NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 23: RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks drives past Garrison Mathews #24 of the Washington Wizards during the second half of their game at Madison Square Garden on December 23, 2019 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.
(Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

RJ Barrett’s three-point woes aren’t going away, and the New York Knicks might be wise to change their approach with their young wing.

Josh Benjamin

This was supposed to be RJ Barrett’s breakout season.

At least, the New York Knicks and their fans certainly expected it to be. I mean, it certainly looked like a breakout was coming. Barrett dropped 26 points and hit all three of his three-point attempts in the season opener against the Pacers last month and showed marked improvement. I even wrote about how his step into stardom was coming.

Three weeks into the NBA season, and Barrett is once again streakier than a Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art. Since his Opening Night dominance, he has sunk just seven total three-pointers.

Read that again. Seven. Three. Pointers. Made. Not exactly a reason to be confident in Barrett’s further development, is it?

That isn’t to say this has been a typical Knicks season. The team is 5-7 on the year, and key players like Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson have improved enough that the Knicks don’t look totally lost.

But the fact remains that during the current four-game losing streak, RJ Barrett’s three-point woes have practically sunk the Knicks. If coach Tom Thibodeau wants the team to get back in the win column, the answer is simple.

Stop focusing on RJ Barrett becoming better from three-point land.

Not just a Barrett problem

To be fair, RJ Barrett is not the only Knicks player struggling from behind the three-point line. In fact, New York is currently tied for 20th in team three-point percentage (3P%) and has made just 35.1% of its threes as a team.

The sad part is this is an improvement. The Knicks ranked 27th in 3P% last season, but that was more because former president Steve Mills was woefully incompetent. In fact, looking at last year’s Knicks roster, it was constructed as though the glory days of the ’90s weren’t far behind and the official drink of MSG would be tasty, delicious, wonderful Citra!

Furthermore, the Knicks added players this offseason to fix this very area. Austin Rivers and Alec Burks boost the Knicks’ shooting, and Rivers is also shaping up to be a solid leader. Rookies Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin also help stretch the floor.

Except Burks is out with a sprained ankle, Quickley is a raw rookie learning how to play around zone defense, and Toppin has also dealt with injuries. That leaves Barrett trying to improve in one area without much support, and here we are today.

What to do?

Now, let’s take a look at Barrett’s performance so far this season. On the whole, he actually has slightly improved on bare numbers. He’s averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, up from 14.3 and five in his rookie season.

Unfortunately, Barrett is shooting 37.2% from the field and an abysmal 18.5% from three. During the Knicks’ current four-game losing streak, he is 2 of 17 from downtown. Though the Knicks are insisting on playing a faster game this year, doing so while Barrett struggles doesn’t help at all.

The good news is the solution to the problem is staring the Knicks square in the face: just don’t have him take so many threes anymore. Look at what he did Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets. He was 1 of 6 early in the third quarter with just six points, and yet finished with 20 while shooting 7 of 15.

And what caused such a turnaround reminiscent of the Eddie Franklin years? Simple. Barrett abandoned his long-range game and stuck to his strengths: handling the ball with ease and driving the lane with cat-like precision.

Why doesn’t Barrett just make that the biggest part of his game and put the three-pointers on the back burner?

The coaching cure-all

Thankfully, the Knicks can stick RJ Barrett in this role with one simple change: bench Elfrid Payton. I don’t care that he’s averaging a career-best 13.9 points per game. He’s never been an elite point guard and doesn’t have anything close to the offensive skillset required of the position today. New York would be better off starting Buzz Beamer at point guard, and he’s a two-dimensional drawing. Think about that for a minute.

So who takes Payton’s spot in the starting lineup? Easy. Pair Austin Rivers with RJ Barrett in the backcourt and let the two of them trade off handling the ball. Meanwhile, Reggie Bullock can continue to work the wing as a three-and-D as he has most of the season.

Now, what’s the point of this switch? Simple. Rivers and Barrett are already good ball handlers as it is, and Rivers is a good shooter. By letting Barrett have the handle, he has more chances to drive to the basket and do more work in the midrange.

Meanwhile, while Barrett dominates the inside, the floor opens up for his teammates to get better looks from, you guessed it, beyond the arc.

Final thoughts

Look, I get it. The New York Knicks’ backcourt is banged up and there is pressure on RJ Barrett to carry the team. This isn’t a surprise. It just comes with the territory of being the third overall pick in the draft.

But when he was drafted, look at the players to whom Barrett was compared. Former NBA great Grant Hill compared him to Jalen Rose, the athletic lefty wing who played 13 NBA seasons and could score despite never being an elite shooter.

Similarly, Jonathan Givony compared him to San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan, another scorer who can’t really shoot. In an extreme comparison, ESPN’s Jay Bilas mentioned James Harden and Barrett’s finishing and rebounding skills being comparable to the former MVP.

Those three players have something in common with Barrett: scorers who dominate the basket to compensate for lack of overall range. Harden has improved, sure, but no one ever looks at him and thinks, “elite shooter.”

We know what kind of player RJ Barrett is. So do the Knicks. Given the current losing streak, maybe it’s time to change his role on the court.

Your move, Coach Thibodeau.

 

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