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Kevin Boyle spoke to his former protégé R.J. Barrett about two weeks ago and had some words of wisdom for the Knicks’ rookie.
“R.J.’s a real mature kid and speaking to him I think he understands the landscape of the NBA,” Boyle said by phone from Montverde (FL) Academy, which Barrett led to the GEICO High School National Championship in 2018. “Nobody likes to lose. I think my message to him is, ‘Don’t get comfortable losing.’”
Barrett has already done more losing with the Knicks in his first couple of months as an NBA player than he did in his last two years at Duke and Montverde combined. He lost six games last season at Duke and zero the year before at Montverde.
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Entering Wednesday night’s game in Toronto, the Knicks are 4-13 and own the NBA’s second-worst record. Only the Golden State Warriors, who are missing a slew of star players with injuries, have a worse mark.
“It’s never easy in the NBA if you play so many games, even for a good team to get comfortable with some losses at certain points of the year,” said Boyle, who has won four high school national championships at Montverde and coached six top-3 NBA Draft picks, including Barrett, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons.
“And I think that’s what you have to fight as a coach and a team and players at that level, is to really not get comfortable at that level and try to compete and make sure each loss burns a little bit. I think that’s important with the development of the team and the players to stay focused.”
Boyle said Barrett had recently bought a home near the Montverde campus and that he stays in touch with the family because R.J.’s brother, Nathan, a 6-1 guard, is on Montverde’s post-grad team.
The Knicks early struggles already triggered a Nov. 10 press conference in which President Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry attempted to distance themselves from head coach David Fizdale after the team started 2-8.
“Obviously, Scott and I are not happy with where we are right now,” Mills said then. “We think the team is not performing to the level that we anticipated or we expected to perform at, and that’s something that we think we collectively have to do a better job of delivering the product on the floor that we said we would do at the start of this season.
“We still believe in our coaching staff. We believe in the plan Scott and I put together and the players that we assembled. But we also have to acknowledge that we haven’t played at the level we expected to play at.”
Since that presser, the team is 2-5.
One clear bright spot for the Knicks has been the play of Barrett, the Canadian left-hander who is averaging 15.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
“I think R.J.’s had a good start, he’s real mature,” Boyle said. “There’s areas he has to get better at to be a star level pro. I think he’s off to a really good start. I’m very comfortable that he will be a high level pro and an All-Star. Obviously, that takes a little bit of time.”
2K Empire Classic – Duke Blue Devils v California Golden Bears
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 21: RJ Barrett, a New York Knicks player and Duke Blue Devils alumni, … [+]GETTY IMAGES
Barrett was reminded recently of what a winning program looks like when he sat courtside last Thursday to watch No. 1 Duke beat California in the Empire Classic at the Garden on a night when the Knicks were off. Behind 31 points and 12 rebounds from freshman big man Vernon Carey Jr., the Blue Devils obliterated Cal and then went on to beat Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the championship game on Friday night.
A buoyant Barrett celebrated in the locker room with former teammates Tre Jones and Joey Baker.
“Everybody’s locked in, everybody’s a part of it and it’s great to see them all working together,” Barrett told me for a piece in The New York Times.
Even after the Knicks played two more home games at the Garden over the weekend, Duke still has as many wins there this season as the Knicks (3).
Barrett has had to get used to more losing with his NBA team than he ever did at Duke or Montverde.
Boyle just doesn’t want him to get comfortable with it.
And knowing how the desire to win burns inside Barrett, it probably never will.