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Knicks need RJ Barrett to carry the team


Cam Reddish made his first basket as a Knick, Luke Kennard sank some 3-pointers for the Clippers, and Justise Winslow was watching from the visitors’ bench, so it was a good day to recall that no ballplayer ever arrived at Duke University with a better recruiting profile than the best player on the Garden floor on Sunday.

RJ Barrett is rated as the No. 1 prospect in Blue Devils history, according to 247sports.com, even if he was overtaken by the 17th-ranked player on that list, Zion Williamson, in every literal and figurative way. Williamson was the slam-dunk first prospect taken in the 2019 draft, by New Orleans, but now injuries are threatening to derail his entire career.

Meanwhile, Barrett has more or less been an iron man, remaining healthy and available for most of his first three NBA seasons as he ascends closer to true stardom. He gave the Knicks another honest day’s work in this Sunday matinee, delivering 28 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists in 43 minutes while leading his team to a desperately needed 110-102 victory before being asked if he has already arrived, at age 21, as a player who can consistently carry his team to happier days. 

“I don’t feel like I’ve done anything so far, that’s my mindset,” he responded. “I’m always hungry. I’m hungry for more. I want more, for the team but for myself as well. I think if I continue to be aggressive … anything’s possible. I want to continue to be able to make plays like I did today, score and defend and rebound, really do it all out there on the court for the team and kinda be the guy that does whatever the team needs.”

Good answer.

Very good answer.

RJ Barrett has been an iron man in his Knicks career.
RJ Barrett has been an iron man in his Knicks career.
Robert Sabo/NY POST

As the Knicks now confront a brutal 10-game stretch, including eight on the road, Barrett has to become the NBA player Zion Williamson was supposed to be. He has to keep playing the way he mostly has since New Year’s Eve, the last dozen games, and elevate even more.

Barrett has to carry the Knicks, which is a lot to ask of a kid who reached legal drinking age only seven months ago.

Julius Randle, good for 24 points, nine boards, and five assists (and seven turnovers), said the Knicks are a tough team to beat when his partner is playing to his strengths.

“He’s kinda figuring out who he is as a player,” Randle said.

Barrett has no more time to figure it out. The Knicks are 23-24, still not good enough for the play-in tournament. They will play at Cleveland, at Miami, and at defending-champion Milwaukee on the front end of this 10-game obstacle course, before finishing it at the Lakers, at Utah, at Denver, at Golden State, and at Portland.

RJ Barrett scored 24 points in Sundays win over the Clippers.
RJ Barrett scored 24 points in Sundays win over the Clippers.
AP

Someone needs to grab the Knicks by the throat and lead them through the turbulence, or this season could be over before the Super Bowl.

And it doesn’t appear that Randle will be that guy. Despite Tom Thibodeau’s earlier plea that players not “get wrapped up in any personal dilemmas,” last year’s leading man has botched the sequel out of spite. He finally appeared in a postgame interview room Sunday after an extended boycott of the media (and, more importantly, the fans) and strangely thanked James Dolan for absorbing a $25,000 league fine.

Only the Knicks can turn a one-day story into a weeks-long Shakespearean drama.

Things would’ve gotten particularly ugly had they lost their fourth straight home game — this one to a Clippers team that was playing at 10 a.m. on the players’ body clocks and, of course, playing without the services of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

RJ Barrett high fives Julius Randle during Sundays game.
RJ Barrett high fives Julius Randle during Sundays game.
NBAE via Getty Images

But Barrett did what No. 3-overall draft picks are supposed to do. He attacked the paint with a vengeance, over and over and over again, and followed his coach’s orders to impose his will on the game. 

“He’s gaining more experience,” Thibodeau said. “I think he has a confidence level that comes with preparation. And now he’s been through the league a few times and I think he’s growing every day. We see it. He’s playing at a better pace, it’s important for him but it’s [also] important for us.”

Playing at a dangerously sleepy start time, Barrett raged against his relatively calm and cool disposition because he knew the moment required some heat. He even got in an official’s face and earned a rare technical foul. “You know, I am human,” he said. And mature enough to later apologize to the ref.

When his workday was done, Barrett felt bold enough to say this about his sub-.500 team: “I think we can beat anybody anywhere.”

We are about to find out if that’s even remotely true. Thibodeau and everyone else around the Knicks have repeatedly said the sky is the limit for their most promising player, and given the upcoming schedule, this much is clear:

RJ Barrett needs to reach for the sky right now.

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