DimeMag

What’s Next For RJ Barrett After The Knicks Kept Him And Donovan Mitchell Went To Cleveland

As the dust finally settles in the aftermath of a vortex of unprotected picks and push notifications opening up a can of whoop-you-know-what on my phone, Donovan Mitchell is not a New York Knick. Perhaps of equal importance: RJ Barrett is still a member of the Knickerbockers.

Mitchell is a top-20 or so player who’s just about to enter his prime with three guaranteed years on his contract before a player option in 2025. He was central to a Jazz team that consistently found itself in the ballpark of 50 wins each year. He’s improved his scoring and playmaking approach, and while his defense has drastically fallen off since his rookie season, it’s undeniable that he’s one of the best guards in the league.

This is a player who could have brought the extra offensive juice the Knicks have lacked in the halfcourt. There certainly would have been questions about the sustainability of a Mitchell and Jalen Brunson backcourt, both defensively and in terms of their combined playmaking, but the actual talent upgrade compared to the past years in the Tom Thibodeau era would have been unquestionable. Right now, the franchise is in the “get young talent and figure things out” stage of team building.

Taking the next step that has long evaded New York involves conscious building efforts and getting to a level of continual postseason relevance. That’s when all the things that make playing for the Knicks so potentially appealing to big-name free agents start to become trump cards as opposed to theoretical things that a non-playoff team can offer.

While I still have questions about the bridge between Thibodeau and the front office and what that actually means for the team’s ability to develop players, choosing to balk at Utah’s ultra-high asking price for Mitchell is for the best.

Mitchell to the Knicks really only made sense to me as long as Barrett was still part of the picture. For how well I think Utah made out here, that above offer is one heck of a deal to turn down. I understand wanting a clear cap sheet, and I’d go as far as to say I get any reservations about paying Mitchell Robinson the deal he just signed. But turning down an offer including Barrett, who just turned 22 and signed a reasonable extension earlier this week, and three unprotected firsts is really surprising.

He is not a primary option on a contender, but with legit size and functional strength, defensive aptitude, and growing scoring acumen, this isn’t hard. Barrett is going to be a pivotal player on very good teams — he already has played a substantial part on a squad that made it to the playoffs and he has shown a willingness to get better in areas where he can stand to improve.

After the calendar turned to 2022, Barrett took on a larger chunk of the Knicks’ offensive burden, averaging 23.6 points per game over his last 41 games and getting to the line more than seven times per contest. While his efficiency was middling (51.6 percent true-shooting), the growth as a half-court scorer and creator was for real. He started to find better pacing, mixing more controlled drives and post-ups into his game to better utilize his strength. His reads can still be late, but he saw things with more regularity.

It’s reasonable to think he can take the leap and become one of the best second-side creators in the league this coming season. A lot will hinge on his in-between game improving and developing more counters inside the paint, but I’m a believer in that coming along based on Barrett’s growth already.

Barrett is one of the premier drivers in basketball, averaging 13.7 drives per 75 possessions, according to Second Spectrum. Only seven players in the league amassed more total drives than Barrett from Jan. 1 onward. Getting to the rim is half the battle, and a half that’s largely built on physical ability and handle. Given how cramped New York’s spacing could be last season in the half-court, his looks around the rim were often heavily congested. There wasn’t enough Mucinex in the world to clear the lanes for the Knicks, but Barrett willed his way into the paint regardless.

His improvement as a foul-drawer, in particular, has earned him more on-ball reps.

That half beat of pacing in his game has turned into some ability to blur the margins as a finisher with his developing knack to target limbs and draw contact. He can still attempt some awkward shots falling away from his momentum or moving away from the basket, but more and more of those looks became grifty trips to the line. Grifting is good, and it’s great when you are still developing your craft and polish as a scorer.

Barrett is still a ways away as a pull-up shooter. He’s a strength-based athlete, primarily built on his ability to get downhill and bulldoze opposition. He showed growth as a pick-and-roll playmaker and ball-handler, but the aforementioned finishing is stifled due to how openly teams will go under on screens for Barrett. It’s a lot harder to finish on a drive when the screen doesn’t really remove your defender from the equation.

He got up a greater number of pull-up 3’s in 2022, but shot 30.9 percent on a little over one per game.

Particularly going to his left, you can feel the stiffness in his shot. His foot placement can change up on each rep and he’s bothered by a defender who quickly attacks a screen. I’m not sure entirely how much you can develop some of that fluidity as a shooter and a finisher overall, but the adaptations that have been made already in spite of some of that makes me bullish on what his game could become if even a sliver of that gets applied.

Handoffs in the slots and empty corners were incredibly fruitful for Barrett, opening up mimicked ball-screen actions without throwing in the ability to fully go under, putting defenders in a bind. How far his pull-up shooting can go will be pivotal in his ability to operate on the ball.

The context of who the Knicks were last year and some of the constraints of his skillset made Barrett look dispiriting at times on paper. But by and large, Barrett made strides in the dregs of early spring that bode really well for his future.

All of this is to say that it’s for the best that a deal where Barrett would have been jettisoned to bring Mitchell on board didn’t happen. Moving their most valuable draft capital and their most intriguing player to become, at best, a capped out team built around Julius Randle and Mitchell would have made upward mobility difficult. There are certainly ways it could have worked, but I would’ve definitely been a doubter until it played out — I’m not a believer that the team, as it would have been constructed if the deal went through, could have been in contention for a top-6 spot in the East, even if things really broke right.

I remain firm that this team needs to be patient in actually developing out their youth, expanding a young core, and making quality moves that build for the future while still keeping open flexibility for the present. Keeping confidence in Barrett and exploring his pathways for more is essential. He won’t likely ever become the level of primary option that Mitchell already is, but he doesn’t need to be. Barrett is such an intriguing and enticing player and prospect because of that blend of defense, size, shooting. Any burgeoning on-ball juice and playmaking growth is a cherry on top. By keeping that flexibility with draft compensation and not punting on a still growing and talented wing, the Knicks have avoiding jumping the gun like the organization has in the past, even if losing out on Mitchell, a New York native, is a difficult pill to swallow.

This team still needs high-end talent and they’re still in a bit of an awkward spot with regards to how they’re perched in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks have done good things by bringing in quality players later in the draft (ex: Quentin Grimes and Jericho Sims), Brunson is a key signing even if he’s not the “star” that fans hoped for, and there are reasons to be excited about the continued growth of the young talent they possess. I still want to see more shrewd moves as New York hones their direction and refines their roster, but re-signing a young and talented first-round draft pick to a multi-year extension for the first time since Charlie Ward in 1999 is arguably more important to them than going for broke and acquiring Mitchell.

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