There is so much to like about the four-year, $120 million extension to which the Knicks and RJ Barrett are close to agreeing on.
There is Barrett himself, of course. A few months ago, at the start of the Knicks-Jazz dance over Donovan Mitchell, I suggested in a column that even if it took sacrificing Barrett to make Mitchell a Knick, it had to be done, especially since it would likely reduce the draft -pick haul Danny Ainge would seek.
And … well, put it this way: If I’d suggested the Yankees should simply waive Aaron Judge, I’m not sure the backlash would have been quite so visceral. Trade Barrett? Knicks fans were prepared to lay down on the runway if they loaded Barrett on a plane to Salt Lake City. Knicks fans actually like Barrett, a lot, and Knicks fans have rarely liked anything the past couple decades.
So there is that. And that matters.
So does this: Barrett clearly wants to be here. Now, look, $30 million a year isn’t exactly minimum wage, but the Knicks could have added an extra year and an extra $73 million to sweeten the deal and didn’t. Barrett is still poised to sign on for four more years. When your best players show such affinity for their situation, that is a terrific sign.
So is this: The Knicks clearly want Barrett. They want him to be part of the core going forward alongside Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson — and, maybe, Mitchell. The Knicks still believe they can get a Mitchell deal done even without including Barrett. And by signing him they will remove that chit as even an option, at least for now. Teams become better by locking up good players. So far, so good for the Knicks.
There is a lot to be excited about. Barrett was the No. 3 pick in the 2019 draft, and if he hasn’t shown the off-court pizzazz of Zion Williamson or the on-court flair of Ja Morant, he has embraced a reputation as one of the NBA’s bluest blue-collar workers.
“Some guys work hard because they know someone is watching them,” Tom Thibodeau said last winter. “RJ works hard because that’s who he is, because he loves basketball, because he wants to keep getting better. And you can see what the results are.”
Barrett has improved, in large leaps, in both Year 2 and Year 3. It is hard to know exactly what his ceiling is as a player, but you can be certain he will crash into it, and try to recalibrate it. there is worry he is still a bit of a tweener — he likes to mix it up inside but he’s just 6-foot-6; he is comfortable taking the 3 but he can be a streaky shooter (and, in fact, he fell from 40.1 percent to 34.2 from beyond the arc from his second to his third years, the one area of his game that regressed).
But it is not hard to believe he has spent every day of summer launching a few hundred shots a day. That’s just who he is. It’s what makes him a smart player around which to try to build something. There is no questioning that he cares. If that seems like a modest standard, well … take a look around the NBA.
“Honestly, it’s good that so many of my numbers are up this year,” Barrett said in February. “But none of it matters if you aren’t winning, and we aren’t winning. You play this game to win, to win championships. That’s the only thing that should matter.”
Of course, the next step is a harder one. Barrett is still just 22 and will play the entire year as a 22-year-old (unless the Knicks wind up in the Finals). It remains remarkable how young he really is. But at some point, those are just figures on a birth certificate. At some point, maybe immediately, Barrett will stop being graded on spec. He’s a $30 million-per-year player now. He’s no longer a futures stock.
Now, that shouldn’t bother Barrett, because nothing seems to bother him. But he has committed to the Knicks, and the Knicks have committed to him, and he has become, at 22, the most popular Knick and not by a small amount. all good. Could be all great. Really, it’s all up to RJ Barrett now.