CHICAGO — It was a chaotic scene at Wintrust Arena, just off the lake in Chicago. Huge crowds of media from all over the world surrounded podiums and shouted questions during the interview segment of the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday morning. But for RJ Barrett, it was a chance to exhale.
Barrett has endured a different kind of chaos in his rookie season. He already has more losses at the All-Star break than he had in high school and college combined. He was injured and forced to the sideline for the first time in his life. And amid the Knicks’ struggles, he already has seen a coach dismissed and a team president removed.
Barrett, who led the World squad with 27 points, was on the losing end again as the United States won, 151-131. But when the game began, he was smiling, part of a celebrated class of young players putting on a showcase of dunks and long-range shots.
He scored with regularity. He grabbed and pawed at his friend and former Duke teammate, Zion Williamson, on a fast break to prevent a lob dunk. He wisely chose to just turn and head the other way the next trip down when Williamson attacked the rim with fury and damaged it, requiring a repair at halftime.
“When he stopped me on that fast break, I was kind of like, man, you’re the last person I thought that would do that,’’ Williamson said. “But it was all fun and games because he basically let me get the next one. I mean, it’s just brothers messing around.”
Said Barrett, “OK, so right before that, I shot a three from the corner. I don’t know if it was him, someone on the court was talking trash, and then I missed it. So then when I saw him running, I was like, ‘Nah, you’re not about to dunk it.’ ”
For Barrett, this was a time to put aside the Knicks’ 17-38 record and connect with old friends and fellow Canadians whom he will be playing with in the Olympics.
“It’s great to have a weekend like this, especially with the guys that are here,” he said. “All your hard work is really being noticed and it’s paying off a little bit. It’s great for us. Also, you get a break. Like anything, you need a break sometimes. You come back next week and go at it again.”
Most of the focus was on Williamson, who finally has made his NBA debut after sitting out much of the season because of a knee injury. In 10 games, he has shown he is much the same at this level as he has been at every other level — a dominant force with such an unusual skill set that teams have yet to find a way to stop it.
With the specter of Michael Jordan still hanging over basketball here in Chicago, Williamson is the first player since Jordan to score at least 20 points in eight of his first 10 career games. He is the first player since Shaquille O’Neal with at least 200 points and at least 75 rebounds in his first 10 games.
Before the game, Barrett said he’d love to guard Williamson. “Hell yeah,” he said. “I feel like I know better than anybody how to guard him.” When that was relayed to Williamson, he smiled and said, “I’m taking RJ straight to the post.”
Barrett then gave a hint of what really would happen as he confessed, “I’ll give you a secret — he’s going to do what he’s going to do, and you can’t stop it.
“[Since his debut], nothing different. He’s been doing that. I feel like with him, he’s a player that we haven’t really seen before, so how do you guard him? He’s such a great talent. He’s such a great kid. He works so hard at his craft.”
Selected third overall by the Knicks — two spots behind the Pelicans’ Williamson — Barrett has averaged 13.6 points and shot 38.8%.
When asked who he thinks is the rookie of the year to this point, he said, “A lot of people deserve it. A lot of people work hard for it. I don’t know. It’s kind of hard not to vote for myself.
“I feel like a lot of guys are playing really good. There’s a lot of good rookies out there. Ja [Morant’s] been doing his thing all year. Kendrick [Nunn]. Zion’s back now. Guys are playing really well. I’m never going to stop believing in myself.”
Barrett was happy to be a part of this, but he wasn’t sticking around for long. With the temperature hovering just above zero, he had other plans.
“I’m gone tomorrow,” he said. “I need to go get some sun. I’ll be in sunny Florida, baby.”