basketball

Can Barrett-Williamson Become the Next Great NBA Rivalry?

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Robbins Nest

By Lenn Robbins

Not since former Maryland star Len Bias have I seen a college basketball touched by the athletic hand of God as was the case this season.

Duke’s Zion Williamson was heavier than almost every NBA player, yet he could leap to the top of the backboard. He has biceps a professional body builder would envy. He handled his season in the spotlight with more grace than should be expected from an 18-year-old.

That’s right, Zion is just 18. Notice, he already is identifiable but just his first name – like Serena, or Tiger, or LeBron.

It was with great hope that Williamson goes on to enjoy a healthy and successful NBA career. Three-three years from now I hope he’s being compared to James, Jordan and Magic. Everything points to him possibly achieving such heights. Godspeed.

So why, on the day that Williamson was the No.1 pick in the NBA Draft by the New Orleans Pelicans, do we mention him and Bias in the same space? Because no one, repeat, no one knows for certain the future of any player or for that fact, any person.

With that in mind, Knicks fans should be thrilled, not disheartened by the fact that their team selected Duke’s RJ Barrett with the third pick. He was nattily dressed in a pink suit over a black shirt and tie. He pumped both of his fists twice when Adam Silver announced his selection.

“I’ve given this game all I got for a long time and I’m just ready for this and I want to embrace the city and embrace the team and everything,’’ Barrett told ESPN’s Maria Taylor. “So I’m ready to go.’’

The Knicks, of course, had the worst record in the NBA and therefore had a terrific chance of gaining the No.1 pick and selecting Zion. It didn’t happen.

Those Knicks fans need to stop bemoaning what might have been and start celebrating what is:

Barrett has all the signs of developing into a perennial NBA All-Star. His father player at St. John’s. His mother is a Brooklyn native who ran track for the Johnnies. His godfather is Steve Nash.

He has played in The Garden and is as prepared to play in the Big Apple as any player coming out of college after one season.

“RJ will flourish here in New York,’’ Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said on his SiriusXM show this week. “He wants to be here. He is so mature. He just turned 19 last Friday, but he’s been a part of the Canadian basketball program since [he was] a little guy, always played up.”

In a perfect world, wouldn’t it be spectacular if Zion and RJ developed a Magic-Bird like rivalry?

The socio-economics of the time made for the perfect landscape for those two Hall of Famers. They seemed as polar opposite as two Americans could be, yet they developed into the closest of friends and possibly saved the NBA.

Zion has a Xenon smile. Barrett is more reserved by comparison. Zion blew out a Nike sneaker causing a temporary plunge of the company’s stock price. Does anyone know what sneaker Barrett wears?

This potential rivalry has foundation Magic and Bird didn’t have. They already are best of friends. They’ve been teammates at Duke. They know each other’s families and friends. What if McDonald’s shot a commercial at Duke (assuming this isn’t a violation of some tedious NCAA rule) featuring Barrett and Williamson?

Or what if they do an Instagram video of them playing one-on-one in Cameron Indoor Stadium? Bird and Magic didn’t have the burden and opportunity of social media.

Wouldn’t it be great for the NBA if its biggest market – New York – and one of its smallest markets – New Orleans – met in the NBA Finals several times in a few years? Zion vs RJ. RJ vs Zion.

I can see it. A pre-Finals video of them dining at Commander’s Palace in the Big Easy and Peter Luger’s in the Big Apple?

This scenario is not a pipedream. The Knicks are building with young talent in Barrett, Kevin Knox and Michael Robinson. The Pelicans are building with young talent in Williamson, Jrue Holiday and a rededicated Jahil Okafor.

Pelicans fans can choose to wallow in the bitter pool dug by Anthony Davis who shaded the Crescent City by demanding a trade. Or they can bask in the glow of a future with Zion, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and three first-round draft picks.

Knicks fans can opt to stew in the humid summer of disappointment. Or they can revel in the cool ocean breeze of the two additional first-round picks they received in the Kristaps Porzingis trade.

None of us know the future. But the Knicks and Pelicans have good reason to be cautiously ecstatic.

NOTES: The Brooklyn Nets selected Mfiondu Kabengele with the 27th pick. According to reports, the Nets traded the pick to the Clippers. In return, the Nets got the 56th pick in the 2019 draft and a first round pick in 2020.

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