For the fifth season in a row, the New York Knicks had representation in the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge in Chicago last night, a game that pits the best rookies and sophomores in the league against each other in the format of Team USA against Team World.
You’d think, given the lack of Knicks players featuring in the actual Sunday night All-Star game itself, that having three players; Kristaps Porzingis (2016 & 2017), Frank Ntilikina (2018) and Kevin Knox (2019) all playing in the Rising Stars Challenge, that by now they would have a solid core of talent on the roster. That’s someone running the point (Ntilikina) and two forwards dominating the frontcourt (Knox & Porzingis).
In addition, Dennis Smith Jr, who played in the 2018 game while a member of the Dallas Mavericks, and Elfrid Payton who did the same with the Orlando Magic in 2015, are both of course now with the Knicks.
Alas, while undoubtedly the Knicks’ most talented draft pick for at least a decade, Porzingis, up and left the Big Apple last season after demanding a trade, so far Ntilikina, Knox and Smith Jr haven’t exactly had the most significant impact on the team’s fortunes in the last 2-3 years.
Nonetheless, both Ntilikina and Knox were ‘Rising Stars’ in their rookie seasons. Their impact on the game itself during their respective outings?
Elfrid Payton (Rising Stars Challenge 2015)
2 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal
Frank Ntilikina (Rising Stars Challenge 2018)
6 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals
Dennis Smith Jr (Rising Stars Challenge 2018)
7 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists
Kevin Knox (Rising Stars Challenge 2019)
11 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist
Simply put, forgettable. I don’t think any NBA fans would admit to remembering anything about those three players’ performances. Ntilikina’s looks pretty, showing off his all-round game, but still, six points isn’t exactly enough for almost 20 minutes on the court.
February 14th, 2020. RJ Barrett, the 6ft 6in Small Forward out of Duke by the way of Toronto, Canada, started the 2020 Rising Stars Challenge game in Chicago, alongside fellow Canadiens Brandon Clarke (Memphis Grizzlies) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (OKC Thunder), Japanese-born Rui Hachimura (Washington Wizards) and Slovenian Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks).
Despite dominating the first half and the early portion of the third quarter, the Team World second unit fell short, ultimately leading to a 151-131 win for the USA. Despite the defeat, this was RJ Barrett’s stat line.
RJ Barrett (Rising Stars Challenge 2020)
27 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals
Not including his +8 in the +/- when he was on the court, RJ Barrett scored the most points in the entire game, a feat not matched since Porzingis dropped 30 points during the 2015 Rising Stars Challenge. One thing to note, Porzingis shared the accolade with then-Denver Nugget, and most recently a Knick until 2019, Emmanuel Mudiay.
What can we read into the Rising Stars Challenge? Are the highest scorers destined to be faces of the franchise? Absolutely not.
Are there at least two or three players in both teams that go on to have fantastic NBA careers? You bet there is.
One thing to remember. RJ Barrett is the highest-drafted Knick since Patrick Ewing went #1 overall in 1985. The expectation of him is as high as it was for Porzingis. Let one thing be clear, Porzingis was a star, and will be a star in this league, like it or not. His injury is the only thing that has hampered what can only be described as a terrific start to an NBA career. He’s a career 18 point & 8 rebound guy, and not to mention he’s still only 24 years old. Perhaps it’s not a franchise leading stat line, but he can play a big part in a Championship chasing team with a box score like that.
Back to Barrett, who is averaging 0.7 points per game less than Porzingis managed in his rookie season with 13.6 PPG. For a player like Barrett, finding his niche in the league is going to be tough. He’s not Trae Young, making six, seven three-pointers per game. He’s not Zion Williamson, bullying his way through the paint, jumping through the gym and throwing it down time after time on anyone who tries and gets in his way.
Barrett is a modest three-point shooter (31.8% this season), and unfortunately slightly below average shooting free throws (61.1%). It’s no doubt that the environment he’s in, a lower echelon team filled with veterans who want to take their own shots, will have a negative impact on his development, something that did take its a toll on Porzingis by his third or fourth season in the NBA.
Barrett’s basketball IQ is high, and he doesn’t seem particularly short of confidence. Look what happened when he played in a good team full of talented young players, he shone. This weekend was huge for the young Knick, who will surely return to New York a better player than he was on Thursday, as crazy as that may sound. He showed both himself and the world that in a sea of the most talented young players in the league, he can shine arguably the brightest.
Despite no involvement in any of Saturday night’s contests (3-point, Dunk or Skills Challenge), and once again the omission of a representative from the main event, the All-Star game, the Knicks were winners this weekend, and most will be waiting in awe for next Saturday to come around when Barrett takes to the court again at Madison Square Garden against the Indiana Pacers.
Featured Image: New York Daily News