Knicks guard RJ Barrett, right, celebrates with center Mitchell Robinson...

Knicks guard RJ Barrett, right, celebrates with center Mitchell Robinson and guard Evan Fournier after scoring a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in Chicago.  Credit: AP/Nam Y. Huh

NEW ORLEANS — A trip to New Orleans and a meeting with the Pelicans, in theory, provides an opportunity for RJ Barrett to face off against his college teammate and friend, Zion Williamson. But as has been the case so often since they were chosen two spots apart in the 2019 NBA Draft, the meeting will consist only of handshakes and hellos.

Williamson, the No. 1 overall pick in that draft, again is injured and in a rehabilitation limbo, with the Pelicans releasing little information other than there is no return date for him.

Williamson’s constant injury struggles have made a once one-sided argument curious.

Given the mind-boggling highlights of Williamson and the No. 2 pick, Ja Morant, the consensus after the draft was that it was a far drop down to No. 3, where the Knicks selected Barrett.

But if you go by the adage that the most important ability is availability, then Barrett slides up the charts.

Since missing 10 games as a rookie, he has played every game, starting all 72 last season and finishing second in the NBA to teammate Julius Randle in minutes played. This season, he has played in all five games and is averaging 34 minutes per game.

Williamson played only 24 games as a rookie and missed 11 games last season. He has yet to play this season.

Zion Williamson, left, and RJ Barrett, speak before the NBA...

Zion Williamson, left, and RJ Barrett, speak before the NBA draft on June 20, 2019. Credit: AP/Julio Cortez

Partially because of the difference in attendance rates by Barrett and Williamson, the Knicks (4-1) entered Friday night’s games tied for first place in the Eastern Conference. The Pelicans (1-4) were tied for the worst record in the Western Conference.

To be sure, when Williamson is on the floor, he is an explosive talent. But as Barrett grows, only questions have grown around Williamson.

"Everybody is different," Barrett said. "Everybody’s journey is different. I know who I am. The team believes in me. So that’s what I care about.

"He’ll be all right. He’s such a special talent and such a great human being. I’m always pulling for him. He’ll be good. When he comes back, you guys will see."

Zion Williamson, left, and RJ Barrett, speak before the NBA...

Zion Williamson, left, and RJ Barrett, speak before the NBA draft on June 20, 2019. Credit: AP/Julio Cortez

Barrett, partially by necessity with the departure of Reggie Bullock, has taken it on himself to try to become an All-Defensive Team player. He aced the final assignment in Chicago on Thursday night, switching to guard DeMar DeRozan after an inbounds pass and forcing DeRozan to shoot an air ball on a potential game-winning shot. He also had 20 points in that game, though he has endured his characteristically slow start shooting.

But it is that hand raised as present and doing it tirelessly that has made him so valuable to the Knicks.

"You got to be in shape to play for [Tom Thibodeau]," Barrett said. "It’s non-negotiable."

"It’s not," Randle said. "It’s the standard. We have a standard and a culture. That’s part of it. [If not], you’re not going to play. It’s not just Thibs, man. it’s our standard as a team. We hold each other accountable. Everybody come in shape. That’s the first thing.

"I think guys know, coming here to play for the Knicks, they’re coming in to play for Thibs, that’s what it is. I think coming in when you sign up to play here you expect that of yourself, you expect that of the guys."

It’s why Barrett will be in the lineup Saturday night at Smoothie King Center and his greetings with Williamson will have to be limited to before or after the game.