The worst shooting night of RJ Barrett’s lone season at Duke brought an unexpected criticism that turned into lasting wisdom.
Barrett sensed he was going to get an earful from coach Mike Krzyzewski after making just 8 of 30 shots in an overtime loss to Syracuse on Jan. 14, 2019. And he was right. Sort of.
“He got mad at me because I started to hesitate,” Barrett recalled Friday after the Knicks wrapped practice. “So he told me, ‘Don’t hesitate, because you should have shot 10 more shots.’ I said, ‘Dang coach, 40 shots?’ He said, ‘I don’t want you to hesitate. Play free. Be yourself. We’re living and dying with you.’ You know that’s always something you could appreciate from a coach.”
Barrett’s evolution into a big-time scorer for the Knicks runs parallel with his willingness to become a volume shooter. He can boost his numbers in a Saturday matinee against the Cavaliers at Madison Square Garden and then find a place to watch the retiring Krzyzewski in what could be the Hall of Fame coach’s last game in the Final Four later in the evening.
“That’s my mindset: I’m going to be myself.” I can’t hesitate,” Barrett said of applying “Coach K’s” advice. “I’ve got to make the right play.”
In the 18 games since the All-Star break, Barrett is averaging 25.7 points per game (upping his season average to 20.1) and the Knicks are 9-9. Barrett’s shooting percentage during that span (41.2) is the same as over the course of the season but down from a year ago (44.1) when he averaged 17.6 points as the clear second fiddle to teammate Julius Randle.
Of the NBA’s 30 scorers averaging at least 20 per game, only Randle (41.1) and the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet (40.8 percent) are shooting lower percentages than Barrett. And yet there are no signs of hesitation even in the few games when he hovers near the 26.2 percent he shot on that fateful night for Duke.
“The way I like to view it is he’s 21 years old, and there’s been a progression to this,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “When you look at players in this league, we all tend to measure someone where they are today: So-and-so is averaging 27 a game or 25 a game. You forget all those years there were 14, 17, 20, 21 and 23. I like where RJ is. I want him to continue to approach each day the way he has.”
Barrett said last month that joining the 20-point-per-game club was a significant individual goal. Well, with the Knicks eliminated from playoff contention and five regular-season games to go, milestones and individual development is all that’s left to track.
“I feel like I have five more games to get it higher,” Barrett said. “I’ve been working towards it. I wouldn’t be able to do it without my teammates and coaching staff. I’m thankful that, ‘Wow, I’ve been able to do this because we’ve also been playing really good basketball.’ I don’t want to do anything to hinder the team, and hopefully continue to get better.”
In Barrett’s perfect world, this personal hot streak and improved team play would carry over similar to what happened in the COVID-19 bubble with Devin Booker and the Suns in August 2020. Booker averaged 30.5 points per game as the Suns reeled off eight straight wins . It wasn’t enough to sneak into those playoffs, but the Suns are the NBA’s winningest team over the next two seasons.
“Your best players have to help set the tone for the team and it’s not only the words; it’s the actions, to me,” Thibodeau said. “Your actions will always respect your priorities. I look at what he’s done since the All-Star break. He just keeps going this way.”
Thibodeau’s arm was ascending upward.