SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson headlined the biggest show in basketball, two stars on a Duke team that was a television event and a cover story everywhere they went. And not surprisingly, when the NBA Draft was held in June, Williamson went first to the New Orleans Pelicans and Barrett was grabbed by the Knicks with the third overall pick.
But as the Knicks prepare to host the Pelicans on Friday night at Madison Square Garden, their rookie campaigns have not featured the kind of instant success and stardom some might have expected.
Just like every other game this season, Williamson is expected to be watching from the side. He has yet to make his debut as he works his way through a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Barrett has had to endure a harsh learning curve. He's been a starter from day one but is a part of a Knicks team that has staggered to a 10-28 record and already has dismissed his first coach.
“It’s a struggle, yeah,” Barrett said Wednesday night after the Knicks finished off a winless four-game road trip with a one-sided loss to the Utah Jazz. “We keep in touch from time to time, just pick each other’s brains a little bit. The one thing I like is that he’s happy. He doesn’t get too down on himself. He knows he has a long career ahead of him.”
It is a sentiment that could apply to both of them, with Williamson waiting for a healthy return and Barrett hoping for better days for his team. The roster he is finding his place on could be altered in the coming weeks, and Barrett is one of the few Knicks who won't be sweating out the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
After being part of powerhouse high school and college programs, Barrett has joined a Knicks franchise that could be in the midst of big changes. But as he learns his way through the league, one promising trait has been an ability to persevere through the hard times.
“I’m chilling. To be honest, I kind of learned the game is going to be the way it is,” Barrett said. “You can’t force it. You can’t get too down, can’t get too high. Have to stay even-keeled every game. So that’s what I try to do. I’ve been more poised, more calm, and it’s working a little better for me.”
Barrett is averaging 13.8 points and 5.1 rebounds and has struggled at times with his shooting (39.1%). He bookended the Knicks' four-game road trip with 3-for-10 performances, but against the Clippers, he had 24 points and shot 7-for-11, then recovered from a foul-troubled slow start against the Lakers to score 15 of his 19 points in the second half.
His production at the free-throw line has gotten better. After shooting 44.8% from the line in his first 11 games, he has shot 68.5% since, including 77.8% in his last nine games.
He remains confident that things will get better for the Knicks and for Williamson.
“I hate seeing him hurt,” Barrett said. “I hate not seeing him be able to play the game he loves. At the same time, we’re 19. So he has a long career ahead of him. At this point, really, I just want him to continue to get better and get healthy and not try to rush back. Just come back when he’s ready.”