RJ Barrett approaching pivotal crossroads to be Knicks’ missing superstar

Over time, RJ Barrett could be an intriguing case study in fan behavior in this market. He is a hard worker and durable worker, and New Yorkers love nothing more than hard and durable workers. Barrett also carries himself with an advanced maturity that suggests he will be a model representative of the Knicks for as long as they employ him.

What’s not to like about a homegrown player aspiring to be a Knicks lifer who helps end a championship drought that has covered half a century?

Good question. Here’s a better one:

How will the fans respond if the 22-year-old Barrett never ascends to the level of stardom that the Knicks were banking on when they drafted him third overall in 2019, and when they gave him $120 million this summer, rather than a one- way ticket to Salt Lake City in a deal for Donovan Mitchell?

That’s to be determined. As for Friday night, Barrett’s team offered up a relatively uninspiring 121-112 victory over a rail-thin Pistons team that was playing without Cade Cunningham. In their twelfth game of the season, the Knicks put in the requisite work to get back to .500, no more. It’s the least they could do after their no-show at the Nets on Wednesday.

But Barrett led all scorers with 30 points, including 20 in the first half, and he inspired Jalen Brunson, former teammate of the otherworldly Luka Doncic, to say the following about Barrett’s bid to become an elite player: “I think he can be an All Star. I think he can be a very impactful player, I think he can lead a franchise, and that’s what he was picked here to do. He can do it. I have the utmost faith in him. He works very hard. He has a great demeanor about how he plays. You never see when he’s frustrated, you never see when he’s having the game of his life. … It shows he’s not afraid of the moment, not afraid of anything. He’s capable of doing a lot of big things.”

RJ Barrett
RJ Barrett is approaching a pivotal Knicks crossroads.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Brunson was good for 26 points, seven assists, four steals and no turnovers, and yet that endorsement was his most valuable contribution of the night.

So far this season, the Knicks have been given a series of cold reminders about the necessity of high-end talent. Ja Morant. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mitchell. Dejounte Murray. Jaylen Brown. Kevin Durant. Those are the men most responsible for the Knicks’ half-dozen defeats to date, and coach Tom Thibodeau just doesn’t have that kind of firepower to lean on.

If you want to quibble with the inclusion of Brown in this group, well, he is an All-Star who has averaged between 20 and 25 points the last four seasons, and who blitzed the Knicks at the Garden for 30, and who has a teammate (Jayson Tatum) far superior to anyone on Thibodeau’s side.

If you want to quibble with the inclusion of Murray in this group, well, he is an All-Star who stands among the league’s best defenders, and who blitzed the Knicks at the Garden for 36 points, nine assists and five steals, and also has a teammate (Trae Young) far superior to anyone on Thibodeau’s side.

Knicks president Leon Rose could have traded for Murray in the offseason, but he did not. He also could have traded for Mitchell in the offseason, but did not, before the Jazz sent Westchester County’s finest to the Cavaliers, who beat these Knicks via Mitchell’s 38 points and 12 assists.

RJ Barrett scores during the Knicks' win over the Pistons.
RJ Barrett scores during the Knicks’ win over the Pistons.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The good news? Rose kept all those first-round picks he has over the next five drafts to potentially use in a future deal for a franchise player.

The bad news? The Knicks have a troubling history of clearing the decks for megastar recruits who never sign on the dotted line.

Thibodeau badly wanted the Mitchell deal done, and was deflated when it wasn’t. In the early hours of his Knicks tenure, he made his feelings on acquiring star power clear when he said the front office “needs to be very aggressive in seeking out those opportunities. They just don’t happen by accident. You have to make them happen.”

Nobody knows if Rose can make it happen. The truth is, the league’s very best available players haven’t signed up with the Knicks in the past because they didn’t have a Donovan Mitchell on their roster. You need stars to lure even bigger stars, and Julius Randle, Brunson, and Barrett don’t quite cut it as inducements.

Unless Barrett explodes in a way that seems unlikely. Friday night, Thibodeau said his fourth-year wing is attacking the basket like never before. Barrett confirmed that approach will be the centerpiece of his attempt to take a big leap forward. So be it.

After he agreed to his four-year, $120-million deal in late summer, Barrett said: “I feel honored and blessed. This is a place I wanted to be.”

Knicks fans wanted him back, too. They know a genuine pro when they see one. It’s a healthy working relationship right now, yet it’s one worth watching if Barrett remains a good player, but never develops into a great one.

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