NEW YORK—After almost a year of covering Zion Williamson, one would think no amount of frenzy could come as a surprise anymore. But at Wednesday’s media availability leading up to the NBA Draft, the madness was in its fullest effect—frustration mounted as Williamson arrived 15 minutes late to his allotted time slot as prior obligations ran long, and a full-on territory war emerged over winning the chance to catch a glance of the budding superstar.
With a tense crowd and countless microphones and cameras in Williamson’s face, a familiar face emerged to ask him a question: his best friend, who just so happens to be the likely No. 3 pick in Thursday’s draft, R.J. Barrett.
When Barrett caught the attention of his former teammate, Williamson cracked his biggest smile of the day, clearly grateful to have his freshman roommate amid the chaos of being the almost certain first selection in the NBA Draft.
And as both Williamson and Barrett prepare to meet the loftiest of expectations—Williamson is often cited as the best prospect since LeBron James and Barrett is set to be the New York Knicks’ highest draft pick in more than three decades—this sense of familiarity will guide them through the inevitable early struggles.
New Orleans, the likely NBA destination of Williamson, is embracing the Duke product, bringing back that coveted sense of home. And on his visit to the city, Williamson was already treated like a rock star.
“The city was very welcoming. Everywhere I went, walking on the street, there were people high-fiving me, saying they hope I come here,” Williamson said.
Williamson made sure to clarify that despite the rumors, he did not blasphemously order only chicken fingers at his first big meal in Louisiana—his five-year-old brother was the true culprit—but rather ordered a more acceptable entree of fried shrimp.
Growing up in Spartansburg, S.C., where you can enjoy non-gumbo without ridicule, Williamson emerged as a budding sensation, putting his hometown and home state on the basketball map. Fellow South Carolinians Ja Morant, Williamson’s former AAU teammate, and Nicolas Claxton are also likely first-round picks, giving a big NBA presence to a state not previously known for producing basketball talent.
“For the state of South Carolina, this means a lot to us,” Williamson said. “Me, Ja, and Nicolas Claxton, we represent South Carolina well. South Carolina has had our back through it all, since day one.”
Barrett’s home similarly shaped him into the player he is. Despite his prodigal skills on the court that he displayed at a young age, the Ontario native had a lot to live up to. His father, Rowan Barrett, had an illustrious career playing overseas, including an appearance at the Olympics with Team Canada in 2000.
“I have so many people in my life that humble me,” Barrett said, “I was really good at a young age, but every day I had to walk in the house and walk past my dad’s [Olympic] jersey on the wall, and realize I haven’t done anything yet.”
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Alongside Rowan Barrett in keeping the younger Barrett humble was Rowan’s wife and R.J.’s mother, Kesha, who ran track at St. John’s.
“When I was younger, she used to beat me [on the track],” Barrett said. “I was so mad, like, ‘How’s my mom out here beating me in a race?’”
As Barrett and Williamson near their official NBA debutante ball, emotions are running high. The culmination of all their hard work is coming to fruition.
“Honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to react,” Williamson said. “I don’t know if I’m going to cry or have a giant smile on my face. I guess we’ll see tomorrow night.”
For Barrett, his reaction is more certain.
“I’m excited to walk up to the stage, shake the commissioner’s hand, but I’m going to cry,” Barrett said. “You’re not going to see me cry, but I will cry.”
For both Barrett and Williamson, they will still have each other, and their own little reminders of home to look to as they embark on the challenge of becoming the saviors of two NBA franchises.