As Knicks continue to struggle, RJ Barrett takes next steps as a scorer

RJ Barrett point up black jersey looks very happy

RJ Barrett point up black jersey looks very happy

The Knicks have lost 13 of their last 17 games. They’ll wake up on Saturday 3.5 games behind Atlanta in the race for 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

Yes, technically, they still have a shot at making the play-in tournament.

But New York has one of the NBA’s most challenging schedules to close out the season.

So barring an unforeseen turnaround, the Knicks will be playing out the string over the next six weeks.

It’s not where they wanted to be coming into the season. And there’s no silver lining here. If the Knicks miss the play-in tournament, it’s a waste of a season.

But if there’s something to be gained over the next six weeks, maybe it’s RJ Barrett taking the next step as a scorer.

Barrett had a career-high 46 points against Miami on Friday. He did it on 22 shots and 22 free-throw attempts. The night didn’t end well for Barrett or the Knicks, but it was still a remarkable performance for someone who hadn’t played in nearly three weeks.

“We all know he’s capable of that,” Heat star Jimmy Butler said after the game. “ I don’t think anybody is surprised or should be surprised. He’s definitely going to be playing in this league for a long time and he’s going to be the face of the Knicks.”

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Just where Barrett ends up in the hierarchy of the Knicks remains to be seen. But if he’s showed you anything over the last four weeks, it’s that anyone who tells you they know Barrett’s ceiling is lying.

Barrett entered play Friday averaging 23 points, six rebounds and three assists over the past 15 games. And then he put up 46 against Miami.

It’s inarguably the best stretch of Barrett’s young career.

“I feel like I’ve been trying to be more consistent, trying to be aggressive but without forcing,” he said after Friday’s game. “Reading the defense, reading what they’re doing, matchups. But I think just having that open dialogue with coach and my teammates, I think my teammates trust me as well to be in those positions to make those plays, whether it’s scoring or passing.”

His play-making hasn’t gone unnoticed by opponents.

“You could see it in the body language, you could see it in his face. He wants to be that guy,” Miami’s Bam Adebayo said. “You could see he wants to take his team to another level. You could see it in his body language. He’s playing free. He’s not even thinking about what shots to take, when to take them. He’s just going out there and playing basketball.”

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Barrett appreciated the kind words from Butler and Adebayo. But he went out of his way to credit his teammates – Julius Randle and Alec Burks in particular – for getting him the ball in the right spots. He also critiqued himself for missing free throws and committing turnovers at critical junctures of the fourth quarter.

“I don’t know what I was doing. But I’m gonna watch the film and figure out in those spots where to be effective,” he said. “I think I had some silly mistakes I wish I could take back.”

That combination of confidence and self-awareness is one reason why the Knicks have been bullish on Barrett since his rookie season. The 21-year-old has the confidence to learn from his failures, put them behind him and continue to push for more.

Just where that mentality ultimately takes Barrett is anyone’s guess. There was a stretch last season when some decision-makers wanted to slide Barrett to power-forward because they were concerned about his perimeter shooting.

On Friday night, when he hit six of his 11 three-point attempts, Barrett reminded you again that it’s foolish to try to predict his ceiling as a player.

Watching his continued rise is one of the few things Knicks fans have to look forward to at the end of this lost season.

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