Can RJ Barrett be as good next season for Toronto?

RJ Barrett was historic in his half season in Toronto. Will he be just as good next season?

It’s rare for basketball players — or anyone, really — to take huge and sudden skill jumps without regression eventually coming to knock on the door. And Barrett’s jump in output since becoming a Toronto Raptor was preposterous. Truly. Let’s look at it.

The cutoffs for players to reach multiple numerical benchmarks are always relatively arbitrary, but Barrett averaged 21.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game while shooting 55.3 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from deep. That is, in Toronto, of course. So let’s set the cutoff at 20-6-4 with 55-39 percentage splits. How many players in NBA history hit those thresholds over a full season?

Two. (While also actually taking triples.) Kevin Durant. LeBron James. They each did it once. So it’s not like this is a particularly reasonable line to expect. Let’s lower the percentage splits to 50 from the field and 37 from deep. Aaaaand… only nine guys did that. Pretty much all Hall of Famers. Furthermore, the splits put up by Barrett in the first half of his season, in New York, were 18.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from deep. Worse!

That or better has been accomplished by 193 players in NBA history. Nothing special. Kyle Kuzma did it. Cuttino Mobley. Jalen Green. Good players! But far from Hall of Famers.

And neither Durant nor James ever put up splits as low as Barrett did in New York, not even in their rookies seasons. In fact, none of the nine players ever had a season with numbers and averages as low as Barrett did in New York. So it’s actually a fact to say that no one in the history of the NBA ever improved, from one full season to another in their entire career, from the statistical profile of Barrett in the first half of 2023-24 to the second half.

Now, that is obviously a little bit of a dishonest claim, because anything with statistical thresholds like that will always be a little disingenuous. And Barrett didn’t actually hit either of his statistical averages from 2023-24 over an entire season, neither so low as they were in New York, nor so high as they were in Toronto. But the spirit of the point stands: He improved a huge amount. Let’s not split hairs about whether huge means historical, in this case.

But will that improvement maintain going forward?

When Samson asked Barrett about this improvement, Barrett told him “I didn’t change a thing. That’s just who I am. That’s just how I play.”

That’s obviously simplifying things, but let’s take Barrett at face value and investigate a little bit. If Barrett didn’t change, then what could have? Obviously the context in which Barrett plays. In New York, Barrett played in a very static, isolation-heavy offense. The Knicks had the 11th-highest frequency of possessions end in isolations last year. Toronto was 28th. Toronto also averaged almost 15 more passes per game. As a team, Toronto’s average speed on offense was much higher than New York’s.

Toronto’s handoff-heavy system, with lots of cuts and motion, seemed to benefit Barrett immensely. His efficiency on drives skyrocketed, as his constant forward momentum was a terrific finishing punch to Toronto’s half-court possessions. He was a duck on those drives — his underwater motion never stopping for even a moment as he churned his way forward. He’d meet contact and vibrate right through it.

I wrote this in February:

So what changed?

Mostly, the simple stuff. He’s taking the space he’s given and not trying to force it when he’s not given space. If he’s overplayed, he’s cutting back the other direction. He is taking by far the highest-of-his-career share of his shots from the rim. (It’s actually been in the 99th percentile for his position as a Raptor — the man is getting to the rim.) But he is also attempting the fewest shots per drive (on just 55.9 percent of them) of his career and passing on the highest rate (23.5 percent). While he is also averaging the highest rate of turnovers per drive, that comes with the territory of shooting less and passing more. It has helped, all taken into consideration. He’s also been significantly more efficient on the actual shots he’s taking, at almost 60 percent on shots taken near the basket after driving, after never before reaching 50 percent in a single season as a Knick. That helps, too. (He’s actually shooting a career-best from basically every area of the floor.)

The Knicks neither facilitated Barrett’s driving, with so much less motion on the offensive end to create those wider lanes, nor did they really need it — New York had plenty of drivers who reach the rim. The Raptors created that space for Barrett and desperately needed him to fill it, as the team employed so few drivers beyond Barrett.

And yet, Barrett’s success can’t be explained entirely by context. The Denver Nuggets had a similarly motion-heavy offense, with few drivers, yet no Nugget was able to drive as frequently as Barrett while also boasting as high a field goal percentage when shooting out of those drives. Plenty of Barrett’s touch shots, the push shots and runners off glass through contact, dropped in Toronto as an unrealistically high rate. He shot 73.1 percent at the rim in Toronto after only ever reaching 65 percent in one season in New York. The context will continue to favour Barrett next season with even more shooters on the squad, hence wider lanes available, and more need for someone to take it all the way to the rim.

Barrett did surpass his shooting in Toronto in his sophomore year, hitting over 40 percent of his triples there. So it’s technically possible that he’ll continue to connect on 39 percent of his 3s. But he’s a career 34.6 percent shooter from deep, and it’s more realistic to expect his shooting to regress by a few percentage points. That’s just the numbers — players do get better at shooting, but I trust the sample of 1430 triples attempted in New York versus 120 in Toronto. Taking 120 shots is not a large enough sample size to say for sure that Barrett is this level of shooter now.

Some of the decision making from Barrett improved in Toronto, too. He passed at a much higher rate and started turning down any shot that wasn’t a good one. He fell in love with live-dribble spray passes on the move, which is a fantastic pass to have in the arsenal, particularly for such a high-frequency driver. And he fell out of love with contested long pull-ups, taking fewer than 1.0 a game.

That’s impossible to know if it will stick around. My guess is that it will, because humans generally are more comfortable with change when it’s backed up by immediate success. But you never know. People change back to old habits all the time.

That’s a lot of ifs. If his driving remains a focal point, if he continues getting so deep in the paint, if his touch shots on the drive keep falling, if his triples remain accurate, if his choices with the ball in his hands stay immaculate, etcetera. Perhaps any of those elements is likely to remain true, in a vacuum, given the beneficial context in Toronto. But all together? That seems unlikely, especially given the historic lack of precedent.

Barrett has room to regress while still remaining a hugely beneficial player. Say his accuracy from deep drops from 39 percent to 37 or even 36. That’s fine. He’ll still draw a relatively similar rate of closeouts, and the driving lanes into which he froths will remain available. Say his finishing at the rim slips a few percentage. Again, that’s fine. He was a top-30 driver in the league last year in Toronto. If that falls to top-50, he’ll still be providing the same high-end option as a possession-finisher.

So what is a reasonable expectation for Barrett’s stat line? I doubt his counting stats drop too much. Perhaps a point or two. Let’s say 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists per game is reasonable. I think 49 percent from the field and 37 percent from deep is likely within his grasp.

And how many players have done that? Just 13. It will still be a very, very exclusive club. Barret will still be in a beneficial system in Toronto, and he shot significantly better from deep when Scottie Barnes was on the floor (though his 2-point shooting and particularly rim finishing was still sky-high whether or not he played with Barnes). Context ought to help him more this upcoming season, as it’s unlikely Barrett will find himself playing with so much G-League talent as a result of injuries.

So expect Barrett to regress slightly from his outrageous half season with Toronto. But even so, expect him to be phenomenal. He proved that there is much he can do well in Toronto that were not necessarily his strengths in New York. He will continue to be the tip of Toronto’s offensive spear, the player who hammers home points after the advantages created by his teammates, the system. He’ll be the converter.

Barrett did improve in Toronto, sure. But mostly, he found an offensive system ripe for his talents. Unlike any in which he’d played in the NBA previously. Regression likely is coming, but don’t be surprised if in the future fans, analysts, and even teams cite Barrett when claiming that a low-efficiency player might just work when added to their team.