RJ Barrett making waves in Zion Williamson, Ja Morant debate

Some years, the first player taken in the NBA draft is an Anthony Bennett or Kwame Brown. Some drafts, the No. 2 pick ends up being used on Darko Milicic or Hasheem Thabeet. Sometimes, there is no shadow for the players taken afterward, no fan regret over the bounce of the pingpong balls.

From 2000-14, no top-two picks of the same draft class both became All-Stars. The two drafts to accomplish the feat since featured No. 2 picks who have already been deemed dispensable (D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram) and traded from their original teams.

Last June, the two most electrifying players in college basketball (Zion Williamson, Ja Morant) were taken with the top two picks. Improbably, each player has already set the NBA ablaze, cementing their spots as exhilarating and untouchable league centerpieces.

For the rest of his career, RJ Barrett will be linked to the stars drafted just before him. For now, the Knicks’ third-overall pick is doing his best to close the gap with the headlining rookies.

Following his 27-point, five-rebound, five-assist performance in Monday’s upset of the Rockets — capped with a drive by Barrett in the final seconds — the 19-year-old is now averaging 20.3 points, 5.0 rebounds. 4.3 assists while shooting 59 percent from the field and 46 percent on 3-pointers over his past three games.

“I think you see a guy that has a lot of confidence and has abilities to do things, and I think people are starting to see it,” interim coach Mike Miller said following Tuesday’s practice. “I don’t see any big changes. I think he’s growing as you would expect him to grow with the work that he’s put in, with the talent he has.”

In early January, Barrett put on a promising six-game stretch in which he averaged 19 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals, but he then sprained his right ankle and missed nine games before returning Feb. 6.

“Prior to the injury, we were seeing a big jump in his production, and more importantly, his efficiency,” Miller said. “I think the big thing now is he’s just feeling so much better. When he came back, it probably took him five games or so where he was feeling more like himself and doing the things he does.

“Physically, he has incredible stamina and mentally, he’s prepared for this. He really is. He has such a good feel for how to stay with it. He keeps a good perspective.”

Experience has made it easier.

“Just learning my spots, learning the game more,” Barrett said. “I felt like I was doing good until I got hurt, and coming back, now I’m relaxing. … I feel like when you come back, it takes you a little bit to get in your groove. Every day I’ve just been working trying to get it back.”

Barrett earned the praise of James Harden after Monday’s game, with the former league MVP citing the rookie’s aggressiveness.

“It’s great to have somebody like that say something,” Barrett said heading into Wednesday’s game against the Jazz. “Now, it’s over with. Got another game. … You got to keep moving forward.”

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