Knicks’ RJ Barrett plays with confidence in homecoming vs. Raptors

Toronto Raptors Terence Davis (left) drives at New York Knicks RJ Barrett during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, November 27, 2019. (Chris Young/CP)

RJ Barrett was on the gold-and-black floor at Scotiabank Arena early for his first NBA game in his hometown.

He was trying to work through all the patterns he’s been honing for years now, pointing to some version of this day – three-pointers of every variation, different kinds of finishing moves.

The only problem was he kept getting interrupted.

Raptors rookie Oshae Brissett – a fellow Mississauga native – ran onto the floor and essentially tackled him. Chris Boucher the up-and-coming Raptor from Montreal and a national team colleague the summer before last, woofed him as he walked on the floor for his pre-game work.

But Barrett still looked good, moving well, smiling easily as he went through his paces, even if he was coming off an undisclosed illness – described only as something respiratory — that kept him out of the New York Knicks‘ lineup a couple of night ago.

There was no trace of nerves.

“Today you would have thought we were in any other gym,” Knicks head coach David Fizdale said. “It was like any other shootaround today. I’m expecting him to play well.”

You know what? Barrett did play pretty well, all things considered. But there were some nerves. The good kind.

“I had way too many emotions,” he said afterward. “I was so happy all day. Literally the whole time I was trying to calm myself down for the two hours before the game. It was great to back in Toronto.”

Most importantly, he played with confidence. He drove to the rim hard on his first possession where his lay-up was tipped by Norm Powell. He stepped into open threes with appropriate belief, making 2-of-8 but looking like he could have had more go down. He left the arena with a brace on his shooting hand – his left – having sprained a finger a few days back, so that probably wasn’t helping.

Barrett moved the ball reasonably efficiently. His work ethic on defence was more than passable, even if he was but a finger in the Knicks’ porous dike.

One of his best moments was a lefty floater in the first half, which marked his first basket at Scotiabank Arena since high school, when he played there as a ninth grader from Mississauga’s St. Marcellinus Secondary. Barrett followed up with a corner three and a couple nice passes, one of which earned him an assist. In the second half, he drove hard into the sizable chest of Marc Gasol and managed to bounce off and convert. Barrett easily could have drawn a foul on that play.

The 19-year-old was doing his best to put on a good showing in front what he estimated was a gathering of 300 friends and family who made it to the game.

He finished with 16 points, five rebounds and four assists on 5-of-17 shooting in 31 minutes. The Raptors were led by Pascal Siakam with 31 points. The most impressive rookie on the floor might have been undrafted 22-year-old Terence Davis, who cruised to 15 points and five assists.

“I tried my best out there,” Barrett said. “Hopefully I get to come back here and play many times.”

His main problem?

He plays for the Knicks, who leave Toronto with a 4-14 record after the Raptors all too easily handed them a 126-98 win after jumping ahead by double figures late in the second quarter and never looking back. Toronto improved to 13-4 and a perfect 8-0 at home – a franchise record to start a season — as they led by 20 heading into the fourth quarter and were able to relax as the game finished with an extended garbage time session.

This is Barrett’s NBA reality: The Knicks have faced the fourth easiest schedule in the league, so their record is probably even better than it should be.

The ball doesn’t move – the Knicks are 28th in the league in assists and had just 19 against the Raptors – and they don’t have the three-point shooting to spread the floor enough to cater Barrett’s abilities to drive the basket. He’s always had a knack for getting to the free-throw line, but he’s shooting only 49 per cent on five attempts a game – an area that will have to improve (he was 4-of-6 against the Raptors), but is unlikely to elevate the league’s second-worst offence.

Unfortunately for Barrett, things will likely only get worse as the Knicks are poised to enter a six-week, 20-game stretch where they play 12 games on the road, including two trips to the west coast and two trips to Milwaukee. They get the East-leading Bucks at home in there, too.

By then, the league-wide expectation is the Knicks will be trying to sell-off the quality veterans they do have for draft picks as their never-ending rebuild continues. Barrett’s head coach, Fizdale, is considered a leading candidate to get fired and there are rumoured front office shake-ups coming as well.

For Barrett, the entire season seems poised to be a lesson in, ‘You are not at Duke anymore.’

He’s trying to remain optimistic even if he’s already lost more games this season than he did in his final three amateur years combined.

“I’m playing basketball. That’s the light that I see,” Barrett said. “I get to play basketball every day. I come in, put my hard hat on every day and try to help the team every day.”

But Barrett’s homecoming Wednesday was a bit of perfect symmetry and hinted at some better days to come.

On Tuesday, Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray told Sportsnet he was committing to play for the national team next summer. Then, in rapid fire, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker of the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans, respectively, announced their plans to do the same. Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies had already thrown his hat in the ring.

Wednesday morning was Barrett’s turn as he stood before a podium at Scotiabank Arena and declared he was in – “100 per cent.”

Barrett has been projected as the future face of Canadian basketball since he was 14 years old.

The beauty of his homecoming was that it’s clear he’s going to be part of a crowd, with a chance to play on a strong team.

In the fourth quarter of last night’s game, there were four Canadians on the floor at once: Brissett and Boucher for the Raptors, along with Barrett and Ignas Brazdeikas for the Knicks. It’s believed to be a Canadian first. Even two months into his first NBA season, Barrett has grown accustomed to seeing familiar faces at nearly every stop.

The national team element was a welcome sidebar to what was a fairly pedestrian weeknight game between an Eastern Conference contender and a team that is miles from even thinking playoffs.

Not only was Barrett playing in front of friends and family, he was playing in front of national team head coach – and Toronto Raptors head coach — Nick Nurse.

“I just talked to him (Monday) night a little bit, very quickly,” Nurse said before the game. “He’s in town obviously with a lot of family and stuff, but we did have a really nice exchange, and you’ve seen his comments today that he’s 100 per cent committed to playing for the team and excited about it and stuff like that — and that’s great to see, great to see.”

Was Nurse watching with an eye toward next summer?

“One-eighth of my eye is looking at the national team and seven-eighths of my eyes are trying to do this job, focusing in on this,” Nurse joked.

“(But) there’s a lot of time, obviously (before Olympic qualifying begins next summer),” said Nurse. “I think every time I got a game on, and these guys are playing, I watch personnel closely. Especially a little more concentration on the guys who can possibly be playing no doubt, see how they’re doing. They’re, as a group, they’re great dudes man, you’re pulling for them — except when they’re playing you, you’re pulling for them.”

Barrett could use some support. It’s going to be a long year and summer basketball amongst friends with a chance to win might seem like something to look forward to by the time December and January roll around.

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