Luke DeCock

In Zion Williamson’s absence, RJ Barrett complicates ACC honors race

Duke’s RJ Barrett slams in two in victory over Miami

Watch a time-lapse of Duke's RJ Barrett slamming in two during the Blue Devils' victory over Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Saturday, March 2, 2019.
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Watch a time-lapse of Duke's RJ Barrett slamming in two during the Blue Devils' victory over Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Saturday, March 2, 2019.

Zion Williamson has clearly enjoyed watching Duke play without him, at least since that first chaotic partial game when he was ushered away from the court and under the stands to have his knee injury assessed. The sprain doesn’t seem to stop him from celebrating – there was plenty of that Saturday in a never-in-doubt 87-57 win over Miami, just at there was in the first game he missed, at Syracuse – or agonizing his way through the final moments of the loss at Virginia Tech.

Saturday’s game ended with Williamson and R.J. Barrett guffawing next to each other on the bench, but Williamson’s enjoyment might be slightly tempered if and when he realizes Barrett might be sneaking ACC player of the year honors out from under him.

That race was a foregone conclusion right up until “his shoe broke,” to borrow President Obama’s reaction, but in the almost-all-of-four games Williamson has missed since, a stretch in which Duke has gone 2-2, Barrett continues to put up staggering numbers while Williamson has no chance to match.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says the Blue Devils aren't in any hurry for Zion Williamson to return to the court during a press availability after the Blue Devils' victory over Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Saturday, March 2, 2019.

Saturday, Duke tweaked its post-Williamson offense to open up more looks for Barrett and Cam Reddish, both of whom finished with 19 points. And with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in no hurry to rush Williamson back into the lineup, the gap will continue to grow.

“We had some time to practice, so we did a couple things now that would be good for this team, without Zion,” Krzyzewski said.

In one sense, the notion that Barrett could surpass Williamson is absurd: If anything, Williamson’s absence has only reinforced his value to Duke.

North Carolina might have beaten Duke even with Williamson, but it’s hard to imagine the same happening in Blacksburg. His absence leaves a void at both ends of the court, maybe even more on defense than on offense. The Blue Devils have plenty of weapons when it comes to the latter, but no one with Williamson’s impact at the former.

DUKEMIAMI02-030219-EDH.jpg
Duke’s RJ Barrett (5) heads to slam in two past Miami’s Sam Waardenburg (21) and Miami’s Dejan Vasiljevic (1) during the first half of Duke’s game against Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Saturday, March 2, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

But awards voters aren’t always so sensible, and Barrett’s sheer productivity, with and without Williamson, makes an equally strong case of its own. For all the talk about what Williamson can do that no one else can, Barrett isn’t far behind. He flirted with his second triple-double of the season Saturday, falling short by three assists.

Barrett is the ACC’s leading scorer, only 24 points shy of the Duke freshman scoring record Marvin Bagley III set last season, the only ACC player to score in double figures in every game. He’s outscoring Williamson (23.1 to 21.6), just behind in rebounding (7.4 to 8.8) and almost doubling him up in assists (4.2 to 2.2) – let alone the rest of the ACC.

“It’s really more of the same,” Barrett said. “With Zion being out, everybody gets the ball more. Everybody has to make more plays.”

In any other season, Barrett’s numbers would make him an easy choice. But this isn’t any other season, and Williamson isn’t any other player.

Reasonable or not, Williamson is going to be docked by some for his absence, especially if it continues to linger, especially as Barrett continues to pile up points. It’s down to these two, but what was once an open-and-shut race is now very open, until if and when Williamson returns.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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