RJ Barrett grabs a rebound and pushes the ball up the floor. The Knicks are down two. The Grizzlies defense is spread out to prevent a game-winning three. So Barrett knows he has space to operate. He knows Ja Morant – the player chosen before him in the 2019 draft – is lined up against him.
“It was just me and him, so I knew I had to go and make a play,” Barrett said.
He drives left on Morant, steps into him, moves him out of the way and converts at the rim to essentially send the game to overtime.
This was a minute after he’d knocked down three free throws to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.
In overtime, Barrett knocked down a three from a Julius Randle pass to give New York a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
All of it coming for Barrett against a player taken a pick ahead of him – and (deservedly) showered with more attention nationally after a stand-out rookie season.
But what Barrett showed you on Friday night is that the story of the 2019 NBA Draft Class is still in its early chapters. And it’s way too soon to write off Barrett as the consolation prize in a two-player draft.
“I think he’s showing his growth and maturity. He didn’t get rattled,” Tom Thibodeau said after Barrett’s 15 points in the fourth quarter and OT helped New York overcome a double-digit Memphis lead. “Things weren’t going our way. Just stay the course, fought his way through it.”
That Barrett did it by knocking down a three-pointer and three free throws is significant. The biggest knock on Barrett after his rookie season was that he couldn’t shoot well enough to be a difference maker in the league. But his shooting percentages have been climbing across the board in Year Two.
“The shooting piece has been huge. And then he’s finishing is vastly improved as well. His all-round play has been terrific,” Thibodeau said. “His work ethic is top of the line, his attitude and approach are top of the line. He’s a team-first guy. He’s 20 years old and he’s only going to get better.”
Earlier Friday, Barrett was asked if he watches what Morant and Zion Williamson – the two players taken ahead of him in the 2019 NBA Draft – are doing on their respective teams.
“My game speaks for itself. I mean you can look at our numbers, you can look at our team’s success,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter. As long as I keep getting better as a player, I’ll be happy.”
Barrett made the Knicks – and the 2,000 fans at Madison Square Garden – awfully happy on Friday night. And the way he’s been playing lately, you get the feeling that there could be plenty of nights like this at the Garden for Barrett in the coming years.