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The New York Knicks have a very talented player in R.J. Barrett, but he was not in the right environment to thrive in his rookie season.

A tree only grows with proper care. This limitation played out for rookie R.J. Barrett this past season, the No. 3 pick of the 2019 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks.

His talent was evident in production, but efficiency lacked for reasons beyond his control.

The improper care is how the Knicks built their team last summer. After striking out on the top free agents such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they signed a bunch of B and C-tier free agents to appear as if they still got something out of the offseason.

None of the contracts were particularly bad, but they didn’t fit well together. Not with each other, not with the young guys, and certainly not with the team’s prized rookie. Barrett was cited by many scouts as one who needed shooters and cutters around him. And like any high-upside prospect, he needed a lot of touches too. Instead, the Knicks surrounded him with the opposite.

Julius Randle, New York’s biggest signing of last summer, shot a meager 27.7 percent on 3s while having the 27th-highest usage rate in the league. Marcus Morris shot a healthy 43.9 percent on triples but often did so as the first or second option (he averaged 14.8 shots and nearly two isolation possessions per game). Taj Gibson and Elfrid Payton attempted a combined 83 3s the whole season. The non-shooting veterans stole the show, while Barrett, Kevin Knox and the rest of the youngsters faded into the background.

RJ Barrett flashed some impressive playmaking craft as a rookie, despite the Knicks awful floor-spacing. Think he still has the makings of a solid secondary wing creator down the line.

— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) July 4, 2020

Until the trade deadline, that is. After Morris was dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers, Barrett’s usage jumped and we got to see more of what he can do. Most impressive was his ability to get to the rim, where he showed no fear challenging defenders vertically. A healthy 39.2 percent of his shots came within three feet, which ranked 11th among non-bigs. Within those attacks at the basket was a bevy of creative moves and finishes, which didn’t always go in but were impressive when they did.

That aggressiveness led to him drawing fouls at a very good rate. His 4.5 attempts at the line per game ranked fourth of all players 21 or younger this season, and only four rookies since 2015-16 have eclipsed that figure. The roots are in place: Barrett has the foundation for a good scorer and solid playmaker on the wing. But the Knicks need to cater to his strengths better, especially in the backcourt.

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The first step to doing that is to get shooters around him. If Barrett gets breathing room to operate and attack off the dribble, he’ll be a lot more efficient and create more opportunities for others. The only Knicks guard who could somewhat space the floor last season was Frank Ntilikina, and he shot 32.1 percent on only 2.4 3-point attempts a night.

New York can acquire such a player through the draft or free agency. A trade would be difficult since most of their veterans are under team control for next season and their young guys aren’t likely to be valued highly around the league.

In the draft, there are likely to be two guards available near their current position of No. 6 in Killian Hayes and Tyrese Haliburton. Both have concerns over their jumpers though; Hayes’ shooting numbers are not so great off the catch, and though Haliburton’s are, his shot mechanics are a bit funky, which clouds his projections. Other than Devin Vassell, a 3-and-D wing, most of the best shooters in this class aren’t projected as top-of-the-lottery talents.

Free agency provides more certainty, although at a higher cost. Fred VanVleet is an effective shooter, defender and playmaker with a championship ring — and he’s 26 years old, just about to enter his prime. He’ll be a valued commodity around the league and with his incumbent Toronto Raptors, though overpaying may still be worth it for the Knicks.

If money isn’t the issue but length of the contract is, then either D.J. Augustin or Jeff Teague may be a better play. Neither would be likely to move from their incumbent teams without extra cash in the contract, but they might be amenable to one-year deals at a higher price. New York can keep flexibility for the summer of 2021 while providing solid point guard play where it desperately needs it.

The long term play depends on that 2021 offseason. The Knicks only have Randle’s contract guaranteed for 2021-22, and a lot of stars at various positions expect to be available. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis are ticketed for unrestricted free agency, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have player options.

The Knicks have a lot of work to do over the next several months to become an attractive destination. But regardless of outside rumors, putting Barrett in the right environment to grow is of utmost importance. If he can get anywhere close to his ceiling as an NBA player, he’ll be a recruitment chip for talent all on his own.

