MILWAUKEE – Durability is not an advanced metric team executives fawn over. But it probably should be.
If there’s one area in which rookie RJ Barrett has not been heralded enough in an era of load management, it’s the rookie’s ability to stay healthy and battle every night. He’s had his ups and downs as the third pick in the NBA draft, but he never stops coming hard.
As the season hits the 41-game midway mark with the Bucks’ rematch Tuesday at Fiserv Forum, Barrett has missed just one game, due to an upper respiratory infection.
He’ll play his 40th game Tuesday and has not shown signs of slowing down. Barrett was key in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s comeback victory over Miami with high energy, rugged defense and clutch free-throw makes.
“It went by fast,’’ Barrett said at Tuesday’s morning shootaround. “I’ve always kind of been a guy that’s played the whole season. I’ve been fortunate to not get hurt, and be there every night. I pride myself on that. I guess my body’s kind of used to going through the season. I feel like I’m mentally prepared for it. I’m good right now.’’
Barrett’s health is even more noteworthy considering former Duke teammate Zion Williamson has yet to make his regular-season debut. Last season at Duke, Williamson went down with a knee injury and Barrett carried the load for a spell.
Knicks coach Mike Miller sees Barrett coming on instead of falling off, getting a second wind. His defense has been stellar – his motor on overdrive. Barrett is shooting just 39.5 percent but he makes up for it with rare intangibles for a 19-year-old.
“I see him growing,’’ Miller said. “Everything he’s doing is trending upward. His energy, defense, everything is trending upward. I don’t see (a rookie wall) at all. He’s very unique with his approach, with his stamina, how he prepares for each game. He’s very mature with his approach.’’
Sometimes always being healthy and present is half the NBA battle, even if it comes amid rocky seas. Barrett, averaging 14.1 points and 5.2 rebounds, had arguably his worst performance of his rookie year in the prior meeting vs. Milwaukee in early December when the Knicks were trounced by 44 points.
In that game, Barrett was 0 for 9 from the field, finishing with two points and one assist in just under 20 minutes. After the contest, Barrett said his first home-road back-to-back may have caught up with him.
“I’ve learned that every game is different,’’ Barrett said. “You could play one team and have a terrible game and the next time you play them have the best game of your career. Every game is different and it’s a new opportunity every day.’’
His free-throw percentage has risen to 59.8 percent after falling as low as 54 percent last month. In the last six games, Barrett has made a healthier 30 of 39 free throws.
“I’ve just been working at it more,’’ said Barrett. “I’ve always been confident. As I’m learning the league and getting more comfortable game-to-game, it’s falling. I was always confident I knew I could it.’’
More for vain reasons, Barrett donned a thick headband in the Miami win. It was the first time he wore a headband since he was 14 and did so because he needed a haircut.
Barrett was to wear the NBA-logo headband again vs. the Bucks as his haircut won’t happen until Wednesday.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’’ Barrett said.
PG Frank Ntilikina was to miss his second straight game with a groin strain. A groin strain cost him much of the second part of last season. Marcus Morris also missed his fifth straight game with a neck injury and didn’t travel.
Ntilikina and Morris, arguably the Knicks’ best two defenders, missed that fateful loss in Milwaukee. “Thanks for bringing that up,’’ Miller cracked. Miller wasn’t the head coach then and the rout helped cost David Fizdale his job.
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