During the second half of New York's 100-96 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, R.J. Barrett received a handoff from Wayne Ellington on the right wing to set up a side pick-and-roll with Taj Gibson. Two Hawks swarmed the rookie, who snuck a pass out to the weak side leading to a Kevin Knox drive and trip to the free throw line.
Soon after, the Knicks ran the same play for Barrett, only this time he expected the trap, backing up and sending Atlanta's defenders scrambling into a switch, allowing him to attack the basket and draw a foul.
After a coach's challenge, the whistle was overturned, but these two plays signify how quick Barrett is picking up the NBA game. The 19-year-old is looking much more comfortable with every game, leading to head coach David Fizdale giving him minutes at the point guard position, when Barrett was able to make plays like the one above.
Though Wednesday night hardly moved the needle in the Knicks' point guard battle, it thrust Barrett into the thick of it. Here's why he should come out the other side as the team's leading floor general.
A 6-foot-7 score-first wing may seem like an unorthodox pick for a lead ball-handler, but it's become increasingly viable around the NBA. Victor Oladipo mans the position for his Indiana Pacers, as has James Harden for his Houston Rockets, though Russell Westbrook could take most of that role moving forward. The Lakers are going to rely on LeBron James to be their point guard a ton this season.
Barrett may not be of this caliber right now, but the potential is certainly there, and putting him in that position from the outset of his career could produce quick results.
Barrett led the team in assists Wednesday, and displayed a knack for passing in his college days, Vegas Summer League and during this preseason. He already loves to push the ball, and isn't too far behind his counterparts on the more managerial and technical aspects of the position.
During his stint at the one he was tasked with defending Trae Young, and as the game continued his performance improved. He's also dominant in the post, which could be even more threatening to defenses if they are forced to put smaller defenders on him. As many rookie mistakes as Barrett might make, he already may be the best option for the Knicks at the position.
Frank Ntilikina stole the show with huge plays in the closing minutes of last night's contest, but still has yet to show proficiency with his outside shot this preseason. Dennis Smith Jr. made his debut against Atlanta, but was clearly still working his way back into game readiness. Elfrid Payton did not play against the Hawks after two mixed performances against the Wizards.
It's possible one of these three blossoms into the clear-cut choice, but having Barrett run point brings its own unique bonuses to the team. First, it improves the offensive spacing, a clear negative through three preseason games. None of the three point guards mentioned are deep threats, so moving them to a bench role allows for an added starter that can spread the floor such as a Ellington or Knox. It also gives the Knicks more size and length defensively, another sore spot.
A big question coming into this season has been how can Fizdale balance getting his developing young core reps while maximizing the team's chances at making the postseason.
Having Barrett run point for the team might be one of the few moves that accomplish both.