CHICAGO — As Zion Williamson left town, Knicks brass interviewed his Duke wingman, RJ Barrett, Wednesday morning in Chicago, according to an NBA source. In the afternoon, brass grilled Murray State point guard Ja Morant.
After months of hope, Williamson is out of the picture and the Knicks are zeroing in on the two likeliest candidates at 3 in Barrett and Morant.
Knicks president Steve Mills, GM Scott Perry, coach David Fizdale and developmental director Craig Robinson interviewed Barrett, whose big year was overshadowed by the Williamson mega-hype.
Unless the Knicks use the third pick in a package for Anthony Davis, which may be a tough task, the choice is out of their hands. Memphis will likely decide the Knicks’ future when it decides between Morant and Barrett.
Memphis has a star point guard in Mike Conley, but he’s 32 and the Grizzlies are looking at a youth movement. Memphis looked to shop Conley last season. Clippers adviser Jerry West has reportedly tabbed Morant as the best talent in the draft – better than Williamson.
Zion is headed for New Orleans, perhaps reluctantly, considering his awkward post-lottery reaction Tuesday night. Though the Knicks were high on his radar, winding up in Atlanta, a three-hour drive from his South Carolina hometown, may have been his top choice.
The 6-foot-7 Barrett scored more points (860) this season than any freshman in ACC history — the only player from a Power 5 conference to score at least 13 points in every contest he played. He also can play three positions.
While Knicks fans are disappointed about not landing Williamson, the franchise beat the odds. There was a 59.8% chance of the franchise falling to No. 4 or 5.
“There’s definitely a tier in this draft and the Knicks fell on the good side of it,’’ one NBA scouting director said.
Barrett, a Toronto-area native, used to play pickup as a young boy in New York after his father, Rowan, played for St. John’s. Rowan went on to a professional basketball career overseas.
His son RJ is known as a terrific penetrator with a sweet perimeter shot, though his 3-point percentage at Duke was a disappointing 30.8.
“We’d go to see family and take him out to the blacktop,” Rowan told Slam recently. “I went to school in New York, so I’d just travel to Harlem and Coney Island. I had an understanding of what that was and how important it was for him. The city game isn’t a lot of jump shots. It’s a lot of going to the rim. Figuring out how to get to the the rim. No one calls fouls. All the trash talk, the chatter. Can you play while someone is talking to you? Don’t look over to the side. Daddy can’t help you. So we’d take him there in the summer and it was great for his development in terms of toughness. He learned the European way and then he played in Brooklyn.’’
The Knicks could also trade down a notch or two and take premier defender Virginia swingman D’Andre Hunter, who is not showing up to this week’s NBA combine likely due to a draft guarantee. The Knicks are looking to add defenders this season.
If the Knicks reach their summer dreams, a new starting lineup could feature Kyrie Irving at point guard, Barrett at shooting guard, Kevin Knox at small forward, Kevin Durant at power forward and Mitchell Robinson at center.
The lottery also cleared up their future Dallas draft picks. With Dallas not moving into the top 5, the Knicks will likely have the 2021 and 2023 Mavericks’ first-rounders instead of 2022 and 2024. Those are assets likely to be offered to the Pelicans in a package for Davis.
Mills and Perry have declined to meet with the local media for two straight days.