RJ Barrett gets his first NBA shot at Zion Williamson with narrative changing

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NEW ORLEANS — Zion Williamson vs. RJ Barrett. Finally.

On Monday, Williamson poured in 30 points, made 13 of 21 shots, grabbed six rebounds with four assists, tearing up the Kings in the Big Easy.

Meanwhile, at the Garden, Barrett put in a scoring clunker, missing his first eight shots, finishing with seven points.

The disparate scoring evenings were not representative of the divide between Williamson and Barrett this season.

While Williamson still is far and away the superior talent and already a superstar, his former Duke bestie has now closed the gap some.

Last season, the 6-7 Williamson, despite missing much of the season with knee trouble, finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. Barrett wasn’t even voted onto one of the two All-Rookie teams.

On Wednesday at the Smoothie King Center, the Knicks and Barrett will face Williamson for the first time in a regular-season game.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle recently said that “watching him is like a breathtaking experience” — as if Shaquille O’Neal had point-guard skills.

“It’s probably a good word to describe him — unique,” said Tom Thibodeau said in advance of the Pelicans matchup, “It’s unusual because it’s power and speed. And usually when you have the power, you don’t have the speed or if you have the speed, you don’t have the power and he has both. Very skilled, puts a lot of pressure on you, dynamic play-maker.”

Williamson, the first pick in the 2019 draft, was injured for the Knicks’ preseason matchup last season and also missed the regular-season Garden contest. Their second game last April slated for New Orleans was canceled by the pandemic.

Williamson faced the Knicks in a summer-league game in Las Vegas but hurt his knee and back after nine minutes when he came in too heavy.

While Thibodeau gave Williamson his proper kudos, the Knicks coach mentioned Barrett has more than earned his keep as the third pick in that draft.

“I love the guy we got, I know that,” Thibodeau said. “RJ’s had a terrific season for us. He’s great to be around, great teammate, great to coach. He’s gotten better each and every day, gives you everything he has, puts the team first – you can’t ask for anything more than that. And I think he’s got a huge upside.”

Slightly leaner, more in attack mode and an elite finisher, Williamson made the All-Star Game this season. The 20-year-old is averaging 26.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 62 percent. He’s still not taking a lot of 3s but is making 36 percent of them.

Maybe Barrett is next after drastically improving his 3-point shooting (37.8 percent), free-throw shooting (73.5 percent) and decision-making. Averaging 17.4 points, Barrett continues to be a load when he pounds his way to the hoop with crafty finishes.

The two Duke southpaw alpha males may not match up much Wednesday as Williamson plays power forward. But it will be fun to watch the times they do go mano a mano.

Barrett was not made available for comment after Monday’s win over the Lakers and the Knicks didn’t practice again Tuesday.

After the Memphis victory on Friday, Barrett was asked about the comparisons between him, Zion and No. 2 pick Ja Morant.

“My game speaks for itself,” Barrett said. “I mean you can look at our numbers, you can look at our team’s success. It doesn’t really matter. As long as I keep getting better as a player, I’ll be happy.”

Julius Randle will likely get the Zion matchup as he goes against his former team. Williamson brings the ball upcourt so it will be two elite point forwards squaring off.

“He’s a great player — unbelievable,” Randle said of Williamson. “How he’s able to get in the lane and finish and do a bunch of things. He’s a tough matchup for sure but I’ll be ready for it.”

Williamson didn’t talk either after the Pelicans’ win Monday but said last season of Barrett: “He’s done well. He’s a rookie and to come into a city like New York, I think he’s been doing great. For a rookie to come in and handle New York the way he is, he’s been doing great.”

Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy still is looking for Williamson to  become a “a more consistent” defender and decision-maker. But he feels his 3-point shooting will be just fine.  

While it’s a football town, Williamson at least has made the Pelicans (25-29) relevant again, even if they are struggling this season, in 11th place, vying to make the play-in tournament at No. 10.

‘It’s always going to be a Saints city,” said Knicks guard and New Orleans native Elfrid Payton, a former Pelican. “But I think people there love the Pelicans. They always did. Before Zion, they loved the Pelicans. Hopefully Zion plays there the rest of his career. If he don’t, they’ll still love the Pelicans.”

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