Knicks can find RJ Barrett complement in Ochai Agbaji


As a 22-year-old, four-year college player, Ochai Agbaji is an outlier in next week’s NBA draft. 

You won’t hear overused draft terms like upside and potential used nearly as much with him as some of the other younger top prospects in the draft. Unlike many others who will realize a lifelong dream next Thursday at Barclays Center, he can drink legally. 

With that age comes experience, which can be beneficial, too. 

“Going through college four years … the maturity and all the experience and the ups and downs I’ve been through, it is similar to the league,” the former Kansas star said Thursday after taking part in a group workout with the Knicks. “The level I’ve been competing at for the past four years and the level that I’ve been going against helps me and prepares me better for the league I think than others.” 

Agbaji is a study in perseverance. The 6-foot-5 guard didn’t receive a high-major scholarship offer until his senior year of high school. It wasn’t until his final year at Kansas — after flirting with the idea of going pro — that he broke out as a national star. He worked tirelessly to get to that point, and now he is about to become a professional, following a season in which he guided the Jayhawks to the national championship and averaged 18.8 points and 5.1 rebounds. 

Ochai Agbaji is older than most players in the draft.
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Ochai Agbaji celebrates after leading Kansas to the National Championship.
Ochai Agbaji celebrates after leading Kansas to the National Championship.
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While the Knicks’ clear need is for a playmaking lead guard, they want to surround franchise linchpin RJ Barrett with as much talent as possible, and adding a dead-eye shooter like Agbaji would be one way to improve Barrett’s supporting cast. He shot 40.9 percent from 3-point range on 6 ¹/₂ attempts per game, and was terrific on college basketball’s biggest stage, hitting 7-for-11 from distance en route to Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors. 

“You can play them both together at the wings and you would be dynamic athletically. They kind of are opposites,” ESPN college basketball and NBA draft analyst Fran Fraschilla said in a phone interview. “RJ can get to the basket on anybody. He’s a bull in a china shop who’s still improving his outside shooting, and Ochai is the opposite. He’s an athletic wing who is a great shooter who still has to learn how to get to the basket and score in traffic. They would complement each other well.” 

Agbaji figures to be there when the Knicks pick at No. 11. He has worked out for the Wizards, Thunder, Hawks, Cavaliers and Bulls, among others, mostly teams in the back end of the lottery. A year ago, Agbaji could have only dreamed of being in this spot. 

“He improved as much as any player in college basketball [over the past year],” Fraschilla said of the Kansas City, Mo. native. “He went from being a good Big 12 player who had no real draft buzz after his junior year to putting himself in position to be a top-10 pick based strictly on how much he improved from the end of his junior year to end of his senior year. 

Ochai Agbaji participates in drills at the NBA Combine.
Ochai Agbaji participates in drills at the NBA Combine.
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“He’s arguably as good a shooter as there is in this draft, and it’s effortless. He did it so many times this year in clutch, high-pressure situations. That’s where I think he hangs his hat. He is an excellent shooter who isn’t afraid of the moment.” 

Agbaji showed from the very outset of the season, starting with the opener against Michigan State when he poured in 29 points and hit three 3-pointers in a blowout victory at the Garden. It set the tone for a memorable year — and it may have happened at his future home. 

“That would be amazing,” Agbaji said. “Being in the city, being in Madison Square [Garden], playing under Coach [Tom] Thibodeau, it would be a dream come true.” 

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