Note: this post was originally published for The Strickland. Give them a click!
When asked in The Strickland’s preseason roundtable what Thibs’ most frustrating lineup trend would be, I said “Elf/guard/RJ/Randle/Mitch is my nightmare, and not because I don’t like RJ and Mitch, but because I do! These guys need the opportunity to not only play with spacing and show the front office whether or not they can be pieces on a winning team one day, but also grow with their current young’uns as much as possible. I’d rather see RJ come off the bench than stand on the wing and watch Elf/Randle buddy ball, or drive to the rim into seven help defenders at once.”
Presto – in the first game of the season, the Knicks’ most-used lineup, with almost 10 minutes of game time, was Elf/Bullock/RJ/Randle/Mitch. In the tiny sample, the lineup was run off the floor, with a net rating of -45 points/100 possessions. This could be a bad sign – when I was asked in that same roundtable which Knick would improve the most this season, I chose Mitch over RJ, because “Although I think RJ will improve as well, too much of his improvement may be beholden to external factors, like lineup construction.”
Here’s perhaps the best news of this first game of the Knicks’ season: the fact that RJ put in such an amazing performance – in spite of precisely this poor lineup construction, lends further optimism to how he’ll perform with a real playoff team (if the Knicks ever get there). And it was an amazing performance indeed:
RJ came out absolutely guns blazing, including 8 for 8 from the field in the first half, and 3 for 3 from three. That wasn’t all he did, though – he had a tour de force with his playmaking and rebounding as well.
Let’s start with the obvious, though – his scoring.
Paging Daryl Morey.
RJ was doing it in just about every way, knocking down threes from multiple zones, and absolutely feasting at the rim to the tune of 73% (!). Though he was mostly inefficient in his rookie season, I’ve posited that what makes him still such an intriguing prospect is his ability to simply do so many different things at a young age. In his rookie season, the most field goals he made in a game was 10. On the first night of his sophomore season, he made 11.
- Pull-up three
- Spot-up three
- Dribble handoff lefty layup
- Dribble handoff righty layup
- Transition dunk
- Cutting layup
- Transition righty layup
- Spot-up three
- Driving lefty floater
- Pick-and-roll lefty layup
- Pick-and-roll lefty layup
The kid can really score in a ton of different ways, despite legitimate questions lingering about his three-point shooting and right hand.
The three-pointer sure looked good enough Wednesday night, though. Plenty of teams are going to be going under the screens this season, and when RJ can calmly line this up and knock it down, it opens up everything else:
Beside actually going in, the jumper definitely looked smooth; nice to see after he made adjustments with shot doctor Drew Hanlen, who’s worked with other 3rd-overall picks Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum, this offseason. Hanlen expanded on the specific adjustments he made with RJ:
‘“We’ve made three real adjustments,” Hanlen said. “The first one is posture: he was very upright, had no legs, and no fluidity […] Second thing is his pocket. His pocket was moved in. A lot of coaches like elbow in. The problem is when you have lefties, a lot of lefties don’t shoot with a good vision, you want a good vision triangle to see the rim with two eyes […] so we moved his elbow out […] And the third thing was he bunched up his hand on his follow-through a lot. And you see that a lot with guys who don’t have great touch […] We are just working on a clean, straight snap every single time, keeping his hand spread, so there’s more rotation on the ball and backspin.”’
Sure looked like a clean follow through here, as he punished the defense for helping one pass away from the drive:
Without an elite pull-up jumper or blazing speed, he’s not the best isolation scorer from a standstill, but it shouldn’t take too much creativity to get RJ going:
Stacy has it spot on here. It gets back to putting RJ in the best situation to succeed this season – it’s not just the lineups he’s in, but how he’s utilized. RJ’s big and strong for a wing, and is at his best when he can get downhill toward the basket and bully though defenders or make the read for a kickout pass. Watch how he manhandled Victor Oladipo, a 213-pound solid defender with a 6’9” wingspan, on his way to the cup here:
There are more ways to get him in those situations than pick-and-roll or isolation, and look at how this dribble handoff gets him momentum toward the rim, where he can attack with some pretty footwork, and his right hand to boot:
Getting out and running in transition is another great way to unleash downhill RJ. The Strickland’s very own Prez had a great Twitter thread preseason on how RJ’s been leaking out early, and it was apparent in this game as well; here RJ makes a bee-line for the opposite rim after the miss, and thanks to an eye-opening pass from rookie Obi Toppin, this is an easy dunk:
Ok, so we’ve gotten RJ going downhill on dribble handoffs and leaking out in transition, but he can also get a head of steam with the ball in his hands if he can use the whole court. Here ~Point RJ~ is comfortable pushing before the defense is set, and again uses his right hand to blow by the yellow jerseys for a layup:
In the halfcourt, he needs to be quick and deliberate in his decision making. Because he doesn’t have elite quickness or off-the-dribble shooting, he’s best off when he can attack before the defense has time to react and set.
