RJ Barrett is Controlling the Driving Lanes on Both Ends

The New York Knicks have been one of the more enjoyable storylines to follow this season. They have ascended to “playoff team” status, topping out as the 4th seed a few weeks ago. Julius Randle’s rebranding as a player was well noted earlier this season by Joe Hulbert. Even as he has cooled off in March, the All-Star continues to drive the Knicks forward. They have treaded water at 8-10 in the last 18 games.

In this same 18 game stretch since the beginning of March, RJ Barrett averaged 19.8 points per game on 57.9% true shooting while hitting 44.4% of his threes on 4 attempts per game and 74.6% of his free throws on 4.6 attempts per game. This development has been huge for him, especially considering his struggles beyond the arc and at the line in his single season at Duke and his rookie year. While Randle has rightfully gripped the majority of the buzz as the Knicks surge towards their first playoff appearance since 2013, I continue to be impressed by Barrett’s play.

The second-year wing dazzled a limited-capacity MSG crowd Friday night against the Grizzlies. Barrett hit a three in the 4th quarter to spark the run that tied the game up and eventually sent it to overtime. He then hit a catch and shoot three down the stretch of overtime to break the tie and give the Knicks the separation they needed to take the game.

Barrett has been fantastic this season at lifting from the corner to give the ballhandler a more open passing lane

The three-point improvement has stood out given his rookie year baseline, but what’s been most outstanding has been the way he’s controlling driving lanes, both as a rim attacker for the Knicks offense and back line helper for their defense.

Driving to the Rim

When imagining the most impactful wing drivers in basketball, Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, James Harden, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander come to mind; SGA actually leads the league in Drives per/75 possessions by a sizable margin.

The Maple Mamba has quietly worked his name onto that list.

Some of the concerns with RJ coming into the league were with his lack of elite explosiveness and burst, and with his unrefined handle. While the on-ball athleticism hasn’t notably changed, Barrett’s overall craft and fluidity have started to pop as the game slows down for him. He continues to gain a better understanding of his physical abilities and how to use them to his advantage. It’s been a joy to watch over the past month as Barrett has started to lean into the power wing archetype that best suits his skillset.

Since March 1 Barrett is shooting 62% at the rim, 48th percentile among wings per Cleaning the Glass. That number is up from 53.7% across his first season and a half in the NBA. Although 62% is not an elite number by any stretch, adding context to his shot quality and difficulty helps to fully illustrate Barrett’s impact as a driving force.

Stat/MetricRJ Barrett’s #’sPercentile (Guards > 500 Min.)
Isolation.94 ppp69th Percentile
Drives p/751489th Percentile
Rim Attempts p/756.888th Percentile (6th among guards)
% of Rim Attempts Unassissted78% (5.3 attempts)88th Percentile (between Ja Morant, De’Aaron Fox, and Damian Lillard)
Getting to Rim Rating +2.295th Percentile
Data courtesy of BBall Index (All stats filtered for Guards who have played 500 minutes or more)

Let’s conglomerate that with the final piece of the puzzle: Barrett has the 6th lowest shot quality at the rim, ahead of Ja Morant, Shake Milton, Elfrid Payton, and Anthony Edwards, while De’Aaron Fox reigns supreme as the king of difficult at rim looks. This difficulty in tandem with volume are what make Barrett a near-elite driver despite middling efficiency.

RJ has really started to gain traction by snaking the pick and roll, getting his man on his back hip and creating much needed space. This physicality pays dividends and is starting to result in more opportunities to create for others in the PnR as well.

However, Barrett can oddly struggle when he’s attacking a rim protector on an open runway. The next step for him as a finisher seems to be leveraging his strong base to generate space more often. While RJ doesn’t have that trademark explosion, I’d like to see him initiate contact more on drives. Although this seems counterproductive, it could help him get the extra air space he needs to finish at a higher clip at the rim.

Notice down below. When RJ gets an open lane to the rim on Naz Reid, he tries to go around him and elevate over him. I’m unsure if it’s just because of where his handle is at right now, but regardless, he doesn’t seem to get quite the height he’d need on a jump to consistently finish over a defender with more size.

Now check the difference on this second attempt as Barrett drives on Saddiq Bey.

Barrett doesn’t generate contact in the first clip, preferring instead to try to work around the defender. In the second clip, Barrett closes the gap by creating the contact point, bumping Saddiq Bey off base, and creating space in the process.

Here’s where the contact comes into play. By wielding the strength that he possesses and is growing into, Barrett can get into defenders with honed timing and craft that can allow him to facilitate easier looks for himself.

There isn’t tracking data for contact derived on drives, but you’ll just have to trust me here! In watching Barrett the past month, he’s doing it more often and I’ve found that to be a large reason why he’s been more efficient at the rim. It isn’t consistent yet, but it’s getting there.

He doesn’t need to set-up defenders for a knock out punch, but well placed jabs and bumps can buy just enough of the most valuable commodity of NBA offense: space. This is not a direct comparison, rather a comparison of profile: I see quite a bit of Joe Johnson and T.J. Warren in RJ Barrett’s game, at least in potential path. Johnson’s shooting, ballhandling, and sheer size cannot be understated. T.J. Warren has perhaps the best individual touch of a non-max level player in the league.

