SAN ANTONIO — Perhaps David Fizdale was going for shock value and trying to get his team’s attention as it began its journey through an 82-game regular season. Or maybe Fizdale thinks RJ Barrett can handle more responsibility than most rookies can bear.
But based on the Knicks’ season opener against the Spurs on Wednesday night, Barrett doesn’t need to be playing point guard on a team with plenty of other options. He is too valuable doing too many other things.
That was evident during the Knicks’ 120-111 opening-night loss to the Spurs at AT&T Center, as Barrett scored 21 points on 9 of 13 shooting in his NBA debut. He also had five rebounds and two assists to go with three turnovers.
Fizdale made the surprise announcement before the game that Barrett would start at the point alongside backcourt mate Allonzo Trier. It meant Dennis Smith Jr., Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina would be on the bench despite being the three players presumed to be competing for the starting job at point guard.
“I just think he can handle it,” Fizdale said of Barrett beforehand. “He just has a way about him. I really like the way he plays the game.”
It seemed a bit of a reach, especially on opening night, when Barrett, the third pick in the draft, had enough on his plate playing his first pro game on the road. Barrett saw limited duty at the point during the preseason as Smith, Payton and Ntilikina took their turns trying to impress.
But Fizdale apparently couldn’t help himself and started Barrett at the point against the Spurs. The early results weren’t impressive, though Barrett shouldn’t be blamed. If we learned anything Wednesday night, it’s that Barrett has what it takes to be the kind of impact player the Knicks sorely need, but not at point guard. At least not right now.
With Barrett at the point the Knicks started slowly and finished a mess, while somewhere in-between Payton made a strong claim to be the team’s real point guard. Barrett had all three of his turnovers in the first half, when a disjointed Knicks offense made just one of its first 11 shots to trail 10-2. When Smith entered the game for Trier and took over the point, the Knicks were down 14-4.
Before long, Payton (eight assists, five steals, zero turnovers, 11 points) was in the game, running an offense that started to look more efficient. A 59-51 Spurs lead at halftime changed to a 78-73 Knicks advantage on a Barrett dunk with 3:10 left in the third quarter.
“He turned our pace up and started making plays for other people,” Fizdale said of Payton.
By the fourth quarter, the Knicks looked a team worth watching, going toe-to-toe with the Spurs. But with the Knicks up 97-91, Barrett went to the point again and the offense bogged down as the Spurs took a 99-97 lead before Fizdale rushed Payton back in the game. By then the Spurs had enough momentum to complete an 18-0 run.
Still, it was a solid debut for Barrett, the 19-year-old from Duke. There was no stage fright, and when relieved of playing point guard, he flourished at both ends of the floor, adding two steals to his line.
“When the popcorn is popping that kid’s ready,” Fizdale said.
Knicks fans might be disappointed the NBA lottery ruined any chance of getting Zion Williamson. But Barrett shouldn’t be looked at as a consolation prize. He has an NBA body (6-foot-7, 214 pounds) and has a hunger to succeed.
“It felt great,” Barrett said. “My first NBA game. Just to even play in the game felt great. I’m not happy we lost, but it’s just one of 82.”
Fizdale said he wants Barrett to settle into these basics: “Competing his butt off defensively, playing offense with a clear mind, using all of his skill sets running the floor, attacking and making plays for other people.”
All that seems to come naturally to Barrett, who can be the kind of cornerstone the Knicks need — as long as someone else plays point guard.
For more on the Knicks, listen to this episode of this podcast, “Big Apple Buckets”: