RJ Barrett is The Guy, Isn't He?
When I saw Mark Tatum reveal the Lakers card for the number four pick on May 14, the night of what was maybe the Knicks' most important draft lottery since 1985, I yelled with more emotion than anything I had felt for any regular season game. The Knicks had secured a top-three pick: a season of abject shittiness would not be for nothing (a.k.a. the fifth pick) and while the Zion pipe dream would remain just that, the team still overcame the 60% odds of landing the fourth or fifth pick. We've all had the narrative beaten into us that this is a three-player draft, that the Grizzlies may already have a handshake deal with Ja Morant at number two in place, which leaves RJ Barrett, the consensus number one player coming out of high school as the likely number three pick. On paper, what's not to like? Barrett comes into the draft as perhaps the most decorated prospect, with a lengthy resume that includes the Morgan Wootten National Player of the Year award for high school, the USA Today Player of the Year award in college, and a well-documented international career with Canada in which he was named MVP of the 2017 U-19 FIBA World Cup. At just eighteen-years-old, it's kind of amazing to see all that Barrett has already accomplished, and his sizable workload on a star-studded Duke team indicates that even if RJ doesn't hit his 99th percentile outcome that he will still find a place in the league as an above-average scorer. Just based on his sheer level of talent, Barrett remains one of the most safe prospects in the draft, but for next year's Knicks team that has given every indication that they are intent on attracting big-name stars to the Garden, RJ's future seems much more uncertain than the two picks before him, leaving a summer's worth of rumors and speculation that make the offseason feel like the actual season.
The history of number three picks actually works in the Knicks favor, as the list includes numerous players that would be fantastic to have on rookie contracts: Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Bradley Beal (hold that thought), and James Harden are just a few that stick out from the last decade, and for the most part all of the perimeter players selected with the pick in the last ten years have been at worst slightly above average (since 2009, Otto Porter would qualify as the weakest selection). But for comparison's sake, let's put RJ's numbers up against another number one player out of high school:
22.6 PPG, 4.3 AST, 7.6 REB, 53.2 TS%, 32.2 USG%
20.7 PPG, 3.3 AST, 4.5 REB, 56.2 TS%, 31.8 USG%
Player A is of course our guy RJ, while the latter is O.J. Mayo, the 2008 third pick and the poster child for the narrative that "number one out of high school doesn't mean shit." The two have near identical usage rates, but besides that the peripherals seem to favor Barrett. He's a far better rebounder thanks to his stocky 6'7" frame, and despite being second in the nation in field goal attempts, was a decent playmaker who has shown the ability to manipulate defenses and find the corners:
Plays like those give me confidence that Barrett will be able to offer more than empty stats, and that if he's thrust into a team with stars that he will still be able to pick his spots to contribute. Say that his shooting improves like RJ himself believes it will, then Barrett has the makings of a very intriguing modern NBA wing: one who can slot into all kinds of lineups and become an All-NBA type of scorer. Imagine if DeMar Derozan had a three-point shot? The idea that playing on a contender will stunt his development is probably a little overblown, as there aren't many better players to learn from than the deadliest scorer in the game. It would also be one of the most unKnicksiest things ever to have a young top pick waiting in the wings for KD to pass the torch to. Either way, that's a scenario that includes far too many hypotheticals to seriously consider right now, and while it would be great to have a young stud as the team's fourth or fifth option, Barrett holds much more value to the struggling teams behind the Knicks, particularly the one with a King-sized hole in Cleveland.
The luxury of landing a top-three pick in a so-called "three-player draft" is that that top pick has exponentially more value than the picks behind it. Moreover, while us Knicks fans are getting ahead of ourselves and planning out hypothetical superteam lineups, teams behind the Knicks want to net that future star on draft night. At this point, the rumors of the Knicks trading down to picks 8 and 10 seem to be nothing more than a competent team doing its due diligence, and I'd still be much more interested in what a team like Cleveland has to offer, as there will likely be an appealing Texas Tech guard available who some people rank higher than Barrett. Jarrett Culver's ascension to the top picks of most draft boards follows Texas Tech's run to the National Championship game, and although listed as two inches shorter than Barrett, Culver plays at a pace that may be more suitable for the NBA game. As Ross Herman notes in his excellent breakdown of Culver for The Stepien, Culver's game has "an offbeat rhythm" that makes his drives hard to predict and more than makes up his lack of an explosive first step. Guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Caris LeVert have already showcased how effective this sort of finishing can be, and don't be surprised if Culver's idiosyncratic pace translates into above-average finishing numbers.
Now contrast those tools with Barrett, whose perhaps biggest knock is his poor touch at the rim: RJ shot just 53% at the rim, placing him in the 45th percentile of finishing, according to Synergy Sports. Whereas Culver has already displayed the necessary basketball IQ to make up for his lack of a strong first step, Barrett has relied on his so-called elite one, and thus far the results haven't been pretty.
Barrett's definitely the more explosive athlete, but his explosiveness is often on display in the open floor while it's easy to find clips of him being thwarted in the halfcourt. To be fair to RJ however, he finished second in the ACC in free throw attempts, averaging 5.9 attempts per game — that ability to get to the line could be indicative of his above-average dribble penetration, which, coupled with a smarter approach might turn that weakness into a strength. If I had to bet on Barrett or Culver becoming the more productive role player on a contending team next season, my money's on Culver: he's got higher efficiency marks in several categories such as isolation scoring, spot-up shooting, and cutting, not to mention his superior defensive tools and the fact that he will be two years older than Barrett. (I don't think it was a coincidence that 21-year-old rookie Donovan Mitchell looked like such a star straight from the jump.) Regardless, drafting for role players should only be something the Knicks do if they have the inside scoop from Rich Kleinman, and moving off of three is still only appealing to me if they can pick up Culver plus a juicy future unprotected first rounder. The number three pick should be about maximizing value, and Barrett's youth advantage means that he has a leg up over Culver in star potential.
Maximizing value also means picking up the asset that would be the most enticing in a trade for a star. Even if the AD trade doesn't come to fruition, Barrett could still hold plenty of value for the 2012 third overall pick, Bradley Beal. For whatever reason, the supermax extension is decided based on whether or not a player makes one of the All-NBA teams, and because Beal narrowly missed the cut the Wizards are unable to offer him that extension. With John Wall's contract and achilles injury, Washington's chances of contending next year are slim to none. They also fell three spots back to ninth in the draft lottery, and have little besides Beal in the form of young talent. The Wizards' situation closely mirrors that of the 2017 Bulls: a team which had lost its face of the franchise point guard due to debilitating injuries and which had to make a decision about its star guard under contract for two more years. The Bulls ended up trading Jimmy Butler on draft night for Kris Dunn, Zach Lavine, and the 7th pick in the 2017 Draft (Lauri Markkanen). Such a package would actually be something that the Knicks could put together between the third pick, Knox, DSJ, as well as the two Dallas picks, and if you're like me and in the Beal + Mitch > just AD camp, then this is the deal for you. It's hard to process sometimes, but the Knicks have actually managed to accumulate a decent amount of assets under the Perry-Mills regime, and whether or not Barrett ultimately ends up on next year's Knicks roster, he will undoubtedly play a key role in whoever does, making him the team's most important asset going into one of the franchise's most pivotal summers.