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Knicks Preseason Profile: RJ Barrett Laden With Potential & Bigger Expectations

The New York Knicks could've dealt Barrett off for assets but opted to extend him instead. Now, it's time to reward that faith.

Does "face of the franchise" mean anything when it comes to the New York Knicks, a team coasting on its romanticized market and struggling to make any sort of postseason noise? 

At this point in time, the honor is mostly moot. But the rewards for whomsoever flips the script on the Knicks' cursed new century endeavors shall be great. 

In terms of players who have actually suited up in a regular-season game for the Knicks, RJ Barrett is by far the player with the fairest and loudest amount of hype around him. Originally seen by some as a mere consolation prize after the draft lottery's ping-pong balls failed to bounce the Knicks' way in 2019, Barrett has maintained a consistent prescience with the team, serving as one of its most consistent and reliable silver linings in what's been a roller-coaster to open his career. 

As the 2022-23 season, one that could wind up defining the latest chapter of a seemingly perpetual rebuild, looms, it's worth looking back at what Barrett has meant ... and could mean ... to the meandering Knicks ...

2021-22 Season Review

Barrett was by far responsible for the Knicks' signature moment of the 2021-22 season, capping a 25-point comeback with a contested, buzzer-beating triple to secure a January win over Boston. Though that triumph was lost in the Knicks' subsequent sputtering and the Celtics' run to the NBA Finals, youthful record-breaking defined Barrett's third Manhattan campaign. 

By season's end, Barrett had become just the seventh player in NBA history to earn at least 3,400 points, 1,100 rebounds, and 550 assists before his 22nd birthday, a brotherhood that also includes former Knicks star Carmelo Anthony and modern elites like Luka Doncic, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James. In more traditional tallies, Barrett became the youngest player in Knicks history to post a 20-point average. 

Displaying an ideal trait for a New York leader, Barrett committed himself to only improvement, expressing a particular desire to do so on the defensive end.

"Right now, defensively, I feel like I’m OK. I feel like I’m solid," Barrett told Newsday at the onset of last season. "There’s definitely room for improvement. But I feel like I’m solid, especially just on-ball, one-on-one defense. I’m very confident in that right there. So, just try to figure the other little things out.”

2022-23 Season Preview

A good portion of the Knicks' fanbase didn't want to admit it, but Barrett was perfect ammunition for a trade like Donovan Mitchell's: he could've broken away from the high-profile pressure of New York and stands as the perfect player for a rebuilding team to lay a foundation upon. He's still young, has proven effectively talented in a professional setting, and has displayed leadership qualities in situations that are far from ideal.

But once the Knicks stepped away from Danny Ainge's negotiating table ... one that was more a hostage situation than true bartering ... they made a headline-grabbing move of their own by bestowing Barrett a contract extension poised to reach as high as $120 million. 

It's great to see the Knicks, infamous for expensive free agent flops, make a dedication to a homegrown talent ... it had literally been over two decades since they had done so. But now it's time for Barrett to take on an integral role in the team's fortunes. Jalen Brunson's arrival shouldn't preclude him from taking on a larger leadership role, especially after dealing with the gargantuan challenges of New York basketball head-on. 

This is a particularly unique and difficult challenge, however: perhaps no one in the Knicks' organization will admit it, but Barrett was more or less their way of dealing with the fact that they weren't getting Mitchell, a match made in hardwood heaven that would've supplied the Knicks their first bona fide superstar since Anthony's final Manhattan hours. Entrenched in blue and orange for the road ahead, Barrett expressed a dedication through gradual improvement, perhaps perfectly fitting in with the Knicks' team-wide fortunes and forecasts this season. 

“People think you should make this huge leap out of nowhere, and it’s like if you just add one or two things to your game and just get better every year steadily, you’re going to get to where you want to go, whether it comes right away or comes later,” Barrett said as the Knicks reported to Tarrytown for training camp. “So that’s what I’m focused on.”

Knicks Preseason Profiles

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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