RJ Barrett is the template. He’s the prototype. Would you like to estimate where the Knicks have been, where they are, where they are going? Barrett is the Knicks in miniature. He’s the curtsy in a microcosm. Both have come a long way. And both can still climb higher. The hard part was getting here.
« He’s already made a great jump, » said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau of Barrett, his sophomore striker. « He’s a gym rat. He’s in the gym all the time.
That was Barrett’s job all season. It’s easy to say he just follows the lead of Juius Randle, the Knicks alpha dog, whose own insatiable work ethic has quickly become a narrative for itself, except that it was Mike Krzyzewski speaking in the media dining room at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium on the evening of December 18, 2018.
« If you like that train at this level for a long time like me, « said Krzyzewski that night, » you are necessarily with a lot of people who are working themselves to the edge. Think of some of the people who got through here – Bobby Hurley, Jay Williams, JJ Redick, Trajan Langdon. You had to kick her out of the gym. «
The kid in question was Barrett, all 11 games of his college career, all 18 years old, already by his social media rock star teammate Zion Willilamson overshadowed that but that night 27 on a good Princeton team lost in a 101-50 dusting. This happened at the beginning of Krzyzewski’s 39th year with Duke, his 44th as head coach of Division I. In fact, Barrett talks about ending up in visiting cities, leaving his bags at the hotel, and then finding an open gym in that he could shoot. It has always been his routine. Perhaps in a time of COVID-19 restrictions there has been a lack of alternative options, but this has been a part of him from the beginning, since Duke, since his rookie year here.
The results, the improvements are tangible. You are obvious. In one year, Barrett improved all of these numbers: points (14.3-17.6) rebounds (5.0-5.8) assists (2.6-3.0). His number of shots went from 40.2 / 32.0 / 61.4 to 45.7 / 40.1 / 74.6. His efficiency rating rose from 10.7 to 13.4.
The eyes tell the rest and if you’ve seen him this year you’ve seen a more confident gamer, a more comfortable gamer, a gamer who isn’t afraid of contact and welcomed the basketball in one big place. And there is one more thing to remember.
« Sometimes you have to take a step back, » said Thibodeau, « and remember that he’s 20 years old. »
At 21 years old in 3 ½ weeks Barrett will also have his first taste of the NBA playoffs. After a season in which he played all 72 games and averaged almost 35 minutes in those games, he has already learned the importance of showing up for work every day. It’s not a given.
« I’m really proud of it and really blessed, » said Barrett. « I thank God for that. Whenever I’m available, little nicks and bruises to play through, that’s what I’ve done. I just want to show up for my team. “
And in its own way, it serves as a guide for the common good. As with Barrett, not much was expected of the Knicks this year. Like Barrett, they were quick to prove the opposite to the critics and skeptics, and did so over four months of the season. And just like Barrett, there has to be another burst of further improvements for the Knicks to take the next step, the quantum leap from seriousness to dependable elite.
Thibodeau hesitates to compare players as this becomes a parlor game that no coach can win, but he’s willing to compare Barrett’s work habits to those of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Jimmy Butler he coached with the cops, and their elbow fat – and career arcs – are part of the legend.
« They all got better every year because of the job they all did, » Thibodeau said. “They are all tough, serious people ready to get better, and they’ve gotten better.”
It’s a good harbinger of what’s to come with the Knicks. And a better one when it comes to Barrett.
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