One of the silver linings of this inconsistent Knicks season has been the sparks of brilliance by 21-year-old prospect, RJ Barrett. For the team to plan for long-term success, it’s time for Coach Thibodeau to let him—and the youth brigade—lead the way forward.
– Karan Madhok / @KaranMadhok1
The chants started at home first, at the world’s most famous arena—New York City’s Madison Square Garden—where fans, impressed by another night of dominance by their young prospect, rang out his name.
But matters got even weirder when Barrett, still a young developing player without any major individual accolades to hang his hat one, heard a chorus of those same chants in the stadium of the opposition, in Atlanta. R-J-Barrett! R-J-Barrett!
Barrett laughed when he was interviewed about the chants post-game. “It feels great,” he said. “I hope it keeps going.”
This moment was a brief flicker of optimism in a Knicks season that has already offered a rollercoaster of ups and downs. I became a Knicks fan around 1998, two years before RJ Barrett was born. Prior to this, my basketball fandom was mostly devoted to individual stars—Gary Payton, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, etc.—but those late-90s’ Knicks enjoyed a magnificent Finals’ run that had me cheering for the underdog, and thus, submitting my lifelong loyalty to the franchise.
Barrett was born post-Y2K, in the year 2000. This was also around the time when James Dolan was given an increased role in the ownership group of the Knicks, and that development also corresponded with much of the trauma that the team suffered in the new millennium. While Barrett grew up across the border in Toronto, Canada, the Knicks suffered a decade of mostly embarrassment and turmoil, including a revolving door of head coaches, the disastrous management of Isiah Thomas as head of basketball operations, a sexual harassment scandal, poor draft picks, bad contracts, and calamitous trades.
By the time Barrett became a high school star, first for the Brampton Warriors AAU team in Ontario, and then for the famed Montverde Academy in Florida, USA, the Knicks were looking at the end of the Carmelo Anthony era, a fun but ultimately disappointing phase in the team’s history, offering fans many more empty seasons.
One of the top high-school prospects in North America, Barrett was recruited to play in the elite Duke University programme. The Knicks meanwhile, had won only a single playoff series in this entire lifetime!
Finally, these two forces rushing in opposing directions—a rising young prospect and an old franchise hungry for success—crossed paths when the Knicks were granted the third selection in the 2019 NBA Draft. After Zion Williamson and Ja Morant became the first two picks that year, the Knicks chose Barrett to be the next potential saviour for the franchise.
By this time, Knicks fans like myself had been burned too often by previous saviours to have our hopes up high. From Stephen Marbury and Amar’e Stoudemire to Carmelo Anthony to Kristaps Porzingis, heroes came and went, had varying degrees of success and failure, but were never quite good enough to quench that thirst for playoff success.
If a young prospect has the promise of greatness, they usually waste little time in putting their stamp on the league: they dominate the highlight reels (Zion Williamson), lead a young team to the playoffs (Ja Morant), play an important role in a successful team (DeAndre Ayton), or go completely supernova (Luka Doncic). Despite playing in the league’s biggest media market, however, Barrett’s rise has been steady and relatively unspectacular. The young Canadian was snubbed in all of the rising stars lists in his first two years, and has been, at best, second-best on his own team.
Barrett’s averages have slightly fallen across the board this year—his third in the league—including his scoring (16.9 ppg), rebounds (5.7 rpg), shooting (41.7 percent) and particularly, his accuracy from the three-point line (35 percent—after shooting better than 40 percent last year). A myriad of reasons caused the early season struggles, including incorporating new offensive players like Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier and time missed due to COVID protocols. With teammate Julius Randle also playing sluggish basketball, the Knicks as a whole have struggled to find consistency in their play all season.
For Barrett personally, however, there has been some glimmer of hope in recent weeks. In early February, he capped off the team’s 26-point comeback against the Boston Celtics with a wild game-winning three at the buzzer, a shot that drove every Knick fan into a state of joyful frenzy. Barrett followed this shot with arguably the best stretch of his young career. In back-to-back wins against the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks, he scored 31 points and 32 points respectively—and become the youngest Knick in franchise’s 75-year history to have consecutive 30-point games.
While the Knicks have remained discombobulated and uninspired as a whole, Barrett continues to improve. Since the turn of the New Year, Barrett has taken the lead over Randle as the team’s leading scorer with nearly 23 points per game on a much-improved 44.3 percent shooting from the field…. all of this while continuing to play the type of stifling defence on opponents that has already become his calling card.
The Knicks are still only at 11th place in the East. With no easy fixes on the horizon, this looks like a season for massive soul searching, the type of challenge that will require a drastic and radical shift if the Knicks hope to continue their trajectory of last season.
In my view, that radical shift can only be made if everyone invested in the Knicks organisation—from the owner and front-office, to the coaching staff, the players, the media covering the team, and its fanbase—finally make the leap and accept the new reality: that it is Barrett, and not Randle, who is most fit to be the team’s lead star. Randle’s play last season was truly spectacular, but he seems to have digressed to his former self—and his uninsupired play as the team’s leader has infected the personality of the rest of the Knicks, too.
By handing the keys to Barrett, Coach Tom Thibodeau will be signalling that the Knicks are ready for the next generation. Barrett is still only 21-years-old, six years younger than Randle, and with many more good years left on the horizon. The current Knicks are on two different timelines, one featuring the older players like Randle, Rose, Fournier, and Walker; and the other, of the younger brigade.
The Knicks should go all in to the youth movement, even if it brings with it some growing pains. Barrett shall lead, and the likes of Immanuel Quickley, Mitchell Robinson, Obi Toppin, Miles McBride, and more will follow. The veterans will provide the experience to support the growing pains, but the team’s direction going forward will be streamlined.
Hopefully, Barrett can become the type of star that the team can build around—long-term—attracting other stars by trade or free agency, and leading New York to greater glory.
Big Questions from Around the NBA
– Will this Ben Simmons saga ever end? It’s wild to think that one of the NBA’s premier defenders and playmakers hasn’t logged a single second on the court this season, all while being healthy and theoretically ‘available’ to play. Simmons’ relationship with the 76ers seems to be broken beyond repair; and yet, Sixers GM Daryl Morey has been uninterested in any realistic offer that has been sent his way for Simmons. With the season slipping away and Simmons’ value not getting any higher, it might be time for Morey to bite the bitter pill and accept the best-available offer for his disgruntled All Star.
– One of the pleasant surprises of the season have been the Chicago Bulls, who have risen to near the top of the East rankings on the back of their high-scoring swingmen DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. DeRozan and LaVine have been a match made in heaven, averaging over 50 points per game together while each shooting close to 49 percent from the field. While recent injuries slowed the march of Chicago’s dominance, it’s certain that both lead players will become All Stars this season. If healthy, can this team make a deep playoff run?
– Was Indiana Pacers’ triumph over the Golden State Warriors last week the win of the season? In a shocking turn of events, Indiana—ranked near the bottom of the East and rattled by major injuries—defeated the Warriors, one of the top teams in the league this season, on the road in overtime. Playing with Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LaVert, Myles Turner, TJ Warren, and TJ McConnell, the crew of reserves for Indiana nevertheless pulled off this upset, and survived a 39-point outburst by Stephen Curry. This win came just a night after Indiana’s road victory against the Lakers.