The problem with saviors is most of them are frauds. To be fair to Knicks fans, who are realists and thus crushingly depressed, when the 2019 lottery draw assigned their team the third pick in the draft, they groaned. Goodbye to Zion, a generational talent. Goodbye to Ja Morant, who is fantastically exciting. Hello to the middle child Duke kid, who didn’t underwhelm as severely as Cam Reddish but was also the guy everyone was yelling at Coach K for running the offense through late in close games. Just give it to Zion, you old country club fascist! So that wasn’t exactly encouraging. But R.J. Barrett has pedigree — he came out Montverde Academy as the number one recruit in the country — and the kind of broad, amorphous ability that you can project your desires onto. He is the idea of home ownership, the haze-engulfed outline of a better self.
This is obvious, but it needs stating: it’s hard to play well for the Knicks. There aren’t a lot of players around you who make life easier, and the coaching last year was a mess. Barrett can’t really shoot yet — his free throw percentage ticked upward after the calendar turned over; we’ll see where that leads — which was a problem compounded by the fact that none of his teammates could, either. This is barely an exaggeration: of Knicks who started 10 or more games in 2019-20, the only one who converted more than a third of his three-pointers was Marcus Morris, who was traded to the Clippers at the deadline. Barrett’s a penetrator at this early stage of his career, and he launched drive after drive into a lane that looked like Coney Island in mid-July. He was actually quite good when he reached the rim, converting 56.8% of his attempts inside three feet, but was forced to take way more pull-up jumpers than he would have liked. These were, um, suboptimal shots. Barrett canned just over a quarter of them.
You look for scoring in a third-overall pick. You want him to develop into someone you can count on when the offense breaks down, when you need a bucket late in games. You want this more than anything, if you’re a Knicks fan, because you haven’t had a player like that since Carmelo left town. This doesn’t seem like what R.J. Barrett is primed to grow into. The good news is his skills are varied. He shows some promise as a passer out of the pick-and-roll, and most rookies are a negative on defense, but everyone who’s coached him says that he absorbs information well and works hard. If that’s true, he’ll develop into a solid two-way player, because he already has the athletic gifts to guard two or three positions. But that elemental star quality — give him the ball and get out of the way — appears to be missing. That’s okay, that’s alright. Unless you are the Knicks, and you’re restless because nothing ever seems to break your way. You’re starved for a player who you don’t have to work to appreciate.
I didn’t put much thought into the name. Thirty Futures isn’t meant to be concerned with what’s going to happen in the coming season. Each installment is a space to consider a team, and what might be interesting about them. When I veer into predictive territory, rattling off unanswerable questions, gesturing vaguely toward development or decline, it typically indicates a lack of fruitful ideas. That happens sometimes. Not every team is interesting, or I fail to discover what’s interesting about them, even though it’s kind of my job. The Kings, for instance. That’s going to be a tough one.
This past season gave us both more and less material. The more being its strangeness, which is self-evident and not particularly interesting to write about, and the less being information. It’s harder than usual to say that we learned stuff, that we’ve grown more certain in our estimations of teams and players. So I’ve defaulted this preseason to focusing on young players, which is odd because I don’t derive much pleasure from tracing trendlines, charting new territory into which an up-and-comer’s game might expand. Too mathematical, too hopeful. Even more boring is blanket concern: pointing out a nascent talent fragility, the conditions that might hinder his growth, or destroy him. Yes, he could be very good or pretty bad a few years down the line. Indeed. Is this anything? Does this move you, or just remind you where you are? I look at the news and I see uncertainty. I look in the mirror and see the same thing. I look at basketball players and…
You can speed yourself up, travel through time into a future where R.J. Barrett is lamented or dismissed. Leon Rose’s rebuild hasn’t cohered around Barrett and he’s asked to do too much of what he can’t. You can fly way out into the cosmos and dream about a rebuilt jumper that casts everything in a fresh light. The sane approach, the one that will reward you the most if not necessarily in abundance, is to try not to discern too much meaning from his play. He’s quite an athlete; he’ll do some thrilling stuff. He’s pretty limited; you’ll wonder if he’s on the floor sometimes. You have to make yourself a little bit stupid, submit to the spectacle.
If this is impossible, it is also worth making the effort. We’re all poisoned by our arrogant sense of where things are headed, believing we’re scientists rather than godless guessers. It’s a great way to make yourself unhappy, lose your sense of wonder and begin to believe that the universe moves in accordance with your sober predictions. Here’s a near certainty: R.J. Barrett is going to get better this year. If we start there, but go no further, we might see it clearly.