rj barrett knicks
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

RJ Barrett should embrace the Kobe Bryant comparisons, not shun them.

Two years ago, I called on all New York Knicks fans to support a Los Angeles Lakers championship run in the shadow of Kobe Bryant’s death.

Today, I call on young Knicks star RJ Barrett to do something similar.

In case you’ve missed it, Barrett is having a pretty magnificent run as of late. He’s overcome a slow start to his team’s streaky season to average 23 points and 6.6 rebounds in January. Even better, Barrett has shot 45.2% from the floor and 42.4% from three-point range. Forget magnificent, try “Mamba-nificent,” perhaps?

Bad Kobe Bryant pun aside, there’s a reason. In his lone season at Duke, Barrett was dubbed “The Maple Mamba” because of his fearless playing style and also being Canadian. After Bryant’s tragic passing in a helicopter crash, Barrett asked that the nickname be retired out of respect.

In the moment, that was understandable. It still is today. Even as the Lakers went on to win the 2020 NBA Finals, a world without Kobe Bryant still has something of a void.

Perhaps our next step on the healing journey is that simple: RJ Barrett must re-embrace the Maple Mamba.


This is still about Kobe Bryant

Mind you, despite my own position on RJ Barrett and the Maple Mamba nickname, this isn’t something to be taken lightly. Kobe Bryant was not just a Hall of Fame player, but a once-in-a-generation talent.

Even as he noticeably declined towards the end, the impact he left on the game is everlasting.

To this day, no other player has yet matched Michael Jordan’s fearless competitive spirit.

Moreover, despite my New York roots, there was indeed a time when Bryant was my favorite NBA player. Like his predecessor Jordan, there was a certain “it” factor to his game. It was all about bringing home the win, individual stats and percentages be damned.

Now, consider Barrett’s percentages for the season. Compared to his January stats, they look almost pedestrian by comparison. His 17.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game aren’t bad, but he’s also shooting just 41.9% and only 35.4% from three for the year.

Except, as we’ve seen from RJ Barrett all month, how pretty his stats look at any given time isn’t even on his radar. He’s just playing as hard as he can, trying to make all the tough baskets even if it means falling to the hardwood. It’s all about his New York Knicks and bringing home the W.

Sounds a lot like someone we used to love watching, doesn’t it?


RJ vs. Kobe

The truth is that though he retired the nickname, RJ Barrett’s similarities to Kobe Bryant are almost unavoidable at this stage. ESNY’s own Danny Small recently praised the youngster’s leadership, particularly his ability to “remain steady in choppy waters” as his teammates around him struggled. He’s just a natural competitor, putting the offense on his back when the Knicks need him to.

Barrett has also shown his cocky side this year, particularly with the media. He hasn’t been confrontational, but more charismatically snarky with an almost Derek Jeter-like flair.

Watch the clip and then consider this. RJ Barrett is 21 years old and doesn’t have much of an NBA resume yet. He hasn’t made an All-Star team, nor made All-NBA. Bryant, meanwhile, won his first championship at the same age and also had a career season. Why are in and Barrett even in the same sentence at this stage?

Easy answer. Barrett is so determined to win regardless of how much he or his team is struggling on any given day. He never shies away from demanding the ball be in his hands. Just look at Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers, when his 28 points and 14 rebounds led the Knicks even as he shot just 9 of 24 from the field.

If that’s not an ice-cold killer instinct, then what is?


Final thoughts

The point is simple. Two years ago, it was appropriate for RJ Barrett to put being called the Maple Mamba on the shelf. It was fun for a bit, but didn’t feel right so soon after the loss of Bryant.

But now, think of what we know about Kobe Bryant. Even with the family man image defining his life in retirement, basketball was always his first love. The Black Mamba flame still burned passionately inside him. He watched his daughter Gianna’s budding basketball stardom and channeled that energy into revolutionary WNBA reforms.

Kobe Bryant wouldn’t want RJ Barrett or the Maple Mamba to take a step back just because he was gone. No, he would want both to continue on. Barrett has held up one end of the bargain and is slowly proving to be the biggest New York Knicks homegrown star since Patrick Ewing.

Now, if it’s even possible, he needs to up that killer instinct. Forget waiting for Julius Randle to revert to last year’s All-NBA form. New York belongs to the Maple Mamba. The ball is his in the fourth quarter, always. Don’t worry about the other guys not making their shots. RJ Barrett will go into Mamba Mode and carry the Knicks best he can.

Kobe Bryant comparisons aren’t thrown around lightly. Barrett got that nickname in college for a reason. Sometimes, he reached a level where he was just that good. Who knows? Maybe the pro comparison would have stuck if he didn’t call Zion Williamson a teammate.

Now, we make it official.

Let RJ Barrett be the Maple Mamba. It’s what New York, its fans, and the long-beleaguered Knicks need.

Most important of all, it’s what Kobe Bryant, the original Mamba himself, would have wanted.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.