Duke’s Zion Williamson needed less than four minutes on the Madison Square Garden floor Thursday night to make any Knicks fan consider the potential benefits of tanking for the rest of the season.
A freakish athlete at 6-7 and 285 pounds with a 45-inch vertical leap, that’s as much time as he needed in the second-ranked Blue Devils’ contest against No. 12 Texas Tech to turn the sellout crowd in the World’s Most Famous Arena into the loudest it has been for any game this season. He blocked Tariq Owens’ dunk attempt on the first possession, then about 90 seconds into the game he drove the left side of the lane for a layup. A few minutes later he went high in the air and made a spectacular dunk off a Trey Jones lob that nearly brought the house down.
“It is the Garden,” Williamson said. “It’s where big-time players are made . . . And the environment was crazy.”
If they chose to squint just enough while watching Duke’s 69-58 win over the Red Raiders before 19,812 fans — as well as the many team executives who joined president Steve Mills in the stands — they might have been able to see some things that could become regular sights. The Blue Devils have three players that are projected as lottery picks in the next NBA Draft. Along with the sensational Williamson, there is 6-7 sharpshooter RJ Barrett — the team’s leading scorer — and gifted 6-8 small forward Cam Reddish.
A number of websites that project the draft see Williamson and Barrett going first and second in some order. Reddish is expected to be selected somewhere between fifth and 10th.
“If they draft me, I would love to play for the Knicks,” Williamson said. “I don’t really care where I go — it’s just the experience of being in the NBA. Whoever wants me and sees the most in me, that’s who I want to play for.”
“It was electric. It’s Madison Square Garden. Every kid wants to play here. It was really fun,” Barrett said. “It would be fun to have every home game here and like that. I could get used to that.”
The Knicks, at 9-24, have the fifth-worst record right now and would have a 10.5 percent chance to land the top pick in the lottery. This season the teams with the three worst records — two clubs have seven wins and two have eight — will all have a 14 percent chance to choose first.
“It was a crazy atmosphere. I look forward to playing here in the future, whoever I am playing for,” Reddish said. “If it’s New York, it would be a blessing. It’s a great city to be in. We’ll see.”
Williamson finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds in 25 minutes before fouling out with 3:51 to play on one of six charging fouls called against the Blue Devils. Barrett had 16 points but took 22 shots to get them and Reddish scored eight on a tough 1-for-7 shooting night but, with it a one-possession game late, made a three-pointer for a 63-57 lead with 3:21 to play.
The Blue Devils trailed much of the second half but came on late with a 12-2 run – with five coming from Reddish – for a 65-57 lead to pull out the victory. Tre Jones added 13 points and five assists for Duke (11-1). Jarrett Culver – who also likely will be a first-round pick – led Texas Tech (10-1) with 25 points.
“I think you have to hand it to Cam, the way he hung in there even though he wasn’t shooting it well,” Barrett said. “He was there at the key time in the game and made the biggest three we got.”
Playing the Lottery
Teams with the five worst records in the NBA:
Chicago 7-25 (.219)
Atlanta 7-23 (.233)
Cleveland 8-24 (.250)
Phoenix 8-24 (.250)
Knicks 9-24 (.273)
Under the modified NBA Draft Lottery format, each team will be assigned the following odds:
No. 1 Pick
Team 1 14.0%
Team 2 14.0%
Team 3 14.0%
Team 4 12.5%
Team 5 10.5%