RJ Barrett hates being called the “Maple Mamba” in comparison to the late, great Kobe Bryant.
Now, while I would never call the Knicks’ young wing by that nickname to his face, I will at least say this much. If he wants to distance himself from the Mamba label, maybe he should do a better job of, you know, not channelling Bryant on the court.
Barrett, who the Knicks drafted third overall back in 2019, is off to the best start of his career in 2023-24, his fifth season. The former Duke Blue Devil is averaging 22.6 points per game while shooting 48.7% from the field and an amazing 50% from three. He has also shown marked improvement on defense.
What’s more amazing is that unlike teammate Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart, Barrett is doing this without any clear rust from the FIBA World Cup. He had 23 points and seven rebounds in Canada’s third-place upset of Team USA.
Best of all is Knicks fans can look forward to seeing plenty more of RJ Barrett. He’s in the first season of a four-year, $107 million extension signed in 2022.
And anyone who’s followed Barrett’s basketball journey from Canada to Duke to New York knows how much this means. As a fresh-faced, 19-year-old rookie, nobody knew what to expect. Would he be a team’s primary scorer? A solid No. 2 or 3 guy? An elite defender and/or three-and-D?
As it turns out, the answer might be all of the above and for one reason. Barrett’s focus and determination has always been his best quality. He isn’t prone to moody, heady emotions on the court like his teammate Julius Randle at times. Nor is he particularly injury prone or someone who makes a lot of mistakes.
This is because no matter what, RJ Barrett shows up and plays.
“I think the biggest difference is that there isn’t a difference,” Knicks point guard and teammate Jalen Brunson said Sunday. He’s had the same mentality and approach to every game that I’ve been his teammate.”
His performance in the playoffs last year is a perfect example. Barrett had a streaky regular season in which his range suffered most, shooting just 31% from three.
Cut to the playoffs, with Randle hobbled by a bum ankle, and Barrett shifted into a new gear. It wasn’t much, but averaging 19.3 points and inching his three-point game up to nearly 33% made a difference. He just kept showing up and playing his game, and that was enough to force Game 6 of the East Semis.
Other teams notice this too, as Barrett’s name has been dangled in a potential Joel Embiid trade. The Knicks probably wouldn’t hesitate in such a trade either. Moving Barrett and getting a superstar plus plenty of draft capital wouldn’t cripple New York at all.
Except if the Knicks were to trade Barrett, wouldn’t they only be cheating themselves? He’s playing the best basketball of his career and finally looks like the complete talent they hoped for on NBA Draft Night years ago. And there’s still room for him to be even better.
Would the Knicks really give that up for bigger name who might not even win them that long-coveted NBA championship?
It might have taken longer than some would have liked, but it’s finally happened. RJ Barrett is a cornerstone talent on these new-look New York Knicks. The stats don’t matter so long as he can get out on that court, play his best game, and help the Knicks win.
And with a rematch against the rival Celtics set for Monday? Let’s hope Barrett brings the good stuff to TD Garden.