RJ Barrett is blossoming before our eyes in promising Knicks sign

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Of all the Knicks, he is the one who will receive the most scrutiny for as long as he plays here. He was the No. 3 pick in a draft in which Zion Williamson went 1 and Ja Morant went 2. He was the Knicks’ first-round pick after a year in which they won 17 games and dreamed of winning the lottery.

It wasn’t fair then, it isn’t fair now, it will never be fair.

But before RJ Barrett ever played an NBA minute, this was a term affixed to him:

“Consolation prize.”

A funny thing has happened during the first 15 games of Barrett’s sophomore season here, though. There are still nights when it looks like he and the basket haven’t been formally introduced, sure, still games when you look at the stat sheet and the shooting numbers are gruesome and grisly: a 2-for-15 here, a 4-for-19 there, a 4-for-21, a 4-for-14.

More often, though, you also see a 20-year-old player who already understands that his value to the team isn’t contained to how he’s shooting the ball. More often, you see a player committed to rebounding, committed to playing (and improving) defense, committed to moving the ball, committed to playing hard.

“I love the way he competes,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said Monday after the Knicks held on for a 91-84 win over the Magic in an MLK Day matinee at Madison Square Garden, and to an effort-now, effort-always coach like Thibodeau, there may be no more telling six words than that. But Thibodeau’s glowing review doesn’t end there.

“His attitude has been great and he’s in a good place,” the coach said. “People talk about his shooting, but he’s doing other things, rebounding well, great rim reads, high assist numbers. I feel his shooting will come around. He’s in a good rhythm now and the sky’s the limit for him. He’s learning, as most young kids do.”

He is also a worker, who not only gladly accepts the fact that he averages just under 37 minutes per game (he played 38 Monday, the second half of a back-to-back) but also puts in the time in the gym. It has allowed him to figure out the other aspects of his game. But lately it also seems to have brought his offense to a more consistent place.

After pouring in 22 points (on 9-for-19 shooting) and adding 10 rebounds and four assists against Orlando, he’s averaging 20.2 points and 7.5 rebounds his past four games, shooting 49 percent from the floor. His numbers are up across the board, and the one that really stands out is at the free-throw line. He was 4-for-4 Monday, upping his percentage to 75.3, and that’s way up from the 61.4 percent he shot a year ago.

“He can score in a bunch of different ways on the floor, he can run the floor, score off the dribble, post up,” Thibodeau said. “Plus, he moves without the ball and that’s what makes him really tough to guard I think.”

As much of an impact as Thibodeau has had on the other Knicks — notably Julius Randle, who played a “miserable” game Monday and still put up 21 points and 17 rebounds — it may be Barrett who will be his most critical lab project because of his youth (he’ll play this whole year as a 20-year-old), his high ceiling and the fact that, as a No. 3 pick, he is a part of the permanent foundation the Knicks are trying to build.

“[Thibodeau] is always believing in me,” Barrett said after Sunday’s 105-75 Knicks’ thrashing of the Celtics in Boston. “That’s the biggest part, he’s teaching me so many nuances of the game. I’m really happy to be a part of this team, learning under this coach.”

What’s most encouraging is how little Barrett’s chronic shooting woes affect the way he attacks the rest of his game.

“When that happens,” he said, “I just have to get back in the gym. I have great teammates and the coaching staff believe in me, keeps pushing me, want me to succeed.”

Barrett made little secret that he was upset at being left off the NBA’s all-rookie team last year. Williamson has better numbers this year. Morant, limited to only four games this year, was brilliant in all four. Barrett may well forever be the third-best player to come out of that 2019 draft. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have a terrific career.

After flirting with blowing a big lead to a depleted team, Thibodeau had this to say: “We took a punch, got back up and kept fighting. That’s a big part of this league.”

He was talking about his team. But the same words would’ve applied perfectly to his favorite project, too. We know that much about Barrett. He can take a punch.

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