RJ Barrett: 2023-24 Season in Review

The prodigal son returned home and became a bright spot during a not-so-bright Raptors season

The following is part of Raptors Republic’s series of pieces reviewing the season for the Toronto Raptors. You can find all the pieces in the series here.

“From the Sauga to the Six, he’s home, RJ Barrett.” Those words of Raptors in-game host Mark Strong rang through Scotiabank Arena when RJ Barrett first took the court in front of nearly 20,000 fans in his Raptors debut.

It was fitting, it was the first day of the new year on January 1, in what was a new era for the Toronto Raptors. Of course, Canada’s team shipped out fan-favourite OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa, and Malachi Flynn for Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, and a 2024 second-round pick. It truly was a new beginning for a franchise going through its most turbulent season in years.

However, when “Maple Mamba” stepped back into his home country, he was labelled as a neutral or even “toxic asset”. The 23-year-old was beginning a four-year, $107-million contract extension that he had signed the offseason prior, and wasn’t necessarily living up to it in the “Big Apple.” Making nearly $24 million this past season, he was mostly seen as salary filler to get the deal done. He proved to be more than that as soon as he put on a Raptors jersey.

StatNew York Knicks (26 GP)Toronto Raptors (32 GP)
* = Career-high

Barrett improved in nearly every statistical category once he touched the floor as a Dino, and even though it was a small sample size, he averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage. He was such a fit in fact, that in just his fourth game as a Raptor, he put up the third-best scoring night of his career and his most points since 2022 with 37, setting the mark for most points scored in a single game by a Canadian-born Raptor.

It was a match made in heaven as the Raptors were one of the best transition teams in the NBA this past season, and the Toronto native reaped the benefits. Barrett fit like a glove right into the Raptors’ up-tempo offence attacking the left side of the basket relentlessly using his craft and physicality.

Barrett ultimately played to his strengths more in Toronto, whether that was a coaching decision, RJ himself, or both, it was the right decision. He only took half a shot more per game, but took two fewer shots from beyond the arc, effectively taking those shots in the key instead as he got to the paint over and over again.

By doing so, Barrett saw a dramatic increase in both his field goal and three-point percentages. His field goal percentage spiked by 13 percent, and his three-point percentage increased by over six percent, resulting in the former Duke Blue Devil averaging four more points per game. The former Knicks’ percentage inside of the arc was also off the charts, shooting 60.5 percent from two-point land as a Raptor.

However, it wasn’t all bananas and pyjamas, as the most fascinating stat of the Canadians this past season is the difference in his free throw shooting pre-trade and post-trade. There aren’t many examples of a player dropping over 20 percent from the charity stripe after being traded, especially when everything else about that player’s game is firing on all cylinders. Despite that anomaly, he provided big-time value.

Among the nine five-man lineups that played 50 or more minutes for Toronto, RJ Barrett was a part of the second, third, and fifth-best lineups by NET rating. In what was an abysmal year in Toronto, he wasn’t.

Fans also saw the Toronto native’s game scale up and down depending on who was available every night. “Star-J” started as a tertiary option, using stampede cuts, and off-ball screens to compliment his uber-effective transition game. Once Scottie Barnes and Jakob Poeltl suffered season-ending injuries, however, Barrett was thrust into a more prominent role.

He was relied on more heavily and showcased that he can not only maintain and carry an advantage, but he can create one as well. Whatever role he was in, he was consistent, which was not something he was particularly known for during his time in New York.

“Ducky” proved he could be a threat with a live dribble also, providing a very different offensive profile than who he was traded for in OG Anunoby. Now, Barrett is nowhere near the wing-stopper or team defender that Anunoby is, and the 23-year-old does need to improve on that end. As of right now, however, he has shown that he can be a part of a good if not great defence as a solid team defender.

RJ Barrett has found a home on the court with the Raptors in his home country, and should be a major building block for the Dinos moving forward. But it’s not just the basketball and rowdy fans that mark home for Barrett, but the small things like Osmow’s Shawarma and Tim Horton’s coffee. We’ll see what happens next year and beyond on the court, but off the hardwood, Osmow’s and Tim Horton’s are certainly happy to have another customer back in the fold, just like the fans are to see the prodigal son return home.