RJ Barrett of the Knicks is heating up after another slow start

RJ Barrett of the Knicks is heating up after another slow start

A new reality show is coming to MSG Network next summer.

A passionate head coach and an eager young man are locked in an apartment with no connection to the outside world. Find out what happens when people stop being polite and get real.

They don’t eat food. Twice a day, they snack on the pungent flavor of the grain. They don’t sleep; you don’t rest when you haven’t perfected the strongside pressure defense yet. Critics may call the show derivative, but that’s only because they haven’t watched it a second time to check out the movie.

This is the tone of New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau for one of his best young players, RJ Barrett.

Barrett got off to a slow start this season, not only missing shots, but struggling to fit into the Knicks’ offense. Still, throughout a start in which the 22-year-old was more iron than nylon, Thibodeau maintained a firm belief: Barrett has progressed before and will do so again.

Barrett got off to a slow start last season, and the season before that and the season before that. For weeks, Thibodeau insisted the former No. 3 overall pick would flip him again. In December, the coach proved right. But that doesn’t mean he wants the habit to continue.

Alas, get ready for the quirkiest television you’ve seen since “Joe Millionaire.”

“He’s staying with me next summer, so he’ll be fine,” Thibodeau smiled. “There is no summer vacation.”

The unfortunate reality is that a number of Barrett-Thibodeau’s friends may be dead before it begins.

“We’ll be watching movies all day,” Barrett laughed.

But there’s more: Whether Barrett spends the summer of 2023 living his best life or on Thibodeau’s couch watching grainy video of That Gibson pick-and-roll coverage, this upcoming offseason won’t be like the one he just experienced.

Becoming a professional athlete has one boring rule: you can’t play the child’s game whenever you want. Guys who feel healthy sit so they can rejuvenate their bodies. They have training schedules during the summers specific to their needs. And then there’s the business side of it all.

When a player anticipates a new contract, whether through free agency or an extension, he does everything he can to stay in shape, but also avoids situations where he could get injured, such as playing a game of real basketball. Normally, that leaves the guys plenty of time to get their groove back for the regular season. They go to the gym but avoid pickup games until free agency. Once they sign their new deals, they have three months of ball before the regular season begins.

Barrett’s experience was different.

See, Barrett was eligible for a big extension starting June 30, which he ended up signing, but not until September, in part because the Knicks pursued Donovan Mitchell. And so, Barrett trudged through the summer exercising as much as he could. It’s just that “how he could” didn’t include virulent amounts of pickup basketball.

He attended camp with the Canadian national team, but did not participate in many of their basketball activities. Instead, he absorbed the terminology, the game plans, and the culture.

“It was weird not being able to play like I normally do,” Barrett said. “Just being without basketball the whole time, it was kind of weird.”

Barrett is hardly the first N.B.A player to go through it. The most extreme recent example came a couple of years ago during the COVID-19 outbreak Washington Wizards door handle Davis Bertans. The 2019-20 season wrapped up in mid-March, Bertans skipped the NBA bubble that summer, and free agency didn’t begin until November. He certainly went into camp out of shape after avoiding pickup basketball for eight months and spent the entire season trying to catch up.

These circumstances are far more drastic than Barrett’s. He wasn’t out of shape. No one with the Knicks questions his dedication. But as he says:

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to play basketball, man. I was still training, but there’s no form like game form. Playing the games, getting used to them again, that’s the best thing.”

Suddenly, a slow start to 2022-23 starts to make sense. And with the way he’s been turning it on lately, Barrett is betting that an unlucky fall is the only consequence of an unusual summer.

The Knicks may have lost for the first time in two and a half weeks on Wednesday night, but it wasn’t because of Barrett, whose turnover has been a key part of the team’s eight-game winning streak. ‘achieve. Barrett scored 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting in the loss to the Toronto Raptors. He got into the paint, drained four 3-pointers and found shooters who roamed the perimeter better.

“That’s really who RJ is,” Thibodeau said. “In my three years, it’s just been a steady rise all season long. He just keeps going. I think he’s found a good rhythm. I think when he’s in the open floor and he’s going downhill, it’s good for our team. He’s impossible to guard when he plays like that.”

The numbers have been astounding for most of the Knicks’ career, especially considering he was one of the least efficient scorers in the league until he started. Over his last seven games, he’s averaging 24.9 points on 52 percent 2-point shooting and 40 percent 3-pointers.

Thibodeau uses it differently now. The Knicks’ nine-man rotation nearly three weeks ago has meant stretches where Barrett gets to run with the second unit. But even in these situations, his decision-making has changed. He’s making 35 percent more shots in the paint. And he is doing it in a more skillful way. It’s like I’m more comfortable with the game.

Last season and even through the early parts of this season, a lot of Barrett’s buckets came when he put his head down and shot to the rim. He still does; his strength is his ultimate… strength. But lately, he’s showing ways to score beyond forcing his way to within inches of the basket.

For example, take the Indiana game this past weekend, when Barrett faced off against the pacers high flying shot blocker Myles Turner.

Barrett was more methodical. Published. Once, he hit a backhand floater to the basket. He used a small move to surprise an unsuspecting defender and take a free kick as if he was attempting one DeMar DeRozan spoof two days after facing DeRozan, which may not be a coincidence as Barrett studies the All-Star’s different style.

He gets more into the lane and uses his muscle once he gets there. In this work he realizes it Buddy Hield challenging him to go right and finish the downhill against Turner:

In this one, he notices Hield looking at the ball and makes a fancy cut for an end-and-one:

He is using a shift and finds space better when playing with the starters. During the second half of last season, Barrett became the first choice. Now, when it’s with Jalen Brunson i Julius Randleit is often the third.

The Pacers game was arguably his best floater performance. He caught six at Indiana and made five. One had a sneaky cut, three were during drives and one was in that post-up.

This kind of touch was not present before. Even as he followed that hot streak to conclude 2021-22, Barrett’s floater has always been a weakness. Lately, he has found it.

“I work on it,” Barrett said. “If that’s the opportunity a team wants to give me, I have to be able to knock it down.”

Brunson, pivot extraordinaire, jokes backstage that Barrett is stealing his moves. It’s not like I’m tutoring Barrett.

“I’ve been doing it. … I’ve been watching a lot of film, trying to work on new things,” Barrett said. But it’s a little easier to get advice from someone whose office is just a few lockers to your left .

“I’m giving him a hard time, but he’s in a rhythm,” Brunson said. “He’s playing well. He’s just able to read a defense. You see something, you try to attack it. He’s just doing really well.”

Now, Barrett’s contract situation is settled. He has been extended for four years and will make at least $107 million. The deal doesn’t come until next season, but he has security. Next summer, business interests do not take priority.

He plans to play with the Canadian national team at the FIBA ​​Basketball World Cup, scheduled for late August and into September. He’ll spend time in Los Angeles, the NBA’s offseason capital these days, cruising through pick-up runs with other pros. Barrett’s coach hosts intense summer sessions that include other top players, such as Jayson Tatum, Zach LaVine i Bradley Beal.

There’s one problem with that plan though: the commute to LA from Thibodeau’s couch will be treacherous.

(Barrett photo: Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

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