RJ Barrett has been toxic for opposing defenses

RJ Barrett has been a real asset to the Raptors since arriving.

Salary cap considerations, expected value, and all the trappings of basketball economics have their place in the decision making around, and the coverage of the NBA. It’s also led to obtuse analysis of players and some shortsightedness, more often in speech than in decision making. Zach Lowe communicated that, regarding RJ Barrett, executives around the league had described he and his contract as a “toxic asset”. The Raptors viewed Barrett more positively than just a number on a cap sheet that was underperforming a number on an expected value sheet. That evaluation led to Barrett’s inclusion in the big OG Anunoby trade, and now here we are.

I’m not here to suggest that Barrett was meeting the expected value of his contract, or to really do any of that impact + money interfacing. I’d just like to highlight that the Raptors valued the tangible things that Barrett does on the floor, and thought that they could help his game contextually with their existing players and system; while also believing that at 23 years old — and with a reputation of being a hard worker — Barrett has additions to make to his game. Skills developing, decision making improving, more flexibility from yoga class – however you want to slice it.

The early returns have been phenomenal, and it’s not just because he’s shooting the three well. The most obvious bets on improvement immediately were:

  1. The Raptors are the NBA’s transition kings, and Barrett can thrive in transition.
  2. Even if expectations for him as a shooter aren’t high, expecting a modicum of improvement giving his track record wasn’t a bad bet.

The more under the radar stuff, is that while on the Knicks, Barrett was one of three high volume lefty drivers and defenses were more geared up to that. On the Raptors he is the lone player of that sort, and reflects a significant change of pace and approach to any and all of Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, Immanuel Quickley, and Dennis Schroder.

With Siakam & Barnes in particular, the Raptors are able to bend defenses out of shape quite quickly, then begin trying to playmake to the rim or the 3-point line. The rest of the Raptors roster wasn’t typically very dangerous with a live dribble to take advantage of the real estate between them and the rim. Teams could often load up to run the shooters off the 3-point line, and ensure the back line was protected through rotation. This made the Raptors rely on players to carry advantages, who couldn’t necessarily do that consistently. Barrett had the skillset to immediately navigate weakened defenses, and make skip passes from the left side to the right (mostly), if they collapsed on him. The short way of saying this: Barrett can maintain and carry an advantage.

A bunch of these types of advantages were already being created by the Raptors stars, only they were passed by. Barrett steps in and immediately translates some of these possessions into points. It can, of course, go sideways. Barrett had 8 turnovers to 4 assists in his first two games — 8 assists to 0 turnovers in his last two — but those forays into the paint, and the continued threat that he’s been able to provide with a live dribble? Extremely valuable to these Raptors.

Quickley also does some of this stuff, but people have been singing his praises non-stop.

Josh is a fantastic scout. Follow him on twitter for excellent insights on pros and prospects alike.

Barrett is 10-19 from downtown as a Raptor. That isn’t going to hold, you don’t expect that going forward, but you don’t turn your nose up at it. It’s all a part of his shot profile now. The most important thing, though? Barrett is 14 of 21 in the restricted area, for 66-percent. In his career, he’s never finished a season shooting better than 60-percent within 4 feet. When you look at how he’s getting to the rim, and the gravity of his teammates that he’s taking advantage of, there’s not much reason to believe if the decision making and application of himself holds? He can make significant gains in his driving efficiency. Not only that, but he’s getting to the line for almost 6 free throws a game.

His true shooting percentage with the Raptors is 67-percent and that’s not sticking around, but it certainly doesn’t have to. The utility of his skillset, plucked from one roster and placed on another, has become far more valuable. The numbers are big and sexy, of course, but I was picking this stuff up in the process really early. Barrett has brought a more mindful approach to Toronto, and if he can maintain it, he has a really easy avenue to offensive impact.

You watch a guy like Barrett who can out muscle guys, who can finish fine enough at the rim, and you see in the numbers that he’s been below average at the rim, in the short mid-range, the long mid-range, and from 3-point land, basically every single moment of his career. You ask yourself: how do you get a guy whose skillset should indicate more success in at least one of these areas, more success? You provide a more helpful context, and you ask for a more helpful and mindful approach. Bang, it’s happening.

People can live and die by the shooting variance that I expect will still accompany his shots from downtown, but buoying all that will be empty-side pick n’ rolls where he finds the pacing with his big; pinch post actions where he can abuse a mismatch to draw a foul or get a bucket, like he did on Steph Curry repeatedly. The ever-proactive stampede cuts that send him bursting into the lane to threaten the rim, and his ever-grinding, probing left handed drives in search of the left side of the bucket. On this roster, those things have overwhelmed defenses coming from a tertiary player.

Frustrations will come along, mistakes will be made, certainly. However, there is stuff for him to do, do well, and I reckon he’ll continue doing it with the Raptors.

Have a blessed day.