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The Knicks’ best two players haven't been who you'd expect

By: Chris Harrison

The 2023 NBA offseason was full of splashy trades, soap opera-esque rumours, and continuous speculation. Yet, the New York Knicks, with their famously impatient owner, entered this season virtually identical to last year, with just one change in their rotation.

Barring some unforeseen change, the story of this Knicks team seemed to already be written. The team would ride their leading scorers, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, to a middle seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and the role players around them would be more or less the players fans have come to know. However, in the early part of the new season, the Knicks have been able to overcome rough starts from their two stars thanks to major development from two of their young players.

The Knicks currently sit at 6-5, but they’ve been held back a bit by uncharacteristically cold shooting from the usually efficient Brunson and some poor performances from Randle, who is still working his way back to form after offseason ankle surgery. With Randle shooting a ghastly 33.9 per cent from the field and Brunson shockingly making just 41.9 per cent of his twos (his career average is 53 per cent), the Knicks could, and likely should, have an awful record. Luckily, RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson have stepped up in a major way.

Robinson came into the league as raw as prospects get, having skipped college entirely and entered the league after a year away from high-level competitive basketball. His length, athleticism and shot-blocking instincts have always been there but he was prone to foul trouble, falling out of position to chase blocks and losing focus. This year, though, he’s been more disciplined and active than ever, keeping his hands high to shut down passing lanes, communicating on defence, and generally being a menace on the glass.

Before an impressive postseason performance, last year’s Knicks were a mediocre defensive team. Robinson has carried the dominance he displayed against the Cleveland Cavaliers into this season. The leap he’s taken this year is a major reason the Knicks have jumped to fifth in the league in defensive efficiency.

He’s also leading the league in offensive rebounds with a whopping 5.8 per game and leads the league in offensive rebounding percentage by a wide margin. Robinson has also improved as a screen setter, helping free up the Knicks’ perimeter players for forays into the paint.

RJ Barrett’s improvement has been just as vital, as the Knicks are 5-2 when he has suited up this season. He had already proven he could score 20 points per game last season, but he had done so on middling efficiency and his limitations as a player were laid bare against good defences. This season, after a strong showing in the summer with the Canadian national team, his game has evolved.

Barrett has always been a slasher first and foremost, but two key weaknesses held him back: shooting touch and decision-making. He hit a paltry 31 per cent of his threes last season, allowing opponents to clog the lane even more against a Knicks team already dealing with cramped spacing by modern NBA standards. Plus, on his drives, he was often slow to process the opponents’ defensive rotations, leading to delayed passes or forced shots under heavy duress near the rim.

This year, he’s been far more decisive, firing passes out to the perimeter before the defence is able to collapse on him, Barrett’s also been far more patient, showing a willingness to poke and prod a defence until it yields a quality look at the basket. This has caused his field goal percentage to leap from 43% last year to just under 49 per cent this year. A smoother outside shooting stroke and improved confidence have made him a threat from outside too, as he’s cashed in on half of his three-point attempts so far. He won’t shoot 50 per cent from deep for the whole year, but the improvement is clear, not to mention much-needed on this particular team.

The Knicks have gotten off to a slow start, but when their two stars return to form, the improvements made by Barrett and Robinson should add up to them being a more complete team than last season. If they keep playing at this level, they will be an even bigger threat in the playoffs than they were a season ago.


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