Zion Williamson, the reason for a national television crew and a sold-out Madison Square Garden Friday, was in New Orleans nursing a knee injury. With the NBA’s new star attraction watching TV, the glamour and allure was absent from the Knicks’ final preseason game.
Into the void stepped Williamson’s former Duke teammate and fellow rookie, RJ Barrett, who finished off his preseason with a performance that provided a hint of what could be for the No. 3 overall pick.
Barrett scored 19 points, 17 in the first half, played three different positions and provided nearly all of the Knicks highlights in a 117-116 loss to the Pelicans.
The crowd, louder than you might expect at the end of an exhibition game, became deflated by the ending. Julius Randle stole a long inbounds pass with the Knicks down by a point, but as he drove to the basket for a potential game-winning basket he was stripped by rookie Nickell Alexander-Walker. New Orleans' Josh Hart missed a pair of free throws with 3.2 seconds left and Randle grabbed the rebound. After a timeout with 2.9 seconds remaining, Randle misfired on a long jumper at the buzzer.
After all of the hype for Williamson, the No. 1 overall pick and the most anticipated rookie since LeBron James, it was a letdown for the crowd and the NBA. New Orleans issued a statement Friday morning that he was back home for more testing on his sore right knee and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Williamson was expected to miss several weeks.
Fans instead were treated to each team showing off new acquisitions while trying different combinations for awkwardly constructed rosters. Knicks coach David Fizdale tinkered with the starting lineup one more time and said what he has tried to make obvious — the starting lineup is not a priority.
“I told you before, I’m not that high on starting like everyone else is,” he said. “I think if you ask most guys if they’d rather start or finish, they would rather finish.”
That is some consolation for the Knicks who won’t start. Kevin Knox, who started 57 games as a rookie, did not start any of the four preseason games and it appears he will come off the bench to begin the season.
“Yeah, I think I want to keep Kevin right there where he’s at right now and let him get in a groove,” Fizdale said, “See if he can find some rhythm in that spot.”
Who will start remains a mystery and it might stay that way until opening night in San Antonio Wednesday. Last season, Fizdale maintained that Knox would start as a rookie and then put him on the bench for opening night and started Frank Ntilikina at small forward. Julius Randle and RJ Barrett seem to be the best bets to make the starting lineup, although just where Barrett will start is not so certain. He has played point guard and Friday started at small forward after starting at shooting guard the first three games.
Friday also marked the last chance for a point guard to emerge with Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Elfrid Payton all in the running. Sitting out (coach's decision), Ntilikina might have had the best night of the three. Smith, who started the final two games, struggled again with his shooting, going 2-for-12 against the Pelicans after a 1-for-5 effort Wednesday. Payton, who started the first two games, had four assists, five turnovers and shot 3-for-6.
“I think that’s why all four games are critically important,” Fizdale said. “Again, I’m looking for [what fits and] the right combinations and we’ll see on opening night.”