NBA Rookie Watch: Is It Time To Worry About R.J. Barrett?

The first two players selected in the 2019 NBA Draft are enjoying unbelievably positive rookie campaigns. No. 2 pick Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year favorite, leading the Memphis Grizzlies with strong season-long contributions, and No. 1 pick Zion Williamson is lighting the league on fire since making his delayed debut. However, the No. 3 overall pick, New York Knicks wing R.J. Barrett, hasn’t found his footing just yet, and whispers already are circulating about his struggles.

On the bright side, Barrett ranks near the top of the rookie class in both scoring and rebounding on a per-game basis. Without a deeper look, Barrett’s counting stats look just fine and, along the way, he has a handful of 20-point games that mask some of the more escalated issues.

Efficiency is the central issue for Barrett and, in some ways, that was foreseeable based on his collegiate approach. With the stretch run looming, he is shooting 38.9% from the floor, 30.8% from three and 60.7% from the free throw line. Those numbers are fairly dire and, since returning from a nine-game injury absence, Barrett is shooting just 34.5% from the floor and 1-of-13 from three. His three-point shooting was a documented question mark as Barrett entered the league, but perhaps the more damaging subplot is his inability to maintain efficiency inside the arc.

Barrett is shooting just 41.8% on two-point attempts, which is a far cry from his 53% mark on the same shots in college. He relied heavily on his physicality to overwhelm collegiate defenders and, with athleticism that isn’t off the charts by NBA standards, Barrett has found tough sledding. The free throw woes are also an issue, albeit a secondary one, in that his college free throw shooting was already substandard (66.5%) and that isn’t a figure that can provide him with insurance if other approaches fail.

At the moment, Barrett doesn’t excel in any one category, with an assist-to-turnover rate barely above water and a sub-400 ranking in ESPN’s defensive RPM. In short, Barrett ranks as one of the worst players in the NBA this season by several advanced metrics, and it is tough to refute that perception.

Barrett is only 19 years old, so it is crucial not to pour dirt on him as a prospect after what is still a small sample size. In contrast, it has to be discussed that his path to NBA success stems from the ability to score at a high level and, if he can’t maintain the requisite efficiency to soak up possessions, it is difficult to envision things “working” at the top of the NBA, especially without high-end defensive, passing or floor-spacing aptitude. Barrett’s struggles aren’t unique to young lottery prospects that have entered the dysfunction that is the Knicks organization, as Kevin Knox had similar woes a year ago, and it is there that may be of chief concern.

Not only does Barrett have multiple areas he needs to improve in, he will have to do so within an organization that does not have much of any track record of success with player development, particularly on the perimeter. That will make things more difficult, but if he can begin to show progress in New York of all places, it would be quite the indicator of his work ethic.

With that said, let’s roll into this week’s DIME rookie watch.

Honorable Mentions

  • De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish – Atlanta is playing better basketball, posting a 9-9 record in the last 18 games, and that coincides with some intriguing play from Hunter and Reddish. If anything, Reddish has probably been better than Hunter over the last few months (after a horrid start) but both are prominent pieces and performing adequately with a ton of minutes.
  • Jordan McLaughlin – McLaughlin wasn’t supposed to be a key piece for Minnesota, and he still may not be. But in the last few weeks, he’s been crucial for the Wolves, including a six-game period in which he’s averaging 12.3 points and 6.3 assists on quality efficiency. It’s a great story.
  • Nicolo Melli – Because of Zion and an uptick in team-wide effectiveness, people are paying more attention to the Pelicans. Hopefully, they’ll notice that Melli has been a solid role player all season, headlined by a 40% clip from three-point distance.

10) Coby White

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It hasn’t been a great year for the Bulls, nor has White dominated the competition in his rookie campaign. The lottery guard did just score 33 points in back-to-back games, though, and that warrants a mention. In fact, White has scored 23 points or more on seven occasions this season, illustrating a bit of his offensive upside.

9) Rui Hachimura

For the full season, Hachimura’s counting stats compare favorably to almost any rookie in this class, outside of the Williamson-Morant division. He missed 23 games but, before and after, the Wizards forward has been competent and efficient. Defensively, there are questions and his current box-score profile probably overrates his contributions, but Hachimura is having a nice season.

8) Tyler Herro

Herro has missed seven games in a row, leaving us to draw strength from his season-long performance. That includes a 39% clip on three-pointers and sizable contributions to a good basketball team. Let’s split the difference and slot him here.

7) Eric Paschall

The Warriors are (very) difficult to watch, but Paschall helps to bring some hope. He definitely battled a downturn in the middle of the season but, in eight February games, the former Villanova forward is averaging 12.1 points and 4.9 rebounds with 47.4% shooting from the floor. In the midst of the mess in Oakland, that looks pretty good.

6) P.J. Washington

Washington might be getting healthy for the first time in a while. He finished the run before the All-Star break with some struggles that included various maladies but, since then, the results have been better. It’s only a two-game sample, but Washington is averaging 16.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in the last two contests, shooting 50 percent from the floor and 50 percent from there. That’ll do.

5) Kendrick Nunn

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There have been plenty of highs and lows for Nunn from an efficiency standpoint. He’ll go a week or two shooting 35 percent from the floor and that makes it easy to question his overall play. Then, Nunn will post a 24-point game on good efficiency like he did on Saturday in a win over Cleveland, and you’ll be reminded that he’s No. 3 in the class in scoring (behind the “big two”) and a 54% true shooting isn’t too bad for a rookie on high usage that happens to be on a playoff team.

4) Terence Davis

Davis will slip through the cracks if you only look at counting stats, simply because he’s averaging only 8.7 points per game. He’s playing a sizable role on a legitimate contender, though, and Davis is producing 13.8 points per game on elite-level efficiency in February. He does a ton of things well and Nick Nurse’s apparent trust in Davis is a pretty significant endorsement of his play.

3) Brandon Clarke

It will be (very) interesting to see how the voting goes for Rookie of the Year because, well, Clarke is a pretty clear No. 3 if you care about efficiency. He’s leading the entire class in win shares and, in February, Clarke is averaging 13 points and seven rebounds while shooting 61 percent. He’s also legitimately helping a playoff-caliber team with a 21.9 (!) PER in his rookie season. I mean, come on.

2) Zion Williamson

Williamson has been preposterous since arriving on the scene. He’s been the best rookie (by far) on a per-minute basis and, in the last eight games, Williamson has topped 20 points each time while averaging 25.3 points and 6.6 rebounds in 30.1 minutes per contest. What else is there to say? He’s exceptional.

1) Ja Morant

The Grizzlies might be in some trouble for the next few weeks, with Jaren Jackson Jr. battling a knee issue and Memphis dropping back-to-back games to end this week. However, Morant still appears to be in a (very) strong Rookie of the Year position. His three-point shooting has waned a bit in the recent past but it is easier to withstand that when you average the counting stats that Morant is producing. Beyond that, his two-point efficiency has been remarkable for a first-year guard and he’s even bringing a bit of energy and effectiveness at the defensive end. Williamson is the trendier name and that may not change, but Morant’s body of work is pretty unassailable right now.