The Knicks are facing an uphill battle the rest of the season and into the playoffs. Oddly enough, Julius Randle spraining his ankle and being out for the season (and maybe the first round of the playoffs) is only half of it.
The Knicks are currently the No. 5 seed in the East and lead the No. 6 Nets by 2.5 games. Ten days and five games remain in the regular season, including a potential playoff preview with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday.
Meanwhile, the NBA playoffs in full start on April 15. That’s right around when Randle’s ankle will be evaluated again. Pretty tight window for him rejoining his team for the first round of the playoffs. And even if Randle does make it, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be fully healthy.
Enter RJ Barrett who, despite being in both Randle and Jalen Brunson’s collective shadow, is someone the Knicks view as a franchise cornerstone. He’s in a prime position to step up and be the hero in Randle’s absence in what’s been a streaky and inconsistent season for the former Duke Blue Devil.
Barrett, by the numbers, is having a pretty decent year. He’s averaging 19.6 points and five rebounds a game while shooting 43.5% from the field. The issue is he’s made only 31.8% of his threes despite a true shooting percentage (TS%) of 53.4%. His value over replacement player (VORP) is at -0.6 as. result.
Not the season you want after signing a four-year extension potentially worth north of $120 million, is it? And yet, this is who the Knicks need to step up while Randle recovers.
Except Barrett is probably going to be just fine. In fact, Randle sitting out is probably what he needs. Barrett has fallen into being the No. 3 option this year just by happenstance and is clearly still adjusting.
Look at it this way. Jalen Brunson is the star point guard and quarterback of the Knicks’ offense. The team is better with him on the floor. Randle, in his role, is a dominant power forward who can bully in the paint and also stretch the floor with his range. Recall that in losing Randle, the Knicks also lose 25.1 points and 10 rebounds a game.
This is where Barrett steps up. Driving the lane and owning the paint has always been his biggest strength. He’s averaging 10 points in the paint per game this year, a career best. Barrett also isn’t shy about going for rebounds despite being just 6-foot-6. When he’s at his best, he’s almost unstoppable.
This is what the Knicks’ offensive totem pole has to be while Julius Randle is out. Brunson is the star scoring point guard and leader on the floor and Barrett is his go-to guy. The Knicks’ third option can rotate between several players, be it Immanuel Quickley or Quentin Grimes having the hot hand. Who knows? Maybe Mitchell Robinson will break out and have a 20-10 game.
But I digress. While Randle is out, the Knicks need an athletic player who can do more than just stand and bang in the paint or otherwise stretch the floor. Barrett does both of those things but is struggling with the latter. What better time for him, Brunson, and coach Tom Thibodeau to come together and tailor the offense around Barrett’s strengths?
This means less idling open on the wing and taking a three that’s probably not falling through the net. Rather, get him the ball and let him race to the hoop. If he gets fouled, all the better despite his making only 74.1% of his free throws.
Losing Randle will hurt, but not too much. This will remind the fans just how special a player Barrett is. Once the bread and butter of his game gets in a rhythm, his range should follow.
Hopefully the Knicks can band together and rally around him in support.
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