Fan Duel Toronto Raptors


RJ Barrett is passing all expectations

RJ Barrett is having the best stretch of his career, it's happening in Canada, and here's how he's doing it.

The NBA is a highwire act. What you see on TV is super close to capturing it, and it looks extremely difficult, and then you see it at court level; where the players seem way faster, way bigger. The passes are thrown with much more speed, players cover more ground, and any margin for error seems like it evaporates. That’s why asking a player to change their approach is really difficult, and we see change happen slowly over years.

What RJ Barrett has done in Toronto has been impressive for a multitude of reasons, but most importantly because the numbers would indicate that he’s changed his approach and done so quite rapidly. When I asked Barrett about this, he scoffed at me, shook his head saying: “I didn’t change a thing.” then continued to shake his head and repeated: “I didn’t change a thing. That’s just who I am. That’s just how I play.”

Without change, RJ Barrett has converted 18.2ppg/2.4apg/4.3rpg on 53% TS into 20.5ppg/3.5apg/6.9rpg on 61% TS. Big change. Not everything is in the baseline stats — and we’ll get into the massive change in the underlying stuff later — but RJ’s offensive numbers have gone from, fundamentally, a very low efficiency volume scorer to a high efficiency, second-side creator. That change is extremely meaningful.

“It seems like a change to me. I understand he told you otherwise, but the reads I’m seeing are coming at a volume that wasn’t there when I watched his tape with the Knicks. Team style matters more than ever and that has to be considered, but Barrett deserves the credit for this. The level of gravity and decision making he’s bringing means you can actually build out parts of the offense for him to help others.”

An Eastern Conference Scout

Shortly after the trade I posited that Barrett would, for the first time in his career, become an above-average finisher by the numbers. The eye test was pretty clear, his tools were pretty clear, and somehow in the muck of the Knicks offense, Barrett was always well below average at the bucket. We’re talking never above the 25th-percentile type of finishing, mostly hanging around 55-percent at the rim with a high-water mark of 59-percent. Well, as a Raptor, he’s shooting an absurd 69-percent at the rim which ranks him in the 82nd-percentile among wings in the NBA. What I didn’t necessarily expect was his proficiency in the short mid-range where he’s already hit 31 of his 68 attempts as a Raptor, which is 77th-percentile among wings. Basically, Barrett has been great in the paint in a way he’s never been before.

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.

From shortly after the trade

The biggest reason for all of this? To my eye, it’s a combination of a few things, as most things are.

Firstly, Barrett is a tremendous fit in Darko Rajakovic’s offense, and said as much: “I’m thankful for the opportunity to be able to showcase that (playstyle) in the offense that we have, a lot of cutting a lot of moving. So yeah, I’m just able to be myself.”

Coming from a Knicks offense that is, to be fair, much, much better than the Raptors (7th ranked vs. 21st) Barrett was moving from a team that really leaned on the impressive iso stylings of Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, to a team that played more egalitarian basketball that was dependent on more motion, cutting, and screening. Essentially, Barrett went from being asked to spot-up next to Brunson & Randle when they were there, and try to emulate them when they weren’t, to playing a more dynamic style that got him downhill a bit more often and with more dynamic reads to be made once he was there. This bleeds into the second reason.

Barrett’s volume of drives hasn’t changed that much with the Raptors as opposed to the Knicks. He’s taking about a drive and a half extra every game. The big change is his efficiency on drives (54% shooting with the Raptors vs. 38% with the Knicks) which is impacted greatly by better decision making – which is easy to highlight with the pass-percentage on his drives changing from 27-percent with the Knicks to 38-percent with the Raptors. Barrett is forcing less shots at the rim. With that pass-percentage going up, we’ve seen a wider range of passes from Barrett, and more consistently. Who would have thought Barrett was the best skip passer coming over in the OG trade?

It’s crazy to see, but since Barrett has become a Raptor, he drives more than Scottie Barnes, scores more and more efficiently out of drives, passes out of drives more often, creates almost as many assists out of drives, and turns the ball over less. He wasn’t expected to be that good when he came over, and his rim pressure has been absolutely essential to the Raptors offense. Additionally, not all assists are created equal. Some assists are simply getting the ball to a guy before he does all the work, and some assists are gift-wrapped baskets. Dennis Schroder had a lot of assists this season where there was a lot of work done by the pass recipient, for example.

An advantage assist is when a pass puts a teammate in a position of advantage (duh), and they score. Collapsing the defense and finding a good shooter? Advantage created. Threading the needle on a back cut? Advantage created. Getting the big man wide in the pick n’ roll and finding the roller? Advantage created. For the most part, you know it when you see it. If you can get guys buckets where they don’t have to dribble and they’re not facing heavy contests, you’re getting a lot of advantage assists.

From last years big Scottie piece

For example, when I looked at Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam’s advantage assists earlier this season they came in at 56% and 72%, respectively. Both very high numbers. When I looked at 5 game samples of Draymond Green and Jayson Tatum last season, they came in at 52% and 44%. With these 4 players, we’re looking at some of the best playmakers out of the frontcourt in the league, and Jayson Tatum, who is somewhat limited in his playmaking reads, but a monstrous source of scoring and gravity. RJ Barrett’s advantage assist percentage with the Raptors? 42-percent. Not a homerun number, but certainly serviceable, and up from the 33-percent he posted in his 26 games with the Knicks this season.

It’s not just that the assists are going up for Barrett on the whole, but that a higher percentage of those assists are the type of assists that genuinely put his teammates in strong scoring positions. He’s had a great sense of where the bottom of the defense is, how it shades to him, and that’s opened up heaps of live dribble laydowns for him.

He’s been a juggernaut heading downhill to his left which has meant that the low man typically slides over to guard him and that opens up the roller/cutter. When teams realize they’re susceptible to that pass, they pull from the weak-side corner, and Barrett counters by spraying the skip over the top. He’s been great. He’s worked quickly and efficiently out of second-side pick n’ rolls, and even when the Raptors give him primary actions, Rajakovic has typically been pretty clever in how he stacks the floor in Barrett’s favor. It’s been awesome to watch.

It’s been extremely encouraging that all of the positive indicators of Barrett’s game that were showing up when I checked in shortly after the trade, have stuck around. Numbers don’t typically stabilize after 19 games, but that’s why we dive a little deeper and look at process. There’s not much variance in creating layups, is there? I’m not sure what Barrett ultimately becomes at the NBA level. I’m not sure that Star-J is a certainty. However, he’s playing well enough to force his detractors to reconsider what they think about him, and he’s emboldening his believers to believe a little harder.

Have a blessed day.