Neither Johnson or Warren were explosive leapers or bursty perimeter players, but both have shown exquisite craft to create space for themselves through their strength.

It’s subtle, but notice how Warren uses his hip to nudge off Patrick Williams before he can contest from behind, and simultaneously propels himself into his layup.

In similar fashion, Joe Johnson doesn’t create much separation off the bounce, but uses a hip bump to cap off his drive, creating space from his defender and using the momentum to get into his layup immediately.

Throwback to the Mike Woodson Atlanta teams, near and dear to my heart

It’s not sexy, it’s not going to get RJ Barrett on many highlight reels, but if he continues to implement the improvements he’s shown at using contact to his advantage, he’s going to reap the benefits. As RJ continues to expand upon his already potent drive game, he’s only going to open up more avenues as both a scorer and playmaker.

Deterring Drives

The other end of the floor is what’s drawn me most to RJ’s film and why I’ve continually found myself watching the Knicks this season. The defensive improvement is real with RJ. It’s not All-NBA Defenive Team caliber, but he’s one of the most improved defenders in the NBA. While Tom Thibodeau and his staff certainly deserve credit for putting together a great defensive system, RJ Barrett deserves recognition for his contributions to New York’s 4th place ranking in defensive efficiency.

More specifically, Barrett is routinely squandering opponents’ attempts off of drives. That duality is both fascinating and highly indicative of Barrett’s growth this season. He averages less than a stock per game, but don’t let that fool you. RJ Barrett is a meaningful and impactful defender.

Adebayo scores, but RJ Barrett does a great job forcing Jimmy Butler into a contested look

When Barrett starts off square and doesn’t misstep, he can hang with some of the best wings in the NBA. He’s stout at the point of attack and very good at using his length to contain his man and also muck up passing angles.

The point of attack defense is normally easy to see and stands out when you watch possessions. However, Barrett’s progression and ability as a help defender arguably do more for the Knicks than his strengths at the POA. The Knicks play a scheme predicated upon shrinking driving lanes, collapsing on the paint, and closing out hard to shooters from aggressive help in the paint. They allow the lowest FG% at the rim (60.2%) to opposing teams per Cleaning the Glass.

How does Barrett factor in? When he’s not guarding wing initiators, he’s often stationed on shooters in the corner. Per the Knicks scheme, he ends up rotating over as the low man to congest the paint or tag the roll man in pick and rolls.

Nerlens Noel is at a significant strength disadvantage to LaMarcus Aldridge, so he fronts him. Barrett times his rotation well and forces Aldridge into a tougher look without fouling. Money in the bank and points off the table.

It’s rather funny, I decided to write about Barrett as soon as I saw him make one of these rotations to the rim. He has moments of verticality coupled with good positioning that seem to really throw opponents off and surprise drivers. It’s also a joy to watch!

Barrett averages .2 blocks per game, and that undoubtedly undersells his occasional value as a weakside rim protector. Disruption means a great deal to defense, whether it results in a turnover or not, and Barrett consistently finds ways to be disruptive. Just ask Tristan Thompson!

Like with Aldridge earlier, Barrett times his rotation so well and takes on the hard-rolling Thompson, absorbing contact and delivering some as well. As a result, he forces Thompson into an unexpected miss. Again, it’s not a block, but this is one of those small things that help teams form a great defense when done consistently.

If the ball gets kicked to the corner, it’s often on Barrett to scramble out to the shooter and contest that shot into the abyss. Barrett shines in this role as well. He averages the 9th most 3 point contests p/75 (4.7) in the NBA, helping to contribute to New York’s league leading 3-point defense (also luckiest, Mike Vorkunov wrote a great piece earlier in the season and the numbers still hold up).

This brings up one of the areas of improvement that can get Barrett caught on defense. Like most young players, his paths and footwork on closeouts are pretty inconsistent.

Here’s a good example: Barrett digs in on Ben Simmons, Simmons kicks out, and then Barrett closes to Danny Green. He doesn’t come in square and is angled towards the baseline still, so Green drives left before Barrett can twist his hips and has a fairly easy drive to the rim. Barrett does a good job of staying on his hip, Green misses, and the Knicks recover, but a player with more burst is going to take advantage of that.

Barrett’s off-ball mistakes are often mistakes of intensity rather than disinterest. If he gets back-cut (not often) it’s because he was trying to aggressively play a hand off.

In some ways, he can still be a half step behind on defense, but that’s because he’s trying to be a half step ahead. He reminds me a ton of a younger fighter early in his career, really tight and tense, wanting to make sure each jab is pinpoint and he doesn’t always portray that loose swagger that a fighter with 30+ matches under their belt would have. That’s the point! You have to get popped in the nose a few times. You have to punch air. You need to get reminded to relax in the corner. Growth comes through mistakes.

As RJ Barrett continues to make mistakes, he’s only going to get better on both ends of the ball. Improving the competitiveness of the Knicks and fighting for a playoff berth has coaxed the best out of him. The game is rapidly expanding for Barrett and it’s just a matter of time before his comfortability starting and stopping drives on both ends leaks into the other facets of his game.

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