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Rangers eliminated from postseason after Game 3 loss to Hurricanes

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It was only fitting that the Rangers were swept out of the postseason just hours after Tropical Storm Isaias wreaked havoc on New York.

The Carolina Hurricanes overturned a 1-0 second-period deficit to overpower the Rangers in a 4-1 victory and take the best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifiers series in the minimum three games, crashing New York out of the Toronto bubble.

With their third game in four days, the Hurricanes also opted to make a change in goal from Petr Mrazek, who constantly frustrated the Rangers’ over the first two games. James Reimer got the nod for his first playoff appearance since 2016 and his first postseason start since 2013.

He shined in his postseason return, making 30 saves on 31 shots, including some showstopping denials that could have very well kept the Rangers’ season alive for at least another few days.

The performance overshadowed the return of Igor Shesterkin to New York’s net after he was deemed unfit to play in Games 1 and 2.

Considered the goaltender of the Rangers’ future, he was no match for some of the top-notch skill of Carolina’s first line — particularly in the form of the skill from Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho, who both scored goals in the Hurricanes’ win.

The Rangers got off to their best start of the series and also put their best period together in the first, but had nothing to show for it. Despite outshooting Carolina 14-6 in the opening 20 minutes, the Blueshirts couldn’t find a way to get past Reimer.

They only had to wait 12 seconds into the second period to change that, though.

Right at the start of the frame, Chris Kreider was sent in on the Hurricanes’ zone, split two defenders, and slid across Reimer’s goal to his backhand to finish around the Hurricanes’ netminder:

Power moves, courtesy of Chris Kreider. ???? #StanleyCup Qualifiers

????????: @NHLonNBCSports
????????: @Sportsnet

— NHL (@NHL) August 5, 2020

Out of nothing, the Hurricanes came with a dominant reply, bossing possession for more than a minute in the Rangers’ zone, allowing them to get their top line on the ice while New York defenseman Marc Staal was pinned in without a stick.

Against four equipped Rangers defenders, Teravainen weaved in toward the Rangers’ goal and roofed a backhander over the glove of Shesterkin just 3:06 after Kreider’s opener.

It would remain tied through the second period, but it wasn’t because of a lack of trying from the Rangers. Reimer stood on his head in the final moments of the second to ensure it would remain tied going into the final period.

He first stoned Brendan Lemieux on a breakaway before the rebound squirted back out to the Rangers’ forward. With Reimer out of position, Lemieux lifted a backhander toward the Hurricanes’ net, but defenseman Sami Vatanen stacked the crease and made a save with his shoulder.

As the puck came out and Carolina attempted to reset, the Rangers were able to move the puck to Filip Chytil who had a gaping net, but his wrister was saved in mid-air by the stick of a lunging Reimer:


— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) August 5, 2020

The missed opportunity came back to haunt the Rangers — a sequence they’ll be thinking about all offseason — when the Hurricanes took the lead with 14:53 to go in the game.

A shot from the point from former Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei was deflected in front twice, the last time by Warren Foegele, which then popped over Shesterkin.

Warren Foegele (@FoegDaddy96) coming up huge for the @Canes right now. #StanleyCup Qualifiers

????????: @NHLonNBCSports
????????: @Sportsnet

— NHL (@NHL) August 5, 2020

Sebastian Aho provided one of the flashiest daggers ever, putting the Hurricanes up with 9:34 remaining, cutting down the left-wing, dipsy-doodling around Anthony DeAngelo while cutting toward Shesterkin’s net, and lifting a backhander into the back of the net:

This Sebastian Aho goal is NSFW. ????#NHLonSN

— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) August 5, 2020

Aho would add a second in the form of an empty-netter in the final minute to further ice the Hurricanes’ win.

Now, the Rangers will be hoping for ping-pong balls to help throttle their already-ahead-of-schedule rebuild. Losing the series ensures the Blueshirts will be apart of the second phase of the NHL Draft Lottery, which sees them have a 12.5% chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick and highly-touted prospect Alexis Lafreniere.

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