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Knicks' RJ Barrett not instant star like Zion Williamson, but is steadily growing

RJ Barrett #9 of the Knicks controls the

RJ Barrett #9 of the Knicks controls the ball during the third quarter against Kyrie Irving #11 of the Nets at Barclays Center on Monday, Apr. 5, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

It was a brief period of time that RJ Barrett got to spend with Zion Williamson at Duke, one season in which they entered as two of the highest-rated recruits in college basketball and left with some disappointments on the court, but still regarded as two of the best players entering the draft.

That played out when Williamson was selected first overall by the New Orleans Pelicans and Barrett went two spots later at No. 3 overall to the Knicks. Now, two years after they finished off their final game at Duke, they were on the court in a regular-season game against each other Wednesday night.

But for Barrett, the task at hand was continuing on a playoff push rather than any rehashing of practice time matchups they once shared at Duke.

"You know, we’re just going in one game at a time," Barrett said. "Really just trying to focus on tonight, focus on winning every single game."


That has been a common tact from Barrett, who rarely shows emotion on the court or off.

"I think he's already established, you know who he is," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He has a routine for each and every opponent. I know he has obviously a very positive relationship with Zion because of the fact that they played together. I’ve spoken with Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] numerous times and that was one of the things he talked about. So I think he just looks forward to this being the next game and it's a great challenge. But I know he has great respect for him."

Williamson has lived up to the hype and Barrett is starting to do the same — not on the level that Williamson has already reached, but slowly proving himself to be a steady force for the Knicks. Williamson entered the game averaging 26.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, an unusual force at 6-7, 284 pounds.

Barrett has averaged 17.4 points and 5.7 rebounds, emerging as the sidekick to Julius Randle. He is coming off a seven-point game against the Lakers Monday, which was just the 10th single-digit performance he has endured this season.

"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, a 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."

However, Williamson is headed toward an elite stratosphere.

"It's early on but certainly what he did at Duke and now what he's doing in the NBA, I don't know if there's anyone, and I hate to do it anyway, to compare him to," Thibodeau said. "It's hard to judge a player until his career is over. But certainly what he's doing is very, very impressive, to have the combination of the power the speed and the skill. It's very, very unusual. And he's come into the NBA and he's taking the best on."

Still, Thibodeau wasn’t focused on Barrett versus Williamson or Randle versus Williamson. The Knicks coach,, like Barrett, is focused on what the team is trying to accomplish.

"We go day by day," he said. "We want to take care of all the little things. We feel if we do that, the big things will take care of themselves. But we want them to be aware of this. It’s their business to, to understand where we are, and what we're trying to get accomplished."

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