We need a bit of context to truly grasp the remarkable nature of
RJ Barrett's development in the NBA.
Barrett just wrapped up his third professional season and turned
22 years old in June. He is younger than several incoming rookies,
including No. 14 overall pick Ochai Agbaji and No. 31 pick Andrew
Nembhard. He recently signed a four-year contract extension worth
$120 million — a lot of money for sure, but nowhere near the rookie
Yet, despite these indicators that Barrett is still a very young
basketball player with ample room to grow, he is already taking on
some of the heaviest two-way physical demands we've seen from
someone his age.
The third overall pick from 2019 averaged 13.7 adjusted drives
per 75 possessions in 2021-22. Barrett attacked relentlessly, and
far more than his New York Knicks teammates. Driving with the
basketball is one of the most taxing moves a player can make on
offense. It requires the wherewithal to handle the ball and assess
the court's shifting spaces, the lower-body strength to explode by
defenders and the core and upper-body strength to fend off contact
and, then, shoot or pass. These bursts of energy, physicality and
processing are not easy to successfully replicate over and
And that's just one side of the game. Barrett also graded out as
a defender who faced some of the toughest opponents. The BBall
Index has created a Matchup Difficulty metric to try
and quantify this. Barrett earned a plus-1.66 score, meaning his
defensive assignments were more challenging than 95% of the NBA —
requiring an elite combination of physical tools, focus and
understanding of concepts to be successful.
With a few charts (sourced from BBall Index), we can place
Barrett's responsibilities in the wider frame of the league. Here's
a plot of every NBA player who logged at least 1,000 minutes and
their numbers in those two categories. I additionally colorized the
dots with BBall Index's Defensive Role estimator to add some
clarity about what might be changing on defense.
Several of the league's most frequent drivers — Shai
Gilgeous-Alexander and Luka Doncic, for example — had very low
matchup difficulty scores on defense, and their roles were even
estimated as "Low Activity." Then, you have the elite defensive
stoppers in the top-left corner who barely drive the ball. Barrett,
who is labeled in yellow, kind of balances in the middle.
Zooming in gives more of an appreciation for his company. The
below chart cuts off at 8.0 drives per 75 possessions; it's an
arbitrary choice, but a fair one, I think, that encompasses just
under 100 players. It also begins vertically at a matchup
difficulty rating of zero. I won't break out the ol' AP Stats
textbook, but these scores are based on Z-Scores that relate to
each other, meaning a "zero" is average among the NBA. With these
boundaries, we get down to 55 players:
Barrett stands out more clearly here as a player who drives
frequently before turning around and staring down tough defensive
assignments. He's in the company of household names like Jrue
Holiday, Jimmy Butler and Fred VanVleet, and he's one of 10 players
in this chart who was under 22 years old last season. This isn't to
say he matches the impact, of course, but Barrett has a general
reputation as a quality defender for his experience level.
This could be restricted even further to players who only take
on very difficult matchups. If we cut the chart at 1.0 (about the
84th percentile for Matchup Difficulty), Barrett would be one of
only 15 players to stay on the board — and one of only three
players 21 or younger, along with Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen
This type of two-way role is exceptionally unusual for someone
of Barrett's age and position. Take a look at the 21-and-under
players sinced 2014 who have averaged at least 8 drives per 75
possessions with a Matchup Difficulty score over 1.0:
Sixteen seasons make the cut. Fourteen of those seasons were
from young point guards, who often got thrown into the fire with
bad teams. Second-year Andrew Wiggins is the only other wing, and
he barely cleared the thresholds (and wasn't nearly as good a
Barrett is one of the youngest two-way catalysts in the NBA, and
he's taken on the responsibility with relative success. Oh yeah —
and he's playing on the biggest stage in the country.
Obviously, though, he can be better, as he referenced on
Monday's live stream interview discussing his new contract.
"I'm always working on my finishing, and just being able to
shoot [and] shoot off the dribble," Barrett told Monica McNutt.
"Many things. Free throws — holy, we've been shooting a lot of free
throws, things of that nature."
Barrett averaged 16.2 drives per game after Jan. 1, which ranked
eighth across the entire league, per Second Spectrum. But he made
just 41.1% of his shots off of drives, ranking third-worst among 64
players who drove to the basket at least 8 times per game. His
overall at-rim clip of 55% ranked in the 15th percentile among
wings, according to Cleaning the Glass.
The finishing, despite Barrett's superb and improving
aggression, remains perhaps the biggest target for critics. It's an
area several leading basketball minds have dissected, and a place
that can turn him from a volume-based scorer into a dominant,
Sam Vecenie of The
Athleticnoted how important it is for Barrett to
develop a right-hand finish. To piggyback, according to InStat
Scouting, Barrett made just 36% of his at-rim attempts with his
right hand vs. a still-rough-but-better 40% (on over 280 more
attempts) with his left.
Mark Schindler detailed for UPROXX how improving
pull-up and foul-grifting games could help Barrett keep defenders
on their toes against his drives. Barrett is drawing more fouls;
per Cleaning the Glass, 14.7% of his shots came with a whistle,
placing in the 92nd percentile among wings.
As Schindler wrote, Barrett has enticing potential as someone
who can capitalize on second-side swings and kick-outs by
continuing to apply pressure as a driver. He's strong and fast with
a much-improved handle and court vision that is approaching
refinement. But New York rarely surrounded its rising star with the
right blend of spacing and complementary aggression.
This year, those pieces might come together, starting with new
acquisition Jalen Brunson.
"Jalen's great. He's really smart. He's a hard worker; he works
on his game a lot," Barrett said. "He has natural leadership
ability too. Just being around him, guys gravitate towards him as
well, so I think him and I will work together very well —
especially us being lefties, that'll be very good."
Brunson is one of the elite driving threats in the NBA. I wrote about this specifically
back when he was popping off for the Dallas Mavericks in the
playoffs. Brunson has proven himself as both a secondary
pressure-cooker and a lead initiator, and it's easy to see how he
can ease some of the load on Barrett.
The Knicks also have Immanuel Quickley, who continues to be one
of my favorite young players to watch in the league — full stop.
Quickley has picked up his pace as an attacker; he averaged 6.6
drives per game before the All-Star break and 10.3 afterwards. Like
Brunson, he's another point guard who doubles as a quality
catch-and-shoot option, and deserves to start next
Julius Randle can hit the gas pedal, and he's due for a happy
medium between his 2020-21 breakout and last season's struggles.
Obi Toppin and Jericho Sims keep defensive help in check as lob
threats. Evan Fournier can still shoot it (and is still only 29?).
New York has enough support for Barrett to find those extra spaces
to dribble, shoot or pass when he puts the ball on the floor.
Driving and guarding tough matchups is not the only example of a
demanding two-way role. But it certainly is a big one. Barrett ran
the ninth-most miles (2.63) per NBA game last season, and his
average speed (4.30 mph) ranked 21st of 124 players who averaged
two-plus miles per game. He played 70 games after completing a full
72-game season in 2020-21; the durability in his role is
Barrett is gaining more experience, and succeeding more
frequently, in a context few players receive at his age. Yes, he
can markedly improve in several areas. But the man has tons of time
and is surrounded by teammates who can help him be successful.
The growing pains of a 22-year-old franchise centerpiece should
not overshadow the unique trajectory of his stardom.