RJ Barrett was a problem in high school. If you know, you know, but if you don’t allow us to fill you in: the Ontario, Canada native, who was born into an athletically-gifted family and his godfather is none other than Steve Nash, was a bucket himself. As a freshman at Montverde Academy, he dropped 31 points against a stacked Chino Hills squad, then led by Pelicans’ guard Lonzo Ball.
By his senior season, he led the Eagles to a perfect 35-0 record and ended his high school career with a bang: he scored 47 points in his last high school game and his team went on to win a Geico National Championship. Oh yeah, and then he won all of the major National Player of the Year accolades, a feat that had only been accomplished by LeBron James.
As if his high school accolades weren’t enough, the guy who was once nicknamed ‘Maple Mamba’ went on to lead Canada to a win in the FIBA World Cup. Then he found himself suitin’ up in blue and white with ‘Duke’ written across his chest, joining a stacked squad that included Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones. All of them, RJ included, would go on to play in the League.
Transitioning into the NBA brings on a lot of heat. Some players fade into being labeled as a “has been” while others either live up to expectations or beat the odds. Coming in as the third pick in the draft, expectations from NY fans and basketball critics around the world were high for the former top prospect—especially considering that many fans had hopes of Barrett becoming the second coming for the Knicks.
His rookie season was tough for both himself and the team, but he still showed glimmers of potential and high-upside. As shown in NBA Rooks, now streaming on ESPN, RJ had a spectacular debut for the Knicks but acknowledged that the tempo of the game and the competitiveness is different in the League compared to college. The Knicks started the season 4-18 before acquiring head coach Tom Thibodeau with hopes of reviving a franchise that seemed to have lost not only it’s footing but the spark that it once had.
The move eventually paid off for the Knicks, and RJ, who averaged 14.3 points, 5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists showed glimmers of potential and high-upside, including multiple 20-point games. Still, he didn’t make the All-Rookie First or Second Team and finished eighth in Rookie of the Year voting.
While criticism followed about his shooting, and whether he was the prospect everyone expected, sometimes you just need to trust the process before developing into a star.
And, a star on the Knicks he is blossoming into. RJ has improved in nearly every scoring category, averaging 17.3 points, 3.0 assists and shooting 45.3 percent from the field. He’s also had four back-to-back 20+ point games and recently scored a career-high 32 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, proving that he has the ability to run the offense. RJ’s offensive contributions have helped propel the Knicks toward success, and the team is potentially in a position to make the playoffs. If successful, this would be their first playoff appearance since 2013.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where if a 20-year-old enters the League and has a rough couple of seasons, judgment comes quickly. But basketball is a game of momentum, and sometimes it just takes time to get the ball rollin’. It took a minute, but RJ’s hoopin’ just like everyone knew he could.
Follow the journeys of Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett and more as they begin their pro careers on NBA Rooks, exclusively on ESPN+.