Thursday, February 2

RJ Barrett the one constant in Knicks’ lost season


WASHINGTON, DC — As the Knicks made their last road trip of the season, the players who had already been sat down for the rest of the season remained behind — Julius Randle, Derrick Rose, Mitchell Robinson, Nerlens Noel, a roll call of players who once provided hope for a season long gone wrong.

The Wizards, entering the night tied with the Knicks at 35-45, played their part to make this game the equivalent of a summer league contest, sitting out Kristaps Porzingis along with Kyle Kuzma, Bradley Beal and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was getting a rest day — no joke — with two games left in the season. The Knicks also ruled out Quentin Grimes with a sore right knee.

But RJ Barrett was here, playing once again and taking his place as the face of the franchise, even if the group he is leading is a far different one than he might have thought he’d be playing with down the stretch of the season. While the Knicks’ season basically came to an end when the trade deadline passed in February with no moves, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has stressed finishing the right way. And Barrett has done that on and off the court.

“We always talk about being a team of leaders,” Thibodeau said. “How does he set the tone for that? The challenge is not only to bring the best out of yourself but the best out of the team… Most young guys go through a period they have to learn.

“RJ has grown in all areas this year. He’s had a very good year. That’s what I love about him. Come in every day and keep concentrating on improving. But also this is a good opportunity for you to help lead the team and you’re being challenged in a different way. You’re being put in situations where you can learn and grow. That’s the way I want him to approach it.”

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Barrett is still working to the finish line, averaging almost the same minutes per game (34.8) that he did last season (34.9). He was averaging 20.1 points per game on the season entering Friday night. He played 45 minutes in the loss to the Nets on Wednesday, a number he has topped just twice this season, including the double-overtime opening night win over Boston.

Just 21 years old, Barrett remains the Knicks’ most intriguing work in progress. Thibodeau resists the urge to compare him to any of the players who have played for him in the past—including Jimmy Butler, who fit a similar mold.

“We talk about that all the time. I think we’re all guilty of it,” he said. “We all have a tendency to measure a young [player] against somebody else who’s a star at their position and we tend to forget all the steps that they went through to get there. So, I think there’s a lot of guys that were 14, 17, 20, 22, 24 [points per game as they improved], and it takes time from when you’re 21 years old. It says that you’re on the right path. And again, I think his attitude and approach to him are terrific, and I think he’ll continue to get better and better as time goes on.

His next decision will come in the offseason when he and the team decide on a contract extension. But he is happy with his season — if not content.

“I didn’t think that was gonna start off that way at all, for sure, but just the way it’s ending — I just, I don’t know,” Barrett said earlier this week. “I knew it. I had a feeling. I was motivated to do this and to eventually do more. Personally, I’m happy the way my season’s been ending. There’s room to improve. And then team-wise, just want to carry this momentum so that next year we can hit the ground running and get back into the playoffs.”

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