NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 16: RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks warms up before the game against the Phoenix Suns at Madison Square Garden on January 16, 2020 in New York City.NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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After a roller-coaster rookie year, RJ Barrett is ready to step up as the official star of the New York Knicks in 2021-22.

Josh Benjamin

RJ Barrett is out to prove a point this year.

The former Duke Blue Devil wasn’t bad as a rookie last season, especially considering his New York Knicks stumbled to another lottery season. Barrett was picked third overall and was largely considered one of the few sure things in the 2019 NBA Draft class. Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report said that despite his limitations, he could be a DeMar DeRozan type.

And though Barrett had his ups and downs as a rookie, he looked to be turning a corner in March. After shooting at or about 40% from the floor all year, Barrett averaged 18.7 points and shot 44.8% in six March games. Forget hitting a rookie wall, the young Canadian finally seemed to be turning a corner.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports and ended the Knicks’ season. If this was the new normal for RJ Barrett, everyone would have to wait until the new season.

It may just be one game, Knicks fans, but make no mistake. This season, the RJ Barrett that New York drafted a year ago will be out in full force.

A noticeable difference

Video of RJ Barrett last season showed a common thread. The talent was there, but he was a one-trick pony. More often than not, he would simply drive the lane for a left-handed layup. He wasn’t a strong three-point shooter, nor in the mid-range, and often hesitated in those situations.

Sure enough, Barrett’s rookie numbers reflected that. He averaged 14.3 points per game on 40.2% shooting, and made just 32% of his threes. In fact, I even wrote about goals Barrett should set for his rookie year, and these numbers weren’t far off.

Now, take a look at Barrett’s highlights from Wednesday’s season opener against the Indiana Pacers. Even as the Knicks’ collapsed to a 121-107 loss, his star shined bright. Barrett sunk his first eight shots, including a pair of three-pointers. When the night was over, he had 26 points on 15 shots to go with eight rebounds and five assists.

From beyond the arc, Barrett made all three of his attempts. Mind you, this was after going 2 of 16 from long range in the preseason. Though Barrett looked better, the threes were still an issue.

Even if last night was just a mirage, it’s clear RJ Barrett the second-year player is not at all like RJ Barrett the rookie. He isn’t overthinking with the ball in his hands anymore and anticipating his shots. Instead, he gets the ball and just does his thing. He trusts himself and his shot no matter where he’s standing.

Even in what will be another long Knicks season, this is a great sign.

What does it mean?

Every New York Knicks fan knows that since Carmelo Anthony’s departure, the team has been seriously lacking in star power. The Kristaps Porzingis experiment blew up in everyone’s face so badly, it seemed Bunsen and Beaker were running the front office instead of Steve Mills. Going all-in on landing Kevin Durant and/or Kyrie Irving in free agency proved an even bigger failure.

RJ Barrett, however, could be the one who breaks this trend. Remember, his 2019 draft class wasn’t particularly strong. He, Duke teammate Zion Williamson, and Ja Morant were considered the three surefire star talents. Even as a raw then-19-year-old, people saw his potential.

One year after being snubbed from All-Rookie honors, Barrett is ready to prove the doubters wrong. His performance last night showed he can indeed be a franchise cornerstone in New York. He was a stone cold killer with the ball in his hands. Once fans are allowed at Madison Square Garden again, perhaps some will carry “Barrett 3:16” signs.

RJ Barrett can and will be a star for the New York Knicks. After all, it’s why they drafted him, isn’t it?

Final thoughts

More importantly, RJ Barrett’s improvement is more than just the next natural step in his development. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that he’s taken a step forward, but it’s just a small piece of the greater puzzle.

Rather, Barrett’s step forward gives Knicks fans hope for another likely losing season. As Leon Rose’s vision takes shape and Tom Thibodeau implements his system, Barrett turning into a star and having strong games is something to look forward to night after night.

Think back to when Mike D’Antoni’s first year as coach, in 2008-09. Despite just 32 wins, fans could depend on the Knicks scoring 100 points nightly and David Lee having a double-double. Even in a rebuild, there was hope.

This time around, RJ Barrett is that same hope. Maybe, just maybe, he can make the season go by faster as the New York Knicks build around him.