He does that perfectly here, blowing by his man with a quick first step and hitting the pretty floater:
Attacking before the defense can react is doubly important when there’s so little three-point gravity around him; help defenders are generally free to crumple in on RJ’s drives with little repercussion. This has the potential to make his playmaking chances few and far between when he’s in that dreaded starting lineup.
However, his passing was easy – and efficient – in game 1. A perfect example here – essentially the same lineup, with Noel instead of Mitch. Remember the Warriors’ Death Lineup, with versatility, shooting, and playmaking 1-5? If that’s the Death Lineup, this is the Life Lineup. With 3 non-shooters around RJ, the Pacers literally play the kind of 2-3 zone that a good high school team might be able to pick apart on the perimeter.
When RJ gets the rock from Randle, there’s a clear soft spot:
To beat a zone, you have to make quick decisions with the ball and the dribble to collapse the defense. RJ begins his attack before the ball is even in his hands, and draws Victor Oladipo into his orbit:
In a lineup with just one three-point marksman, RJ found him.
After all, part of what made RJ such an intriguing prospect coming out of the draft was his passing – his offensive game has drawn parallels to guys like DeMar DeRozan, but he really blew DeRozan out of the water as a distributor, nearly tripling his assist rate in college, per Tankathon:
The hypothetical path to All-Star RJ includes this area of his game blossoming – 6’7” with old-guy strength and crafty moves around the rim, he could turn into a deadly initiator in the right situation. He had 5 assists to 1 turnover in Wednesday night’s game, despite playing much of it within that same Life Lineup.
When surrounded with real NBA spacing, he continued to show potential to one day flower into the focal point of an efficient NBA offense. Here, he’s the de facto point guard (with Quickley out and Frank seemingly unable to get off the bench, this might just be the move), out there with Mitch, Obi, Burks, and Bullock.
Mitch is an obvious pick-and-roll partner – his vertical gravity attacking the rim allows him to warp the defense and create open looks elsewhere when they commit. Here the Knicks run that exact duo – notice how Oladipo and Sabonis force RJ to his right (off) hand:
RJ takes what the defense gives him, and Sabonis is forced to come over to cut off the drive. Here’s where Mitch’s roll gravity comes in – since Sabonis can’t stop both RJ’s drive and Mitch’s roll, someone else has to help off their man to prevent a layup.
The Pacers take the right approach here – Doug McDermott stays put on Obi Toppin in the strong-side corner, as that would be an easy bailout pass for the ball handler. Instead, Justin Holiday shifts into the paint from the weak side. If RJ puts his head down to drive, or tries to force the pass to Mitch, it’s likely a turnover. If he makes the easy pass to Toppin or Burks, the defense will likely have time to reset and force a tough look toward the end of the shot clock:
So RJ makes the one great play available – a skip pass across the defense to Reggie Bullock, who Justin Holiday (rightly) left alone in the corner:
That’s big-time court awareness and a big-time play by RJ. It also, though, shows again the importance of lineup construction – if that’s Elfrid Payton or Julius Randle in the corner, it’s probably still not a successful play despite RJ’s heroics. I can’t stress this enough – in order to cultivate RJ’s development, the Knicks need to put him in situations just like the one above, where not only is he able to make the defense pay for keying in on him, but where he can receive the positive reinforcement of a good outcome when he makes the perfect play.
In all, it was a wonderful sophomore debut for RJ, coming on the heels of a hugely encouraging preseason. He showed such an impressive swiss-army knife offensively: outside shooting, attacking the rim off pick-and-roll and dribble handoffs, getting a head of steam in transition, and doing a great job slashing zones with quick decisions and timely dishes. He did all of this against a solid defensive team – and frankly, often easy-to-defend teammates.
We likely won’t be recapping a performance this good every game, but the indicators are there that the performances like this will be more and more common this season. His game score of 23.2, per Basketball Reference, would have ranked 3rd-highest of his 56 rookie season games. As far as I’m concerned, if RJ’s upward trend continues like he’s shown, even an 0-82 season would be a success.
by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University
follow Derek on Twitter @d_reif
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cover art by @aighttho