MILWAUKEE — As the Knicks moved to their high-scoring style with an offensive-minded backcourt, the responsibility has fallen on RJ Barrett to pick up the defensive slack on the perimeter.
That has manifested in different ways but none more obvious than Barrett’s distance traveled on the court.
“Oh, I’m running,” he said.
Heading into Friday’s matchup against the Bucks, Barrett ranked seventh in the NBA in miles logged per game at 2.76. He was also fifth in distance covered on defense — the only Knick in the top 20 — which is indicative of being assigned the opposition’s top perimeter threat.
Much of that is about necessity. The Knicks’ backcourt of Jalen Brunson and Evan Fournier is subpar defensively, leaving Barrett — who is physically strong but not the quickest — as the best option to guard the likes of Ja Morant and Gordon Hayward. The foot injury to Quentin Grimes, who hasn’t played this season, has exacerbated the issue because he’s Tom Thibodeau’s top alternative to defend the perimeter.
Such physical exertion could certainly sap Barrett’s scoring, which had fallen to low and inefficient levels through the opening four games. Barrett pondered the excuse but ultimately didn’t agree.
“I don’t know. I feel like I was guarding people last year, ended up doing pretty well,” said Barrett, who entered Friday’s game shooting just 37% overall and 14% from beyond the arc. “I definitely could be playing better offensively and I feel my rhythm coming back after not playing for a while.”
Thibodeau scoffed at the idea that Barrett is shouldering more defensive responsibility compared to previous seasons.
“No. That’s comical,” Thibodeau said.
As Barrett noted, he’s been moving like this for a while. It was never quite at the level of 2.76 miles per game, but the 2019 third-overall pick led the Knicks in distance traveled in all three of his seasons.
He’s also been an inefficient scorer in the NBA, shooting less than 42% for his career.
“I like being a player where, even if offensively I’m not having the best night, I can still be out there on the floor affecting winning in a different way,” he said.
Perhaps the Knicks’ best wing defender to play alongside Barrett — Reggie Bullock — left before last season for the Mavericks in free agency, and Grimes can’t be the replacement if he’s not available.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Barrett guards Donovan Mitchell in Sunday’s game against the Cavaliers, which would be a matchup of intrigue because of the summer trade negotiations.
Barrett, who was offered by the Knicks to the Utah Jazz for Mitchell, isn’t promoting the sideshow.
“Who cares? I’m here. He’s there,” Barrett said.
Besides, he had a lot of defensive responsibilities to consider in Milwaukee and a shot to rediscover.
“It’s going to fall. She’s going to drop,” Barrett said. “Especially last game [Wednesday’s overtime victory over the Hornets] it felt great, it all felt great, especially that last shot — that last one I missed in overtime. I thought that was definitely good.
“So it’s going to happen, it’s going to fall.”