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Summer Homework: RJ Barrett
Let's take a deep dive into what the 21-year-old needs to improve on the most going into this third season.
Good morning, and welcome to summer break! I hope you didn’t shut your brains off quite yet though, as our summer homework begins today, staring star pupil RJ Barrett.
As always, if you’re not a full subscriber and would like to become one, you know what to do:
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 Well then.
There’s also an additional report suggesting a rift between Dame and the team, and that he’s been in touch with players on other teams this summer.
For those who may have missed the Haynes story, it seems that Damian Lillard is upset about how he’s been viewed by some in light of Portland’s coaching search, which has reportedly resulted in the hire of Chauncey Billups and also targeted Jason Kidd at one point. The issue seems to stem from the fact that both men have histories
My guess is that if Dame felt the Blazers were a contending team, these recent dustups would have perturbed him slightly less, but this gets us to the second issue, which is his skepticism about just how good Portland can be as currently constituted. Either way, it seems that for the Blazers to keep their star happy, at the very least, they’ll need to make a major trade this offseason.
And what might that trade be? This is the same question many Knicks fans have been asking themselves for some time now, and the truth is that there is no obvious answer. In addition, unlike the Knicks, the Blazers are at a pick deficit, and they cannot trade away a first round pick until 2023.
That still allows them to deal away three firsts and a few swaps though, in addition to interesting young players like Anfernee Simons and Nasir Little. They can also deal the expiring Jusuf Nurkic, try to sign and trade Norm Powell, and of course look to move on from CJ McCollum. So it’s not like they have nothing in the cupboard.
Still, they’ll need a partner. Ben Simmons is the obvious name, but is he the sort of star Dame has in mind? Who knows. Giving up the farm for Bradley Beal (if he even becomes available) wouldn’t seem to materially alter their chances out West, nor does it seem like the Wizards would do that deal without at least one surefire young star included. Might Lillard fancy a totally, 100% reliable Kristaps Porzingis? Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what he has in mind…
Whatever happens from here, this is now officially a story that bears watching.
🏀 Meanwhile, from the draft combine…
Tom Thibodeau gave a television interview in which is said all options are open for the Knicks, including trading up or trading out of the draft, and that the team is looking for wings who can shoot.
Him and 29 other head coaches.
🏀 Mitchell Robinson is putting in the work this offseason:
His official weight is listed at 240 pounds. Keep chugging those protein shakes, big man.
🏀 Finally, if you’re a nut (like myself) who wants to keep track of everyone the Knicks are coming in contact with:
McBride is a 6'2.5" sophomore point guard from West Virginia who plays hellacious defense and can shoot from outside. More important than all that though, his nickname is Deuce. DO IT, LEON.
📚 Summer Homework: RJ Barrett 📝
I’m using an Ask Macri from Twitter user Jeremy E to kick off the first Summer Homework newsletter of the offseason:
I’m taking Jeremy’s inquiry as the jumping off point for today’s newsletter not because he showered me with praise (OK, not entirely because he showered me with praise…) but because this I think there’s an actual chance this happens.
That’s crazy, right? As a reminder, Julius Randle finished 8th in MVP voting, was on the All-NBA 2nd Team, and joined Luka Doncic and Ja Morant as the only top dogs on one of the 16 playoff participants who didn’t have a teammate that merited serious All-Star consideration this season. Expecting him to drop down to second on the totem poll might be a bridge too far.
It’s also not impossible. Jayson Tatum began his career finishing fifth on the Celtics with 10.4 field goal attempts per game as a rookie and then second in his sophomore campaign at 13.1 before finishing first by a comfortable margin in his third year with 18.6 attempts per game.
Tatum, of course, no longer had to contend with Kyrie Irving for shots during that third season, but Boston did bring in Kemba Walker, who attempted the second most field goals in the NBA the prior year. Going back a little further, we can look at Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant attempted 6.2 more field goals per game than Westbrook during Russ’ second season, 2.7 more in his third, 0.5 more in his fourth, and 1.0 fewer in his fifth.
