NEW ORLEANS — RJ Barrett has become the anti-Zion Williamson as far as durability.
The Knicks won’t face Williamson on Saturday when they play the Pelicans, because he’s hurt again. In fact, Williamson, the No. 1 pick of the infamous 2019 draft and Barrett’s former Duke compadre, didn’t play in the preseason and has not made his 2021-22 debut as he recuperates from right foot surgery.
Williamson has had a litany of ailments. He missed the first three months of his rookie year with knee issues.
On the flip side, there is Barrett, the No. 3 pick in 2019, who played all 72 games last season and runs the floor like a marathon man.
Barrett’s stamina and motor are marvelous. The 6-foot-7 swingman never looks winded, and Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau’s heart keeps growing fonder.
When The Post asked Barrett following his 20-point fast-break gem Thursday in Chicago what is the secret, Barrett replied: “You got to be in shape to play for Thibs. It’s non-negotiable. It’s what we do in practice.’’
If the Knick had won the 2019 lottery and picked Williamson, it’s worth wondering how he would have fared under Thibodeau’s drill-sergeant ways. The Pelicans are now led by rookie coach Willie Green.
According to Bleacher Report, Williamson, who is 6-6, ballooned to more than 300 pounds in the offseason. Williamson’s weight was his lone issue coming out of Duke. His freakish talent and spectacular explosiveness are unmatched, but if he can’t stay healthy, it’s worthless.
If the top-3 picks from that 2019 draft were redone today, the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant (who was taken second) likely would be No. 1, with Williamson No. 2. But it’s hardly a no-brainer since success in the NBA is based on health.
“He’ll be all right,’’ Barrett said of Williamson. “He’s such a special talent and such a great human being. I’m always pulling for him. He’ll be good. When he comes back, you guys will see.’’
Barrett was projected to be a No. 1 pick when he and Williamson began their freshman years.
“Everybody’s journey is different,’’ said Barrett, who was ticked he didn’t make one of the two All-Rookie teams. “I know who I am. The team believes in me. So that’s what I care about.’’
The Pelicans are no longer a marquee opponent nowadays with Williamson out and Lonzo Ball having been traded to Chicago. Brandon Ingram has emerged as a star, but New Orleans doesn’t look like even a play-in team at 1-4.
The Pelicans drafted Knicks target Trey Murphy and signed guard Devonte Graham, but until Williamson comes back …
“Any team without him, when he’s on the court, it definitely makes it a lot tougher for sure,’’ Barrett said. “But they’re still a good team, they have a lot of weapons. It’s going to be a good matchup.’’
Barrett and Williamson don’t appear as close as perhaps they were during their rookie seasons, but eyebrows were raised last season when Williamson mentioned Madison Square Garden as his favorite place to play. The former Duke power forward lit up like a Christmas tree when asked about The World’s Most Famous Arena. Subsequent reports suggested he might want out of the Big Easy.
Pairing Williamson with Barrett would be dream combo for the NBA. New Orleans is among the most fun cities in the world, but a poor NBA market.
Barrett has paid attention to Thibodeau’s decree about the Knicks increasing their pace this season. His ball handling looks tighter, too.
“Just be aggressive and be who I am,’’ Barrett said. “Whatever the game gives me, that attacking mindset, that’s how I got to play. [My handle] has been a lot better, especially when that one play when I got the floater at the end [in Chicago]. Just being able to not even do anything crazy, just to get the defender to move and get to the rim.’’