On June 20, 2019, NBA commissioner Adam Silver stepped to the podium at the Barclays Center and announced the Knicks were taking RJ Barrett as the third pick in the NBA Draft.
Barrett, in his new pink suit designed especially for draft night, pumped his two fists. His father, Rowan Barrett, punched the air.
Spike Lee, in his blue Knicks jersey, clapped madly — on hand to see the player with Brooklyn roots get drafted by the Knicks.
It was quite the night, and it’s no longer shrouded in regret. Barrett is slowly emerging as a stud after an up-and-down rookie season. The voters kept him off the two NBA All-Rookie teams in a surprise.
John Hollinger, the former Memphis Grizzlies executive who now writes a column for The Athletic, redrafted the 2019 group earlier this month and placed Barrett right back at No. 3 behind Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.
It was an ironic twist. Hollinger had posted his All-Rookie ballots online prior to the voting deadline last July and kept Barrett off the top-10 rookie list.
Hollinger wrote it then as a bad rookie crop but his metrics had Terence Davis on the first team and Cody Martin, Cameron Johnson, Matisse Thybulle, as part of the second team. Barrett was not mentioned.
The voters were told to factor in play before the Orlando restart. Hollinger’s metrics did not include that Barrett led rookies in minutes (1,704) before the Orlando restart, was durable in playing 56 of 65 games, missing one stretch of nine games because of a sprained ankle. Barrett also played in the NBA’s toughest media market and as a focal point of a bad team.
Before the season, Barrett said he’d use the snub as motivation and it’s worked. Barrett’s stock is way up, evidenced by Hollinger’s mea culpa in slotting him again at No. 3.
“I think you see it, everybody sees it,” Barrett said before facing the Timberwolves Wednesday. “I’ve been working my butt off, producing out there on the court. I don’t really know what else to say. I still think it’s crazy. But all I can do is continue to play well. The team’s playing well. That’s all that really matters.”
Against Miami on Monday, Barrett scored eight points – and that was news. It was the first time in 15 outings Barrett didn’t hit double figures. That’s how much he had been rolling.
“We made a lot of mental mistakes,” Barrett said. “We weren’t us that night.”
In March, Barrett is averaging 20 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists, shooting 46.7 percent. Future All-Star is being attached to his name.
“The team is getting better so because of that, it’s easier for me to be there for other guys because we’re playing well,” Barrett said of the 25-24 Knicks.
Barrett averaged 14.3 points as a rookie but his percentages were below grade – with a true shooting percentage of just 47.9, a vital number for analytics gurus like Hollinger.
A scouting report emerged that if you take away Barrett’s left hand, you take away his slasher ability. But Barrett, in his second season, is getting to the rim at will.
“It depends on the game, the team, depends on their schemes,” Barrett said. “I also think couple of plays we have it’s tougher to take my left hand away. But no matter what I’m always looking to get back to that.”
Many of his percentages have risen from his rookie season, most notably free-throw percentage (73.1 percent). He’s had a little dip recently in his 3-point shooting as it’s settled in at 33.3 percent. But that’s still higher than last season’s 32 percent.
Teams are willing to play zone against the Knicks – partly because they dare Barrett to shoot from deep. Miami shut down the Knicks at the Garden with its zone Monday.
“We worked on it,” Barrett said. “We’re handling it OK. We definitely could be a little better. Any type of zone they want you out of the paint and want you to shoot. Any time you can get to the middle of the key and make plays it breaks the whole zone down.”
Barrett’s 3-point shooting ultimately will determine whether he becomes a perennial All-Star because he’s an expert driver with strength and crafty moves.
And his defense is become a strength — ranked 13th in the NBA in defensive rating among players who’ve logged 30 minutes. Players he defends are shooting 42.9 percent.
Upon his return to Minnesota where he got a reputation for not relating well to younger players, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau can take credit for Barrett’s increased defensive prowess.
“He’s a great coach, Barrett said. “Great person overall. Very smart basketball mind. He’s also really funny. He knows the game and really challenges you. I really like Thibs. I really like Thibs a lot.”