Duke’s RJ Barrett is emerging from the injured Zion Williamson’s shadow and his draft stock is soaring.
Barrett is one of three Duke players projected to go in the Top 5 picks of the NBA Draft, but Zion has been the revenue-generating, polarizing superstar that has dominated sports headlines.
Now, Barrett has control of the Cameron Indoor Castle following the shoe-exploding knee injury against North Carolina on Feb. 21 that forced Williamson to the bench. Duke isn’t as potent as they were with the freakishly-athletic Williamson on the court. The 77-72 loss to Virginia Tech on Wednesday night proved that. Barrett, however, is using the opportunity to remind the world of why his stat line is ringing at a 23/7.5/4 clip, despite being recognized as Zion’s sidekick.
The night Zion went down 36 seconds into the game was the beginning of R.J. Barrett’s NBA destiny. The freshman finally got the stage to himself during a game against UNC when the Blue Devils were shell-shocked by Zion’s knee injury. Coach K relied on Barrett, who carried Duke with 33 points and 13 rebounds in a loss.
ESPN’s Seth Greenberg details the three aspects of Duke’s play that Coach K adjusted ahead of traveling to Syracuse without Zion Williamson in the lineup. The first adjustment he says is adding Alex O’Connell to the Blue Devils starting crew, which paid off as he knocked down five 3-pointers on 20 points.
As the world awaits Zion’s return, R.J.’s been picking up the slack and proving to be a future NBA star. He torched Syracuse for 30 in a win over the weekend and then last night, he scored a team-high 21 points and led a furious Duke second-half comeback that fell short.
Being an elite performer and having to play in the shadow of the “8th Wonder of the World” isn’t easy for Barrett. Zion’s sneaker explosion was a twist of fate with dual benefits. It not only protects Zion from being on the court and potentially blowing millions, but finally puts the spotlight, the rock, the responsibility and the full attention of Coach K and his staff on Barrett.
Just like that. He’s the man. Some basketball analysts are even suggesting that R. J. has elevated to serious contention with Zion to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Typical out of sight out of mind talk, but also a reflection on Barrett’s multitude of skills that project well to the next level. While Zion is on hiatus, NBA scouts will truly get to see how Barrett reacts as the sole focal point of an offense. Does he have that Trae Young in him, where he can get it how he wants it against all levels of competition?
How far can Barrett take Duke before Zion returns? He might have to carry them all the way home if Zion sits out the season.
What a turn of events that would be.