Why Knicks giving RJ Barrett a max extension shouldn’t be a lock

CHARLOTTE — It’s been a season of beckoning promise for RJ Barrett — the only significant thing Knicks fans can cling to amid this season of darkness.

But before it’s considered a fait accompli Barrett has earned a maximum rookie contract extension worth up to $181 million over five years with his dogged, attack-the-rim game, a deeper look at his declining efficiency numbers are in order.

Over the last 12 games, Barrett, playing the first 82-game season of his career, is shooting just 39 percent overall and 30 percent from 3 despite averaging 24 points.

His shooting percentage has dipped to 41 percent, which ranks 105th in the league for players with the minimum required number of shots. (Julius Randle is 104th — which speaks to why the Knicks are 12 games under .500, having clinched a losing season.)

RJ Barrett (r.) drives for a layup during the Knicks’ loss to the Hawks on March 22, 2022.
Jason Szenes

More alarming regarding Barrett’s efficiency are his numbers recently when games are on the line. The 21-year-old appeared gassed vs. the Hawks on Monday, putting together a dreadful second half, when he shot 3 of 13 with three turnovers.

In the second halves of the last three games, Barrett has combined to shoot 9 of 38 from the field (23.6 percent) with six turnovers. Barrett gets another crack at it Tuesday in Charlotte near his old college stomping grounds of Duke.

Last season, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau repeatedly talked about how the best part of Randle’s gaudy numbers was that it effected winning. As complimentary as the Knicks coach has been regarding Barrett’s progress as an elite bull-to-the-basket scorer, the winning element hasn’t been there with the Knicks at 30-42.

Knicks
RJ Barrett (r.) shoots during the Knicks’ loss to the Hawks on March 22, 2022.
Jason Szenes

“RJ’s a volume shooter, which is an issue,” one NBA coach said. “Players who are volume shooters score. And he’s very talented but he shot the ball better last year. The issue is defenses will never guard him as a shooter until he illustrates much more consistency over time. That lack of consistency negates the all-important spacing.”

Barrett is close to finishing this season with a 20-point scoring average. In 61 games, Barrett is averaging 19.7 points but his 3-point percentage (34.9 from 40.1) and effective field-goal percentage (47 percent from 49.9) are each down from a season ago. The latter analytic measures 2-point and 3-point efficiency in one number. In Barrett’s defense, he’s played without a capable point guard.

If the Knicks don’t offer him a max extension by October’s deadline, Barrett’s agent Bill Duffy may try the 2023 restricted free agency rout. The Knicks still are in control, able to match an even more expensive max offer if it comes from another team. But by the summer of 2023, the Knicks also will have a better read on Barrett’s star value than they will in October.

Barrett, whose durability is unquestioned, has also been an excellent rebounding guard this season — he grabbed 13 vs. Atlanta — averaging 5.9 while being a decent-enough defender, often facing the opponent’s toughest wing. Playmaking (2.9 assists per game) still is a work in progress.

“A max extension is a tough call because he physically is gifted and has the capability of being extremely good on the defensive end,” the coach said. “The two things that matter most now is who is he playing with and his attitude towards making the right play. But if your volume shooter isn’t efficient, it doesn’t bode well for the team as a whole.”

Knicks
R.J. Barrett (l.) tries to drive by Trae Young during the Knicks’ loss to the Hawks on March 22, 2022.
Jason Szenes

Against Atlanta, Barrett got to 30 points by going in for a layup in the final seconds down by eight points — the Hawks content not to guard him. But his tenth 30-point night showed a line of 9 of 25 shooting, 1 of 7 from 3, 11 of 17 from the free-throw line and five turnovers.

The Hawks pulled away in the final minutes as Trae Young, who rang up 45 points, and Bogdan Bogdanovic got red hot and Barrett faded, showing he’s still an unpolished gem.

“I feel like they just knew what they were doing,” Barrett said of the Hawks. “They went to specific things and they made shots. They went to their two guys that were hot and they closed the game out.”

Ever the optimist, Barrett sill took something out of the loss to Young that has all but eliminated the Knicks from postseason contention.

“Definitely shouldn’t have had 45 but it was 3-1, the series this year,” Barrett said. “So overall we did a good job. But today was a tough one for sure.”

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