The best player on the New York Knicks? Hot take: that title can change hands on any given night. Some games Julius Randle records an All-Star performance, some games RJ Barrett drains clutch dagger after clutch dagger, some games Derrick Rose leads the franchise to its first postseason win since 2013. Such interchangeable depth is one reason the Knicks are finally back in the playoffs—albeit currently being down 3-1—and coming off their best regular season in a decade.
But the biggest sneakerhead on the Knicks? That’s not even up for debate—at least if you ask RJ.
“Shoot, it might be me,” Barrett tells Complex over a phone call. “Yeah. Yeah. It’s definitely me.”
The 20-year-old native of Mississauga, Ontario says his kick obsession began when he was 13, and was partly inspired by his father, former Canadian pro baller Rowan Barrett. “My dad had a couple of pairs of Js and I started to take his once we started to wear the same size,” he shares. “All my friends and teammates growing up, we’d all be obsessed with shoes. For us, it was always Jordans. Everybody wanted the newest pair of Js, everybody wanted to go find those wherever we could. If somebody came back with a new pair, he was the most talked about guy for the week. [Laughs.]”
He still recalls copping his very first grail off of eBay—a pair of classic “Banned” Air Jordan 1s—even if the memory is a bit tainted now. “I really enjoyed them a lot. I didn’t even wear them. I kind of had them like a trophy to me,” he says of the Breds. “And then I ended up going away for high school in Florida. When I came back… they were gone. I was searching and searching for them, and it turned out my brother actually took them and he wore them to school and he got ‘em all dirty and everything. I was mad. I didn’t even know what to say. I just had to leave the room.”
Still, Barrett didn’t let the sole-crushing setback deter him. Today, the Knicks shooting guard boasts an enviable sneaker collection and an endorsement deal with PUMA. His passion for creps has led eBay to recruit him to celebrate the recent launch of its Authenticity Guarantee in Canada. The e-commerce giant opened its first authentication centre north of the border earlier this month—a welcome idea considering its domestic Canadian sneaker sales grew by 325 percent in 2020.
To RJ, authenticity is everything.
“I mean, that’s just kind of my personality,” he says. “You just want to go and be yourself. You just want to be real. I think that’s how people should live their lives, you know? Just having a good character and being reliable and being accountable to things. It’s more than just the shoes. It’s a lifestyle.”
Barrett prides himself on being the real deal, especially after a rookie campaign during which critics argued he was anything but. As the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 draft, he caught significant flak for his early struggles (see: having the lowest True Shooting percentage in the league). But in his sophomore year, he’s rescripted the narrative, drastically improving all areas of his game to become the Knicks’ second-leading scorer and follow through on his sky-high expectations. He is, without a doubt, the genuine article.
Of course, the shoe thing is important too: “You see a lot of people out here wearing sneakers with Jordan signs on backwards or the wrong symbol. So having that [Authenticity] Guarantee is big time.”
“Something about being in a line to possibly not even get some shoes is just… incredible to me. So I just couldn’t do it. I could not. Imagine doing that all night and then you don’t even get a pair of shoes!”
Barrett’s says his most prized kicks are the Ronnie Fieg x PUMA Disc Blaze “Coat of Arms,” which are so rare there’s a pair of them enshrined in a glass case at the PUMA headquarters in Germany. He’s never worn them. “They were definitely not cheap,” he says.
These days, he primarily rocks the PUMA Clyde All-Pros on the court, as well as J. Cole’s RS-Dreamers once in a while. Still, he’s always had a soft spot for Kobes. “They might have been my favorite shoe to play in back in the day,” says Barrett, who used to get called ‘the Maple Mamba’ when he played for Duke. “I have skinnier feet, so they just fit me perfectly. And I really do like the low cuts. They’re always stylish. I mean, you see how many people are wearing Kobes now. It’s not just because of his memory and his passing. It’s because Kobes are really tough.”
He concedes he does have some sneakerhead competition on the Knicks’ roster. “I would say we have three guys: me, Julius, and Alec Burks. Julius has about every single pair of Kobes ever made. [Laughs.]”
Barret spends about once a week trawling eBay for new heat, insisting it’s always been his primary method of procuring shoes. Though he also used to frequent the Foot Locker at Mississauga’s Square One mall, he would never be caught dead camping out for a sneaker release. “Pride wouldn’t let me line up,” he says. “Something about being in a line to possibly not even get some shoes is just… incredible to me. So I just couldn’t do it. I could not. Imagine doing that all night and then you don’t even get a pair of shoes!”
Perhaps that impatience is what led RJ to turn around his game—and, in turn, the Knicks’ fortunes—so expediently. Despite a slow start, this season he became the only player 20 or under in NBA history to average at least 17 points, five boards, and three assists while shooting no less than 40 percent from three. The 6’6 swingman credits the improvement to his offseason work with renowned trainer Drew Hanlen, who helped him reconstruct his jump shot.
A couple pep talks from North Carolina’s finest rapper certainly didn’t hurt either. “J. Cole actually came to a couple of our practices last year,” says Barrett of meeting his fellow PUMA ambassador. “I’ve spoken to him a couple of times. He’s a really cool, down-to-earth guy…. We just talked about basketball. He was always just encouraging me to keep on going and just stick with it. He said he thinks that I’m a special talent.” The respect is clearly mutual: “I’m happy he was able to, along with how great his music career is, play basketball and live out his dreams of going pro and stuff. I think that’s a huge testament to him.”
We’ll have to see if the Off-Season artist provides the Knicks with the motivation they need to stave off their own off-season a little while longer. Otherwise, Clint Capella’s recent remarks—that the Atlanta Hawks are ready to send the Knicks on “vacation”—might just do the trick. A deafening Madison Square Garden, a franchise in the midst of a grand reawakening, and a rising star with a hulking chip on his shoulder—that all sorta sounds like the recipe for an epic comeback.
And if not, well, Barrett’s already received his invite from Canada’s Senior Men’s National Team ahead of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in June. Save for a deep playoff run with New York, he’s got every intention of showing up for his home and native land. After all, his dad is the team’s GM—it’s the least he could do in return for commandeering the guy’s kicks back in the day.
“I think we’re going to be really good,” says RJ of Team Canada. “We have a great pool of talent. We’ve got a lot of guys. And I think when we put it together, we’ve got a great coach too. So I think we’ll be special. It’s going to be a special group that brings Canada back on the map. Most definitely.”