Buying or Selling RJ Barrett's Bizarre Summer League Showing

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterJuly 12, 2019

New York Knicks' RJ Barrett plays against the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA summer league basketball game Wednesday, July 10, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/Associated Press

More pressure was heaped upon RJ Barrett, the No. 3 pick of the 2019 NBA draft, when the New York Knicks failed to land an All-Star in free agency. Even in summer league while most other lottery picks sit out, every move and shot has seemingly been magnified.

But Barrett's uneven performance through four games has generated plenty of reaction around basketball. And though summer league isn't a reliable indicator for NBA success or failure, it's worth debating how much stock to put into the strengths and weaknesses that have popped in Las Vegas. 

Averaging 14.0 points on 29.7 percent shooting, Barrett has inefficiently produced for the 1-3 Knicks. 

        

Ball-handling/creation: Selling stock

The No. 1 concern that's stood out has been Barrett's inability to blow by or create separation. He's dribbling upright, as opposed to low to the ground. Too often as a ball-hander, he's had to turn his back to the basket and his defender, unable to gain a step and get by. 

It's led to contested shots, and Barrett has been forced to use his body as a method for separating by bouncing off contact. 

The scouting report will also clearly say to force him right after he shot 10-of-33 driving in that direction at Duke versus 16-of-22 going left, per Synergy Sports. Through four games, his preference and comfort level are evident. 

It hasn't been all bad, as Barrett should continue to have success attacking downhill with the right spacing and angle.

Around the perimeter, though, he hasn't shown much ability to create space. When he has, he's used so much energy that there isn't much left to put into his jump shot. He's already thrown up multiple airballs and gotten his shot blocked inside and out. 

For a prospect whose identity is built around scoring, Barrett's struggles going one-on-one are the biggest reason to worry, particularly since he isn't an advanced shooter.

          

Flashes of playmaking: Buying stock

Used to initiate the offense at different points throughout summer league, he has worked as a point-wing at times, bringing the ball up and making the first decision after crossing half court. 

Buy stock in Barrett's six-assist game against the Toronto Raptors. Though he doesn't always show great vision or a willingness to dish, he can be an accurate and savvy passer out of different situations. 

Barrett has made some good reads and thrown quality setup passes off ball screens, drawing two defenders before using his size to dish over the top to the roll man. He and Mitchell Robinson could ultimately make for a tough pick-and-roll duo when sharing the court. 

He's also shown recognition by noticing when Robinson has position down low, as he's been able to locate the mismatch or advantageous positioning from the big man and feed him a finesse entry pass that leads to an easy drop-in at the rim.

He'll never be a primary point guard, but Barrett's facilitating ability should make him a secondary playmaker, just as DeMar DeRozan (6.2 assists per game this season) has become later in his career with the San Antonio Spurs.

           

Rebounding: Buying stock

Though not the sexiest skill for a wing, Barrett's rebounding should be real. After averaging 7.6 boards at Duke, he's grabbed at least 10 in each of his last three summer league games. 

Barrett's eyes and feet follow missed shots. Some may say he hunts for rebounds, but he seems incentivized by the chance to grab and go given how much more comfortable he is handling in transition before defenses can set. 

Barrett should give New York an additional body in a crowded paint that wouldn't be there when certain other guards or wings are playing. 

            

Defense: Holding stock

Barrett's defensive reputation has changed over the years, and he has games with both strong and weak defensive possessions. More focus and NBA coaching could help reduce the number of mistakes, as he's already shown improvement since his debut against the New Orleans Pelicans

In the opener, Barrett was beaten multiple times on and off the ball. He doesn't always guard with a sense of urgency, whether he's ball-watching or dying too easily fighting through screens. He won't consistently make opposing scorers work hard enough to shake free or get a shot off. 

Ideally, he'll guard opposing small forwards instead of quicker guards at first. Once he improves his conditioning, he should be more versatile. 

However, in his subsequent summer league games, more possessions showed Barrett sliding his feet and anticipating. Arguably his top highlight so far as a Knick came in a closing play of regulation against the Phoenix Suns when he was defending NBA point guard Elie Okobo in isolation and stayed attached to block his shot off a drive: 

Barrett has made other reactions or deflections that highlight his potential to stay in front of scorers or get his fingertips on the ball.

