What We Learned About R.J. Barrett's Game From Summer League
The hot takes after one RJ Barrett summer league game were too predictable: "he's not good when you give him shots." "Already one of the worst summer league players." "No J Barrett." I will admit, that last one cracked me up, and much of the harsh criticism directed at Barrett came from him being the main attraction of what the media expected to be a rags-to-riches Knicks offseason. RJ's combined 7-33 shooting through his first two games was the flip side of the rabid hype that surrounded him on draft night. His chills-inducing introduction to Madison Square Garden got me thinking: imagine the reaction if the Knicks ever landed an actual superstar? In some ways, it's a bit relieving now that summer league is over as it officially puts an end to the constant seesawing between RJ the Bust vs. RJ the Savior. The real Barrett probably lies somewhere in the middle of those extremes, and the competing narratives were only exacerbated by RJ's night and day performances from the first half to the second half of summer league. Now that the dust has settled, it's hard to complain about the counting stats; he's making history at 19!
Putting up numbers was never the issue for Barrett, the bigger question has always been whether he possesses the efficiency and other, more unquantifiable skills such as defense and playmaking to become a transformative NBA star. Summer league was never going to give us those answers, but it did give us a peak into the type of player that Barrett already is and could become. Let's dive into the biggest takeaways from Summer RJ:
He likes the ball in his hands, a lot
I couldn't tell you what position Barrett should play in the NBA. If anything, summer league only added to that quandary as RJ flashed playmaking skills that would make for a dynamic two guard while having the body to play the three and *possibly* the four. Nonetheless, it seemed like he looked most comfortable in situations in which he was asked to create for the offense — be it his own shot or finding an open man. Fortunately for the Knicks, Barrett shouldn't be the type of black hole high-usage player that kills any and all flow within the team's offense, and he showed a propensity for playing with his head up even when he did hold the ball:
Mitch doesn't set the best screen there, but the play displays Barrett's ability to sniff out a bent defense and find the open spots, specifically in the corners. One of the overwhelming takeaways from both fans and scouts is RJ's lack of explosiveness and first step. After his first two games, scouts told Ian Begley that "[Barrett] hasn't looked explosive off the dribble" and seems to lack "bouncy athleticism." Even in his best moments, he looks more like Kyle Lowry than Russell Westbrook, and it's clear that he will have to rely on his strength over his quickness. That's not necessarily a negative though, as RJ is already strong enough to play at his own pace, holding his ground long enough to make solid reads:
I'm more skeptical of Barrett's finishing ability — it was encouraging that he varied up his drives and didn't only go left, but he still confirmed what we expected given his putrid college finishing numbers (45th percentine in finishing). I have a hard time believing that a 19-year-old (not named Zion Williamson) will be able to bully NBA-caliber defenders, and I anticipate a lot of ugly drives and offensive fouls. Even still, RJ's frame is ideal for a modern NBA wing, and as he adds muscle the post will become his best friend. His strength combined with his willingness to pass could make him an unpredictable handful down low:
Barrett's nowhere near a finished product, and part of the fun is seeing flashes of the various parts of his game that will develop as he gets more comfortable against NBA-level defenses. Squint hard enough and you'll see the blurry outline of a homeless man's James Harden:
We'll see how long the learning curve for Barrett is, but once he combines his strength with his scoring there's no reason why he shouldn't become a force on offense.
His Spot-Up Jump Shot is a Work in Progress
Part of being an inefficient scorer (34% shooting overall in summer league) is that we have a house of lowlights that RJ's bricks built. Although a fair amount of those came at the rim, it's clear that he doesn't possess the smoothest jump shot mechanics and oftentimes lacks repeatability and good balance. I'm no shot doctor (and for an even more in-depth breakdown of his shot I recommend this breakdown from NYBasketballObserver) however one key trend I did notice with Barrett's spot-up shot was the difference when he caught the ball low vs. high. Perhaps the biggest problem with RJ's shot is his low release, as it limits the arc he can get on the ball and forces him to take an extra second to get the shot off. But when the pass comes in low, Barrett's stroke actually looks pretty fluid:
Now compare those to when he has to bring the ball down before rising up for his shot:
You can hear the gears turning in his head: "down, and then up." To become an above-average spot-up shooter, he'll have to work on minimizing or hopefully getting rid of that extra step of going low before shooting. It'll help with his shot speed and make his stroke look less mechanical and more repeatable.
The Frame Is There To be a Good Defender
Little was expected from Barrett on defense based on the type of player that he's perceived to be: a high-usage scorer that doesn't bring that same energy on the other end. Take a look at the list of the top 10 players in usage rate from last season:
1. James Harden
2. Joel Embiid
3. Devin Booker
4. Lou Williams
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo
6. D'Angelo Russell
7. Donovan Mitchell
8. LeBron James
9. Kemba Walker
10. Russell Westbrook
Aside from the MVP and the 250 lb. Joel Embiid, that's not exactly a list of defensive savants. As such, it's natural to expect that Barrett, a player who may one day find himself in the top 25 in usage rate, to be a liability on that end. Yet, I don't think we're looking at a Kanter or a Trier on defense because RJ has the size and the motor to at least be a competent defender. His 6'10" wingspan is his most encouraging attribute, and we've already seen glimpses in summer league of him putting that length to use:
In the first clip he combines his long arms with his low center of gravity to keep his man stuck in the corner, and much of the optimism surrounding Barrett's defensive prowess revolves around him having the strength to keep players in front of him. It remains to be seen how he'll look against quicker guards, but if he can give the necessary effort for things like going through screens and properly switching, it's likely that RJ should be able to at least hold his own as a defender.
The other week I came across this tweet and I couldn't help but think of Barrett:
It was a pure gut reaction, given the hype surrounding all three coming out of high school that neither Wiggins nor Parker ever lived up to, and which Barrett raised more questions than answers to in his one season at Duke. (In fairness to Parker, suffering back-to-back torn ACLs significantly shifted his career arc.) For Wiggins, his inefficiencies as a scorer combined with his lackluster defensive effort have made for a career of empty stats, and he lacks that intangible motor which fans and scouts both fetishize. We'll never get inside any of these guys' heads, but everything we've heard about Barrett seems to suggest that he's an obsessive worker who's always looking to improve his game, and given the various tools that he's already shown, putting them all together one day doesn't seem too far-fetched. We're gonna have the "he's still just a kid" narrative shoved down our throats this season after every ugly turnover or midrange brick, yet the signs surrounding him already feel more encouraging than those that we heard about last year's Knicks NBA toddler, Kevin Knox. The "Knox is only 19" argument has never really done much for me because it's painfully obvious that there are a lot of things that Knox is simply not good at, and he'd benefit more from refining his game. Whereas with RJ, it seems like the tools are there to be a dominant scorer and playmaker. There will be plenty more games to dissect Barrett's highlights as well as his lumps, and I for one can't wait to determine whether he's a star or a bust again in late August during the FIBA World Cup.