RJ Barrett, Kemba Walker return shake up Knicks first unit

RJ Barrett’s potential return Saturday from health and safety protocols, combined with Kemba Walker’s recent post-benching hot streak, present a decision for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau. 

Thibodeau said he is considering switching Alec Burks back to the second unit — possibly as early as the game Saturday against the Hawks — after Burks started 12 straight games since replacing Walker in late November. 

“Yeah, I’d like to get the second unit back that was playing really well,” Thibodeau said when asked if he’s considering removing Burks once Barrett is back. “It’s going to be different because [injured guard] Derrick [Rose] is not in there, but that’s been a strength. 

“It was a strength last year, it’s been a strength this year, and adding in new guys and hopefully we can get our starters on track.” 

Burks netted 20 points Thursday in a loss to the Wizards, but he has connected on just 32.1 percent of his shot attempts over his past 10 games. Walker scored 44 points Thursday, giving him 94 points over three consecutive starts following a nine-game benching. 

Alec Burks’ will likely return to the second unit as Kemba Walker has been unbenched and RJ Barrett is out of COVID-19 protocols.

The Knicks have three players remaining in COVID protocols — Kevin Knox, Miles McBride and Nerlens Noel — with Barrett, Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes and Immanuel Quickley cleared to return in the past few days. Among that group, only Toppin (13 minutes) played Thursday. 

Thibodeau said Barrett, who was cleared Thursday “did more [Friday], so we’ll see how he feels [Saturday],” but Quickley “didn’t do much” in his first day back with the team. 

New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin speaking to the media
Obi Toppin said his COVID-19 layoff was the ‘longest 10 days of my life.’
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Toppin said he “didn’t have a lot of symptoms” after testing positive for COVID-19, but he mostly spent his 10 days idled in his bedroom away from his family. He said he worked out with elastic bands and watched “a lot of basketball” and a couple of Netflix shows. 

“Man, I was aching in that bed. I’ve never been in bed for that long,” Toppin said. “Like, that was the longest 10 days of my life, I ain’t gonna lie to you.”