying to find combinations that work among his oddly-constructed roster. But the one thing he has not done is waver at all in his faith that Barrett is ready for all of this. When the Knicks three experienced point guards didn’t win the job in preseason he didn’t hesitate to put the ball in Barrett’s hands.

After that first game Fizdale said, “When the popcorn’s popping, that kid is ready.” He added Friday, “That’s just how he plays. He just has a way about him. He kind of lets the game come to him. He sees the game really well. He has a really good feel for the game. He picks his spots well.”

The fans in Brooklyn were chanting, “Where is Zion,” at times Friday, a nod to the Knicks tanking efforts last year to secure the top pick in the NBA Draft and select Barrett’s Duke teammate, Zion Williamson. The Knicks settled for the third pick and Barrett and on a team where little seems right, he is the one player who seems made for this.

Musical chairs

Fizdale has shuttled through one combination after another, trying to find a group that works as the Knicks have fallen behind by 16 points in the opener and then 19 in the second game. They started without a true point guard in the opener and then gave the job to Elfrid Payton for the second game. But he abandoned the first plan by halftime of the opener and used Payton sparingly as the game wore on in Brooklyn, instead pairing Barrett with Allonzo Trier for an offensive boost.

Asked after the Brooklyn loss how difficult it is to figure out which point guard to play, Fizdale shook his head and said, “Difficult.”

If he had a plan coming into the season, it’s hard to see. Dennis Smith Jr. has shot poorly since returning from a lower back strain that sidelined him for much of the preseason, hitting just 3 of 17 in two exhibition games and then carrying it over and shooting 1 of 8 in the first two games of the regular season. Fizdale raved about Frank Ntilikina through training camp and the Knicks picked up his fourth-year extension late in camp. But he played less than three minutes in the opener and didn’t get off the bench in Brooklyn.

Next level

Kevin Knox wanted to come back this season stronger and expanding his shooting. So far, so good. After shooting 34.7 percent from three-point range as a rookie Knox has hit 7 of 8 from beyond the arc in the first two games.

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