Struggling Raptors set to get a glimpse of RJ Barrett’s growth

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TORONTO – If you want to get a feel for how weird the start of the NBA season is, look no further than Thursday night’s game between the Toronto Raptors and the New York Knicks.
It’s fitting that this year’s bizzaro final NBA game, which you can catch on Sportsnet at 7:30 p.m. ET, will end with a pair of teams looking more like they’ve been for nearly a decade now.

On the one hand, you have the normally still strong Raptors, entering the New Years affair caught in an unusual downward slide, starting in season 0-3. On the other hand, the Knicks – the true posterity of sporting failure and dysfunction in recent times – who started the 2020-21 campaign 2-2, taking their last two victories, including a surprising resounding victory. on the Milwaukee Bucks.

There are plenty of reasons to point fingers when it comes to Toronto’s struggles, but when it comes to the Knicks’ relative success so far, it doesn’t take much to figure out what works for them.

Julius Randle started the season on a tear, averaging 24.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game while shooting 55.6% from the ground and an incredible 69.2% from three points – out of just over three three – point attempts per game.

In New York’s last game, a 95-86 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Randle posted a triple-double with a line of 28 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.

It took a little while, but in his seventh year in the NBA, it looks like the huge potential Randle has shown in college may finally blossom.

That’s good news for New York City, but even though Randle is the Knick that’s hitting the headlines right now, perhaps an even more encouraging sign for them is the possibility that they won’t have to wait if long as second striker RJ Barrett starts. blossom.

The Mississauga, Ont. Native is off to a strong start to the season, averaging 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. His efficiency still leaves a lot to be desired – Barrett’s shot from just 38.7% from the field and truly horrible 18.8% from depth – but you won’t hear many complaints about his departure from the Knicks just yet.

“He was great. He played a full game, he played well without shooting well – we know the shot is coming, ”Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said after New York’s practice in Tampa on Wednesday. “He does a lot of things for us defensively, he moves well without the ball, he comes down and I think there’s a lot of room for him to grow – he’s been diligent in his job.

Barrett’s teammate Kevin Knox adds: “He’s playing really well. He’s making it to the basket, he’s doing much better reads this year, really finds the open man and he’s going to continue to stay aggressive this season, which is what we really need him.

Entering the league as a rookie last season, one of the question marks around Barrett was whether he could expand his attacking game by only becoming a goalscorer, as he was mainly used in high school and to Duke.

During his time with the Blue Devils, in particular, it seemed like Barrett had a bad habit of tunnel vision, going to the basket he wanted to take or the punches he wanted to set up.

However, judging by criticism from his coach and his team, it looks like Barrett has already taken a huge step forward this season to reinforce this particular weakness.

“I think just having a kite that can do the things it can do with its versatility is a big plus for our team,” said Thibodeau. “And his willingness to make plays for people, I think that is starting to show and will continue to grow.

Thibodeau was named the Knicks’ new head coach at the end of July and quickly got to work trying to reorganize New York, starting with the club attack.

Little known for his beauty or general skill, Thibodeau is pushing his team more to move the ball this season than before.

“He’s been really preaching it from day one,” Knox said of Thibodeau’s emphasis on the movement of the ball. “Just every time you get to the basket and catch the defense and do the right read and the right kick. If you have a layup or a dunk go finish, but if the defense crumbles he really preaches to do the right read and just pass and share the game. I think that’s why a lot of us get a lot of hits, which is why you see a lot of double-digit guys.

So far, that offensive focus has certainly worked for Barrett who, granted in a small sample, averages just over one more assist per game than last season.

Overall, the offense Thibodeau is trying to implement appears to have the potential to help expand the Canadiens’ game – an exciting prospect because, as mentioned earlier, Barrett can already bring him in defense.

It’s not hard to draw parallels between a young Jimmy Butler and Barrett. With the length, strength, and athleticism Barrett boasts, it’s easy to see Thibodeau transform Barrett into a defensive force like he did with Butler during their Chicago Bulls days.

There’s still a lot of polish to be done with Barrett before he can even get close to the defender Butler was (and still is), but the potential is there and, by most accounts, he’s already a pretty good one. plug.

« [We] can count on him on the defensive end to really keep and really wreak havoc on that side because he’s a really good defenseman, ”said Knox of Barrett.

So between what appears to be not just an improvement as a playmaker, but an offensive system looking to nurture that skill in addition to steadily improving defense, this is shaping up to be a great season for Barrett.

If he’s able to keep the game strong in these two aspects of the game all season long, while still continuing to be the scoring threat that he already is, the weirdness of New York’s good start to the season will quickly start to grow. less strange in every game.

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