NEW ORLEANS – Zion Williamson vs. RJ Barrett. Finally.
On Monday, Williamson added 30 points, made 13 of 21 shots, grabbed six rebounds with four assists, destroying the Kings in the Big Easy.
Meanwhile, at the Garden, Barrett hit a scoring pot, missing his first eight shots, finishing with seven points.
The disparate scoring nights weren’t representative of the division between Williamson and Barrett this season.
While Williamson is still by far the top talent and already a superstar, his former best friend from Duke has now closed the gap a bit.
Last season, 6-7 Williamson, despite missing much of the season with knee problems, finished third in the Rookie of the Year vote. Barrett wasn’t even voted on one of the two All-Rookie teams.
On Wednesday at the Smoothie King Center, the Knicks and Barrett will face Williamson for the first time in a regular season game.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle recently said that “watching him is like an awesome experience,” as if Shaquille O’Neal had point guard skills.
“It’s probably a good word to describe him: unique,” Tom Thibodeau said before the Pelicans’ meeting. “It is unusual because it is power and speed. And generally when you have the power, you don’t have the speed or if you have the speed, you don’t have the power and he has both. Very slick, puts a lot of pressure on you, dynamic playmaker. “
Williamson, the top pick in the 2019 draft, was injured in the Knicks’ preseason matchup last season and also missed the regular-season Garden contest. His second game last April scheduled for New Orleans was canceled due to the pandemic.
Williamson faced the Knicks in a summer league game in Las Vegas, but injured his knee and back after nine minutes when he came in too heavy.
While Thibodeau gave Williamson his well-deserved recognition, the Knicks coach mentioned that Barrett has more than earned his keep as the third pick in that draft.
“I love the boy we have, I know,” Thibodeau said. “RJ has had a fantastic season for us. Great to be around, great teammate, great for training. He has improved every day, he gives you everything he has, he puts the team first, you can’t ask for anything more than that. And I think it has a great advantage. “
Slightly slimmer, more in attack mode and an elite runner-up, Williamson made the All-Star Game this season. The 20-year-old averages 26.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 62 percent. He’s not taking many triples yet, but he’s hitting 36 percent of them.
Barrett may be next after dramatically improving his 3-point shooting (37.8 percent), free throws (73.5 percent) and decision making. Averaging 17.4 points, Barrett continues to be a burden as he works his way to the rim with crafty finishes.
Duke’s two left-handed alpha males may not match much Wednesday, as Williamson plays power forward. But it will be fun to see the times they go hand in hand.
Barrett was not available for comment after Monday’s win over the Lakers, and the Knicks did not practice again Tuesday.
After the Memphis win on Friday, Barrett was asked about the comparisons between him, Zion and No. 2 pick Ja Morant.
“My game speaks for itself,” Barrett said. “I mean they can see our numbers, they can see the success of our team. Really do not care. As long as I continue to improve as a player, I will be happy. “
Julius Randle will likely get the Zion showdown as he takes on his old team. Williamson carries the ball up, so it will be two elite forwards who will face each other.
“He’s a great player, incredible,” Randle said of Williamson. “How is he able to get into lane and finish and do a lot of things. It’s sure to be a tough match, but I’ll be ready for it. “
Williamson also didn’t speak after the Pelicans’ win on Monday, but said last season of Barrett: “He’s done well. He is a rookie and to come to a city like New York, I think he has been doing very well. For a rookie to come in and run New York the way it is, he’s been doing very well. “
Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy is still looking for Williamson to become a “more consistent” defender and decision maker. But he feels like his three-point shots will be fine.
While it is a soccer city, Williamson has at least made the Pelicans (25-29) relevant again, even if they are struggling this season, at 11th place, competing to make the entry tournament at No. 10.
“It will always be a Saints town,” said Knicks guard and New Orleans native Elfrid Payton, a former Pelican. “But I think people love the Pelicans. They always did. Before Zion, they loved the Pelicans. Hopefully Zion will play there for the rest of his career. If you don’t, they’ll still love the Pelicans. “