Along with his physical tools, his competitiveness should also help unlock defensive potential and improvement. 

          

Shot-making/shooting: Selling stock

Just 6-of-25 from three (24.0 percent) and 19-of-28 from the free-throw line (67.9 percent), Barrett's perimeter touch hasn't been there. And I wouldn't bet on it arriving anytime soon based on high school, college (30.8 three-point percentage, 66.5 free-throw percentage) and the summer league eye test.  

With a green light to keep firing away, Barrett certainly has the shot-making ability to connect on threes and rhythm pull-ups. 

But after the Knicks added Julius Randle to a lineup with Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and Allonzo Trier—other young players who'll be looking for their shots—Barrett may not receive the freedom and touches he needs to get confident and hot. 

Just looking at Barrett's mechanics, he uses a lot of arms and upper body in his shot and not much knee bend, power or elevation from his legs. Accordingly, his misses have been all over the place. 

           

Finishing: Holding stock

Though capable of making tough layups and runners, Barrett hasn't been a reliable finisher at the rim, either in college (52.2 percent) or Las Vegas. 

He gets there often, and a lot of his misses are the results of forced drives because he lacks perimeter shot-creating skill. 

On the plus side, he already has a strong frame and enough length, which he uses to absorb contact and draw fouls. He likes to get the angle on his finishing attempt so that he can use the backboard. Barrett also missed some easier shots around the basket he'd likely make if given a second chance.

But he does lack vertical explosiveness, and if he can't get the angle for which he's looking, he shows poor touch. He's also visibly more comfortable with his left hand, which he makes a strong effort to get to.

Barrett won't be an efficient finisher next season. However, he has room to improve as he practices with his off hand, works on his body and makes adjustments after inevitably committing plenty of mistakes over the next few years. 

He definitely has the style of play, physicality and mindset to frequently draw fouls and layup attempts off line drives and transition takes. 

I'm not ready to buy stock, but it's too early to sell. He'll have the chance to capitalize on slashes and fast breaks more often after a few seasons of reps. 

           

Fit with Knicks: Selling stock 

Even though the Knicks didn't land any big fish in free agency, they still feature a lot of mouths to feed. Randle, Knox, Smith and Trier will each be looking to take a step forward. Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris may be playing for 2020-21 contracts as they could all be free agents after the season. 

Since it doesn't look like Barrett is ready to emerge as the team's first, second or even third option right away, he could have a difficult time building and sustaining a rhythm, especially if he's working off the ball.

At Duke, he ranked in the 49th percentile as a spot-up player, the 22nd percentile shooting off screens and the 24th percentile scoring off cuts, per Synergy Sports. His transition to both the NBA and the Knicks will call for a substantial role adjustment that a 19-year-old struggling shooter may need years to make. 

The fact that the top options and veterans on the team aren't considered high-quality players may make it even tougher on Barrett in the early going. 

           

Long-term outlook: Holding stock

Four summer league contests aren't enough to change a teenager's long-term outlook. But certain problematic wrinkles in his game and approach could lead to an inefficient first few seasons. Starting off on this particular Knicks roster won't help, either. 

The key question is how much Barrett will adjust his game over the years once he figures out that certain moves and plays he's been used to executing in high school and college won't work as well in the pros. All signs point to him being a hard worker with no off-court issues or distractions, so Knicks fans should at least feel good about that. 

Even through four lackluster offensive nights, Barrett still managed to average 14 points, which is a tribute to his knack for always finding ways to score throughout a game. It's a characteristic he can take with him to the NBA regular season, as well. 

Plus, legitimate optimism should accompany the flashes of playmaking he's shown over the past week and year (4.3 assists per game at Duke).

But whether Barrett can develop into the star the Knicks need will be determined by how much he adjusts and improves, specifically as a creator, shooter and defender. Those are all areas in which he's flashed some degree of promise, though not enough for us to feel comfortable projecting him as a Rookie of the Year candidate or an NBA player who can positively impact games anytime soon.

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