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‘Stay with it’: Knicks rookie RJ Barrett grinding through drama in New York

The 19-year-old guard is focusing on hoops and learning from his team’s vets

His first NBA head coach has been fired. His team has one of the worst records in the league. And there is constant drama surrounding the CEO of the franchise and speculation about the front office’s future.

But New York Knicks rookie RJ Barrett doesn’t seem overwhelmed by basketball life in the big city.

“I’m 19 with no pressure on me. I go out and play basketball, the game that I love. I am in the NBA. Why would I let something like that mess me up?” Barrett recently told The Undefeated.

Barrett, the third overall pick in the 2019 draft, brought hope to the franchise this offseason. But after eight straight losses and a 4-18 start, James Dolan’s Knicks fired head coach David Fizdale and associate head coach Keith Smart on Dec. 6. Interim head coach Mike Miller had never coached in the NBA previously. Barrett said his veteran teammates — in particular, Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris — have helped him through the difficult change.

“[Fizdale] and Smart were the ones that gave me my first chance in this league,” Barrett said. “It’s tough for me to see them go. But there are always more games and I have a job to do. You have to move on. You can’t look back ever in this league. …

“I knew it was a business coming in. I’m happy to have really strong vets. Taj keeps telling me, ‘Stay straight, young fella. Don’t veer off. Stay with it.’ ”

Averaging 14.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists this season, Barrett leads all rookies in minutes (868) and is fourth among rookies in scoring and top three in his class in rebounds and steals per game. But after Fizdale’s firing, Barrett said, he needed to do more to help the Knicks, most notably with defense and rebounding, and as an overall teammate.

Barrett added that he is also trying to get better by watching his diet, staying late after practice and returning to the gym to get up more shots.

“I’m here every night and play every night except for the one time when I was sick,” he said. “I’m always there for my team. I always try to do the best I can for the group no matter what it is. If I don’t score and I get 10 assists, that’s a good game.”

RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks in action against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 7 in New York City. Indiana Pacers defeated the New York Knicks 104-103.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

A big reason that Barrett seems mature beyond his years is because he grew up around the game. Barrett’s father, Rowan, played at St. John’s in college and overseas professionally. A member of Canada’s 2000 Olympic team, Rowan Barrett is also the general manager of the Canadian Basketball Federation. Barrett’s mother, Kesha, was a sprinter at St. John’s and also represented Jamaica at the 1992 Olympics. And his godfather is Basketball Hall of Famer Steve Nash.

Barrett also credits his one season at Duke for helping him learn to be disciplined and deal with the New York spotlight. Barrett played on a highly touted squad featuring Zion Williamson, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones.

“Being on time and being able to play with good players. That is why I am so happy that I went there to be able to play with Zion, Cam and Tre,” Barrett said. “I played with good players and now playing with Marcus Morris and Julius Randle. I am not feeling out of place.” Barrett said he has checked in on Williamson to see how he’s recovering from knee surgery. (“I FaceTimed with Zion the other day. … He’s always good.”)

Barrett is one of eight 19-year-old rookies in the NBA this season. But instead of getting caught up in what the Big Apple has to offer, he spends most of his free time hanging out at his home near the practice facility in Westchester, New York, with his friends and dog. The Toronto native said he does his best to not pay attention to the latest NBA gossip in New York.

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“He is definitely mature in how he handles everything, his preparation, how he works and his mind-set,” Randle said. “He doesn’t get fazed by a lot. … He’s about basketball. He’s about hoop first. If he’s upset or something is the matter, it is because he wants to be great right away.”

Said Barrett: “It’s funny. People always say I am a lot older than my age. So I get along with the older guys.”

And while the losing hasn’t been easy for him, Barrett said it helps knowing that there are many more games to play.

“What I’ve learned is, one, the games are long,” Barrett said. “No matter who you play, everybody is good and everybody is coming at you. You got to stay locked in as a group. That is really my plan.

“Things happen in the NBA. You win games. You lose games. You win close games. You just got to keep pushing and keep grinding no matter what. Stay with it.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.