New York Knicks rookie RJ Barrett has signed a multiyear footwear and apparel endorsement deal with Puma, linking the franchise's highest draft pick in over three decades with the brand's original endorser, Knicks Hall of Famer Walt "Clyde" Frazier.
"We've had our eyes on him for a long time, going back to before last year," said Adam Petrick, Puma's global director of brand and marketing.
Over the course of the year, Barrett emerged as a top target for the brand, with executives strongly believing that he'll become the best player from his draft class, while also drawn to the appeal of the New York marketplace.
Puma signed five of the top-15 NBA draft picks a year ago in the days leading up to the 2018 draft, however, this year's timeline was more drawn out, with Barrett taking an extra two months to make his decision.
"I waited for a long time, and I really just wanted to weigh my options," Barrett said. "I really looked at Nike and Adidas hard, but at the end of the day, it came down to Puma and I'm very happy and excited to be a part of the Puma family."
Last season, the company also signed a Knicks rookie in No. 9 overall pick Kevin Knox, along with a mix of nearly a dozen rookies and veterans.
"New York is a very special city for us," Petrick said. "Our legacy goes back to Clyde and 1973, being the first brand to sign a signature basketball deal. We see New York as the homeland of Puma basketball."
For Barrett, there was mutual interest in Puma as the company was making a return to the basketball category with a renewed investment in signing NBA players, musicians, entertainers and even basketball trainers, like Chris Brickley.
Puma was the first company to present their endorsement offer and future plans to Barrett, pitching him in Los Angeles this spring, just before the NBA draft.
"RJ's excited for the opportunity to have a prominent profile with a major brand," said his agent, Bill Duffy. "It's very unique. Of all the top brands, it's hard for a young guy to craft a lot of visibility early in their career. Puma has committed to him at that level, and it's very exciting."
While Nike, Jordan and Adidas feature rosters that total more than 85% of the league's players, the opportunity to be among just 15 Puma endorsers would afford Barrett with more personalized marketing and attention.
"When it came time to sit down with RJ," Petrick said, "it was about ensuring that he has a big splash this year, knowing that we're serious about activating him, using him in photo shoots and making him the face of the brand and certain products."
In tandem with the signing, Puma is opening a new 5th Avenue flagship store this weekend in Manhattan. A mural repurposing the city's classic "I Love NY" slogan was painted along 31st Street, declaring "NY ❤ RJ" and later featuring a Puma cat logo atop the heart, alongside the 19-year-old's face.
"Sure, a guy can be a star on any team and from any geography, but when you're able to get a guy that has the potential RJ has, and he's in a market where he's going to have the opportunity to be exposed to a lot from art, culture, fashion and music, that's a bonus," said Petrick.
As he mulled through additional endorsement offers from Nike and Adidas after the draft, Barrett first wore Puma sneakers at his Summer League debut in early July.
"He was well aware of the impact they made last year," said Duffy. "From a strategic standpoint, if they wanted to make an impression on young guys that, 'Hey, we're in this thing,' it certainly resonated with him. He was very aware of who they signed, the amount of players that they signed and that they wanted to be in the game. That meant a lot."
During his rookie photo shoot just weeks ago, Barrett debuted Puma's upcoming, unreleased sneaker model.
The new design still hints back toward the brand's original Clyde sneaker, worn by Frazier during the franchise's last championship season in 1973.
"I've met Clyde," Barrett beamed. "Great human being! I love the way he dresses and he's a great guy. For him to be with the Knicks and Puma, that salute to his legacy is great."
Last season, the company outfitted players in a purposely gaudy, vibrant red and bright yellow colorway of their Clyde Court model, taking advantage of the NBA's new lack of color restrictions and drawing attention as players wore them with purple, black or even green uniforms. This season, that strategy may shift yet again.
"As brands become more and more aggressive with color, we're actually [going to be] playing a lot more with the classic, clean color of white, with a pop color of pink or green," said Petrick. "That's something that we think will be different."
An announcement event for the Barrett and Puma partnership took place along 31st street earlier Wednesday, just across the street from Madison Square Garden.
"It's great to be able to echo that legacy and history, in a market where Clyde is an icon, with the top rookie on that team," said Petrick.
A crowd of hundreds lined up for the chance to meet the newest Knick, as Barrett met with fans alongside a customized hot dog food cart, highlighted by an umbrella bearing the brand's cat logo and declaring the dogs as "RJ inspected."
In between taking photos, passing out Puma T-shirts and prepping hot dogs, Barrett looked up at the 40-foot tall mural in amazement, soaking up the energy of the atmosphere, as fans shouted out their grand declarations and hopes that he'll "bring the Knicks back."
"I'm coming from Duke, where everybody hated us," Barrett said, with a laugh. "To now, somewhere where I'm getting a lot of love. It feels great to get a lot of support, and I can't wait to get out there and work."