If we want to go back through Thibs’ own coaching history, Jimmy Butler first established himself as a significant offensive piece in the 2013-14 season when Derrick Rose only played 10 games. The following year, Thibodeau’s last in Chicago, Rose still led the team with 16.4 attempts per game, but Butler wasn’t far behind at 14.0, and that was with Pau Gasol (14.8) contending for touches.
But Tatum, Westbrook, Butler…these are All-NBA caliber players. Russ and Jayson made their first All-Star team in their third seasons while Jimmy’s first appearance came during his fourth, although he barely played as a rookie. In other words, if RJ really is the player that Jeremy E and other stans hope he is, if Barrett doesn’t overtake Julius next season, he should at least come close.
The difference right now is 5.4 field goal attempts per game (18.8 for Julius, 13.4 for RJ), about the same as it was between Irving and Tatum during the latter’s second year in Boston, but we’re also not just talking about shot attempts here. Last season, Randle accounted for 26.9 percent of the team’s assists when he was on the floor - just about double Barrett’s number of 13.4, which ranked 6th among Knick rotation players.
That sounds low, but for a wing with the ceiling of a secondary creator on a good team, it would be right in line with his would-be peers during the same stage of their careers:
But getting assists is only partially about court vision, passing touch and the like. To be a true playmaker, you need to be able to create matchup advantageson a regular basis.
Thus far in his career, this isn’t something RJ Barrett has done much of, as he rarely if ever drew double teams. That doesn’t mean he won’t eventually though…it’ll just take growth in some very specific areas.
In the league today, extra attention starts behind the arc, where the league’s best players are a threat to go from a live dribble to their shooting motion in an instant. This is one area where Barrett sticks out like a sore thumb, at least when you look at him through a particular lens.
Check out the league leaders in percentage of field goals that come unassisted (minimum 2000 minutes played), accounting for position, courtesy of our friends at Cleaning the Glass. Don’t worry about all the numbers, you’ll give yourself a headache. Just take a look at the blue box near the bottom right…
That little blue 28 is the the percentile RJ Barrett checked in with for unassisted 3-point field goals. The only guy who comes close - Zion - took a grand total of 34 threes this season. Outside of a few big men, no other player that ranks so highly in percentage of total FG’s that are unassisted has a greater discrepancy between their percentage of unassisted twos and their percentage of unassisted threes. The former, RJ gets all the time; the latter, almost never.
If Barrett wants to join the big boys club and demand the attention that those guys do, he’ll need to start by incorporating more off the dribble threes into his game. We can be sure that he will, but the question comes down to how much.
This is where we can turn to the tale of two Boston wings. One is a borderline perennial All-Star who might make an All-NBA team or two if he gets lucky; the other might win an MVP before all is said and done. Check out their respective progressions:
At this point, Barrett tracks more in line with Brown…which is fine! Brown is damn good, and might someday be the second guy on a title team. But he isn’t someone that’s going to commandeer the lion’s share of touches, not for a good team at least.
Whether RJ can ever incorporate this next level into his game remains to be seen, but we know that he plans on giving it a shot. Recall that in April, Barrett’s trainer Drew Hanlen was asked about how RJ plans to improve moving forward:
Ask Hanlen what Barrett will look to add to his game this coming summer and the trainer to the stars quickly lays out a multi-year plan that will touch on every aspect of Barrett’s offensive arsenal. This coming summer the focus will be on adding the ability to shoot threes off the dribble and on the move.
This is great to hear, but it’s also only one piece of the puzzle. The other big box for RJ to check involves his efficiency from specific areas of the floor, and it’s here that we’ve seen some very encouraging progress and one significant area of concern.
Let’s start with maybe the biggest sign for hope, and the best reason to think that he might be able to overtake Julius as soon as next year and enter a completely different stratosphere of NBA player.
From 2000 to 2020, 70 players averaged at least 12 points in their rookie year. I went through every one of them, comparing their rookie year effective field goal percentage to their second year eFG% and noting the difference. 23 players had a difference of at least two percent:
As you can see, RJ Barrett’s jump from 44.5 to 44.9 ranks 8th, behind only Shane Battier, Dario Saric, LeBron James, Kendrick Nunn, Kevin Durant, De'Andre Hunter and Kemba Walker.
