It comes as no surprise to anyone who has been watching basketball for the last 20 years that the New York Knicks have been nothing short of an abysmal, poorly run organization that never seems to get it right. In the immediate aftermath of the Knicks last NBA Finals appearance against the San Antonio Spurs in 1999, the two franchises have been ritual opposites — one winning five NBA Championships, the other? Fifteen losing seasons, scandals and downright embarrassing management. But things appear to finally be headed in the right direction for New York and with the selection of RJ Barrett with the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, for the first time in decades the Knicks are heading toward a better tomorrow.
Barrett, 19, is the most celebrated rookie the Knicks have drafted since taking Patrick Ewing No. 1 overall in the 1989 NBA Draft. RJ a 6’7, 200-pound wing at Duke averaged 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. The Knicks, a franchise usually shipping away lottery picks years in advance for underperforming players, are in a good spot and armed with draft picks including two first rounders from the Dallas Mavericks over the next four years. For a franchise that has virtually gutted their future assets time and time again, the plan put in place by general manager Scott Perry appears to have the Knicks destined for greatness down the road.
For many Knicks fans losing out on drafting Zion Williamson, the No. 1 overall pick of the New Orleans Pelicans is perceived a disappointment. After posting a 17-65 record during the 2018-2019 campaign, New York yearned for the possibility of drafting the 6’8 280-pound juggernaut often considered a crossover between the likes of LeBron James and Charles Barkley. While Williamson would have been gold, New York needs to understand who Barrett is and why drafting him is far from a disappointment.
Barrett, born in Toronto, has basketball flowing through his veins. As a youth, Barrett was submerged in the game as his father Rowan Barrett, played at St. John’s University and ultimately went on to play for Team Canada alongside close friend and godfather of RJ, Steve Nash. A future Hall of Famer, Nash, was an additional figure in Barrett’s life that further motivated him and molded the newest Knick into a young winner.
“I didn’t get to spend as much time with him as I wanted because I was busy and he was busy,” Nash told ESPN. “They were in Europe. And when they were back from Europe, [RJ] was getting into this crazy high school AAU circuit. But it has been a thrill and a pleasure to watch him emerge and continue to grow and grow and grow.”
While Duke teammate Williamson dominated college basketball and was considered the far and away best player in the draft, Barrett’s accomplishments are second to none. Claiming every National Player of The Year (POY) award in his final year of high school at Montverde Academy, Barrett is the most celebrated prospect since LeBron James winning the following POY awards: Gatorade, Naismith, Morgan Wootten, All-USA Today, MaxPreps and Mr. Basketball USA.
There hadn’t been a single player since LeBron to sweep every national POY award.
The Knicks have drafted talented athletes in the past which includes a list of good plays such as Trevor Ariza, Danilo Gallinari, and David Lee; however, none of them were as accomplished or possessed the potential upside of Barrett. Past regimes would have traded the pick that landed the Knicks Barrett years ago, that is why the culture is changing in New York.
Since Scott Perry has taken over as general manager, the Knicks have made real fundamental leaps that have included ending the Carmelo Anthony era, drafting a potential future star in Barrett, and not hesitating to deal away a malcontent in Kristaps Porzingis which netted the team a promising young guard in Dennis Smith Jr. and two future first round picks.
In addition, Perry hired David Fizdale, one of the brightest young coaches in the NBA and only two years removed from a playoff birth in 2017 with the Memphis Grizzlies.
“One of his strongest qualities is his perseverance,” Perry said upon hiring Fizdale. “We believe that quality will transfer to our players moving forward.”
Perry not only showed his ability to get adequate compensation when trading away a star player, he perhaps, more importantly, showed discipline when chasing a superstar in Anthony Davis. The Knicks regimes of years past undoubtedly would have gutted the entire roster and future assets to acquire Davis. In 2005, Isiah Thomas looking to make a splash, traded a haul for the 22-year-old Eddy Curry, a former lottery pick with a lot of hype.
We all know how that turned out. In five seasons with the Knicks Curry would average an underwhelming 15.2 points and 5.8 rebounds — worst of all he was one of the laziest players in the entire Association constantly ballooning in weight every offseason. Virtually the dagger to Curry’s career is when he struggled to get in shape in 2010, leaving newly hired coach Mike D’Antoni in such shame they eventually used him as a contract dump in the three-team blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York.
Oh, and by the way, the two draft picks the Knicks sent to Chicago ended up being the No. 2 pick in the 2006 draft and the No. 9 pick in the 2007 draft — LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah.
In more recent memory the Knicks were so determined in their pursuit of Carmelo Anthony they traded talented young assets along with draft compensation to secure a deal with the Denver Nuggets. As we all know, Anthony was an unstoppable offensive force in New York averaging nearly 25 points and seven rebounds; but while he was that good, the after-effects of the Denver deal made it very difficult for New York to build a real winner around Anthony ultimately only winning one playoff series in six seasons.
Perry refusing to go down a similar route with Davis proves this regime is steering the franchise in the right direction. For all the talent Davis possesses, the Pelicans have a franchise record of 251-323 during his seven-year tenure in New Orleans. The most revealing part of a potential Davis deal that the Knicks never thoroughly entertained is the role of owner James Dolan.
For all the years of bad basketball in the Garden, Dolan has been the common denominator that has kept the franchise from winning. Whether it was forcing Donny Walsh to bring Anthony to New York or shooting down Steve Mills deal for a prime Kyle Lowry, Dolan, who has no basketball background always finds a way to interfere. The fact Dolan didn’t overstep his boundaries while a potential Davis trade was on the horizon should make every Knick fan ecstatic.
“Jim would prefer to operate this way,” Mills said in 2018. “If you look at how he’s operated with the Rangers with (team president) Glen Sather, he’s stayed out of the Rangers’ operations pretty much for the most part.”
“He has to feel comfortable with the group that’s leading the team and the process that we’re going through. And he feels comfortable – we laid out a plan to him. He was very comfortable with it and he gave us the assurances that as long as we follow through with our plan – if we’re going to deviate from it in some big way, he wanted us to come back and check in with him. But he was going to give us the room to do this the way we laid it out.”
If Dolan continues to allow the basketball minds to work, the Knicks will be in a position to compete much sooner than many may realize. A roster that was bear just a few short years ago is now full of young, talented athletes with a lot of potential. Whether it’s Mitchel Robinson, Kevin Knox or Dennis Smith Jr., the Knicks appear to be on their way, and Barrett is the prize possession that will be the driving force behind the team’s success even if Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving decide to take their talent to Brooklyn.
“RJ’s won a championship almost every year since he was in seventh grade,” father, Rowan Barrett said. “He’s a winner, I think New York likes winners. He’s competitive, he plays for that, he doesn’t play for numbers. He plays to win, he plays to beat you, he’s very, very competitive.”
Should Barrett be as good as advertised, maybe the Knicks can finally begin to close the massive gap between themselves and the Spurs that has existed since 1999 — the last time the Knicks made New York proud.
“I’m glad the city wants me here as much as I want to be here,” Barrett said.
“I went to Duke, we got a lot of attention. Being in New York there’s going to be a lot more, but I’ve just been built this way to handle it. I’ll be fine.”