It’s fitting that the final NBA game of this bizzaro year, which you can catch on Sportsnet at 7:30 p.m. ET, will conclude with a pair of teams looking more like the opposite of who they’ve been for nearly a decade now.
On one hand you have the normally consistently strong Raptors, who enter the New Year’s Eve affair caught in an uncharacteristic downward slide, starting the season 0-3. On the other hand, the Knicks -- the veritable poster child of sports failure and dysfunction over the last little while -- who have begun the 2020-21 campaign 2-2, picking up their two wins most recently, including a surprising blowout victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.
There are many reasons to point the finger at when discussing Toronto’s struggles, but when it comes to the relative success the Knicks have enjoyed so far, it doesn’t take a lot to figure out what’s been working for them.
Julius Randle has begun the season on a tear, averaging 24.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game while shooting 55.6 per cent from the floor and an amazing 69.2 per cent from three-point range -- on a little more than three three-point attempts per game.
In New York’s last game, a 95-86 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Randle put up a triple-double with a line of 28 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.
It took a little while, but in his seventh year in the NBA it looks like the huge potential Randle showed in college could finally blossom.
This is good news for New York, but even though Randle is the Knick grabbing all the headlines right now, perhaps an even more encouraging sign for them is the possibility that they may not have to wait all that long for sophomore forward RJ Barrett to start blooming himself.
The Mississauga, Ont., native is off to pretty good start to the season, averaging 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. His efficiency still leaves a lot to be desired -- Barrett’s shooting just 38.7 per cent from the field and a truly awful 18.8 per cent from deep -- but you won’t be hearing many complaints about his start from the Knicks right now.
“He’s been terrific. He’s been playing an all-around game, he’s played well without shooting well -- we know the shooting’s coming,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said after New York practiced in Tampa Wednesday. “He’s doing a lot of things for us defensively, he’s moving well without the ball, he’s getting downhill and I think there’s a lot of room for him to grow -- he’s been diligent with his work.”
Added Barrett’s teammate Kevin Knox: “He’s playing really well. He’s getting to the basket, he’s doing a lot better making reads this year, really finding the open man and he’s gonna continue to stay aggressive this season which is what we definitely need him to do.”
Coming into the league as a rookie last season, one of the question marks around Barrett was if he could expand his offensive game from just being a scorer, as he was primarily used in high school and Duke.
During his time with the Blue Devils, in particular, it looked like Barrett had a bad habit of tunnel-visioning drives to the basket he wanted to take or shots he wanted to put up.
However, if the reviews from his coach and team are to be believed, then it looks like Barrett’s taken a massive step forward already this season in shoring up that particular weakness.
“I think just having a wing that can do the things that he can do with his versatility is a big asset for our team,” Thibodeau said. “And his willingness to make plays for people, I think that’s starting to show and will continue to grow.”
Thibodeau was named the Knicks’ new head coach at the end of July and has quickly gotten to work trying to revamp New York, beginning with the club’s offence.
Not known much for its beauty or its general competence, Thibodeau is stressing his team move the ball more this season than before.
“He’s really been preaching it since Day 1,” Knox said of Thibodeau’s emphasis on ball movement. “Just whenever you get to the basket and drawing the defence in and making the right read and the right kick out. If you’ve got a layup or a dunk go finish, but if the defence collapses he really preaches about making the right read and just passing and sharing the game. I think that’s why a lot of us is getting a lot of shots, it’s why you see a lot of guys in double figures.”
So far, this offensive focus has certainly worked for Barrett who, granted in a small sample size, is averaging a little more than one assist per game more than he did last season.
In general, the offence Thibodeau is trying to implement looks like it has the potential to help expand the Canadian’s game -- an exciting prospect because, as mentioned before, Barrett already can bring it on defence.
It’s not difficult to draw parallels between a young Jimmy Butler and Barrett. With the length, strength and athleticism Barrett boasts, it’s easy to see Thibodeau molding Barrett into a defensive force much the way he did with Butler during their Chicago Bulls days.
There’s still a lot of polish that needs to be done with Barrett before he can even come close to the defender Butler was (and still is), but the potential is there and by most accounts he’s already a pretty good stopper.
“[We] can count on him on the defensive end to really guard and really cause havoc on that side because he’s a really good defender,” said Knox of Barrett.
So between what appears to be not only an improvement as a playmaker, but an offensive system looking to nurture that skill in addition to steadily improving defence, this is is shaping up to be a big season for Barrett.
If he’s able to keep the strong play in those two aspects of the game up all season, while continuing to be the scoring threat he already is, the strangeness of New York’s good start to the season will quickly start to become less odd each game.