If we narrow it down to players who took more field goal attempts per game as second-year players than they did as rookies, we eliminate Battier, who had a steep drop (12.3 to 7.3 FGA/gm), Nunn (13.6 to 11.8) and both Saric (11.4) and Hunter (10.8), who stayed static.
By upping his attempts per game from 13.0 to 14.7, Barrett joined James (18.9 to 21.1), Durant (17.1 to 18.8) and Walker (11.6 to 15.2) as the only players who averaged a dozen points as rookies and increased their effective field goal percentage by at least five percent between year-one and year-two.
Again, we need to add some context here. Walker immediately stepped into the league as a shot creator (albeit an inefficient one), getting assisted on only 35 and 36 percent of his shots in years one and two, and generating his own looks from deep 37 percent of the time as a first year player, which ranked in the 82nd percentile for his position league-wide.
But Walker is also a point guard, so that’s not the most apt comparison for Barrett. Neither is Kevin Durant, arguably the most gifted perimeter scorer in the history of the sport, but even so, it’s interesting to look at his progression in retrospect:
This isn’t to say that RJ is ever going to be KD or anything close to it. He’s not. But if the greatest scorer of his generation can start off with relatively humble shot creation from behind the arc, there’s no shame in Barrett having done the same.
You’ll also notice that Durant’s 3-point percentage took a dive in his third season as the result of the increased difficulty of his shots. His volume also rose, from 2.6 attempts per game as a rookie and 3.1 in his second year up to 4.3 in his third.
Tatum followed a similar path, but took even less time. When he doubled the percentage of his unassisted threes from his first to second season, his 3-point percentage dropped from 43.4 to 37.3 while his volume rose from 3.0 to 3.9. What’s been so impressive about Tatum’s progression is what happened in year-three: despite roughly half of his threes coming via self-creation, his conversion rate kicked back up to 40.3 percent on an equally large volume increase (7.1 per game).
Expecting RJ to follow in the footsteps of the last Dukie to get picked 3rd overall is probably a bit much, but it’ll be interesting to see if he’s also willing to sacrifice some efficiency in order to add more offensive gravity to his game.
This brings us to our last bit of (potentially) good news. If Barrett’s 3PT% does indeed drop down a notch or two, we have reason to believe he can make up for it in two other areas: around the rim and from the midrange.
Close range shooting was one of the more disappointing facets of Barrett’s game as a rookie, as he hit just 54 percent of shots in the restricted area - a number that many wrote off as a product of poor spacing. While this season’s Knicks weren’t exactly the 2016 Warriors, RJ certainly seemed to have more room to work, yet only increased his conversion rate to 55 percent, which was in just the 24th percentile league-wide according to Cleaning the Glass.
Again, we have some encouragement from what Hanlen mentioned in April:
…more attention will be given to adding some shiftiness to Barrett’s dribble-drive game as defenders have to honor his shooting.
Finally – likely heading into his fourth season –the goal will be developing a more varied package of shots to finish at the rim in traffic.
If Barrett could merely get above 60 percent from the rim, which is a difference of about one made shot in the restricted area per week given his high volume, it would lift RJ from the bottom quarter of NBA wings to right around the median. Such a jump would be massive, and based on the film from this season, there’s no reason to think it can’t happen.
And then finally, there’s the hallowed ground of all great NBA scorers, analytics be damned: the midrange. Barrett jumped from 28 to 34 percent in this area this season, and much like his rim numbers, there’s evidence that an even bigger jump may be in the cards for his third year.
What evidence is that? And why is it so encouraging? We’ll dig into some more numbers and a lot of film, as it relates to both the midrange and the restricted area, in Part II of RJ’s Summer Homework, tomorrow.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter
Kidd with domestic violence, Billups with a sexual assault case.
For context, Randle finished 6th last year.
Players below Barrett on the list who also increased their field goal attempts per game from year-one to year-two: Darius Garland, Kristaps Porzingis, Trae Young, Collin Sexton, Luka Doncic, Coby White, Andrew Wiggins, Yao Ming, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ben Gordon.