Zion Williamson towered over the college basketball season from the moment he put on a Duke uniform. His mind-bending combination of power, athleticism, and smarts captivated the country and reduced NBA general managers to yearning admirers praying to hit the lottery. Almost immediately, it became apparent June’s NBA draft would be all about Williamson with a massive gap between him and any other player.
It wasn’t always that way, though. As Williamson entered college, almost no one had him No. 1 overall on early draft boards. Duke did have the consensus top pick in the next draft on its roster, but it wasn’t Zion. It was his teammate R.J. Barrett.
Barrett was such a prodigious prep star that he was ranked No. 1 in two separate high school classes. He was unanimously considered the No. 1 player in the 2019 high school class before reclassifying up a year and earning the same honor with the 2018 group. Williamson’s high school ranking, conversely, was all over the map: ESPN had him No. 2, Rivals had him No. 5, and 247 Sports had him No. 7, below Kentucky’s E.J. Montgomery.
If Williamson so quickly became the No. 1 NBA prospect once he arrived at Duke, why was Barrett considered the superior recruit? There are a few different reasons.
Barrett starred at FIBA events Zion never played in
FIBA youth tournaments offer players the opportunity to test themselves in a high-stakes environment against international competition with statistical tracking. R.J. Barrett built his reputation at these events while playing for his home country of Canada. Zion Williamson never competed in a FIBA tournament for USA Basketball.
Barrett first competed on the global stage as a 14-year-old playing up at the U16 FIBA Americas tournament in Argentina in 2015, where he led the team in scoring despite being the youngest player on the roster. He did it again at the U17 FIBA World Championships in Spain a year later, averaging better than 18 points per game.
Barrett would have the defining moment of his prep career the next summer when he led Canada to victory over John Calipari’s U.S. team in the semifinals over the U19 FIBA World Cup in Egypt. All Barrett did in that game was go off for 38 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists.
Canada would win the gold medal in its next game. Barrett’s numbers for the entire tournament were incredible.
Williamson did participate in USA Basketball’s 2017 junior minicamp, where SB Nation first got an up-close look at his talent. He never competed in a FIBA event, though.
Barrett aced the All-Star circuit
Being from Canada gave Barrett opportunities that Williamson, a native of South Carolina, never had. The biggest one came at Basketball Without Borders, an NBA sanctioned event during All-Star weekend that brings together top international talent for a camp and picks the best players to compete in a game.
Barrett drew rave reviews at Basketball Without Borders when he went in 2017, winning camp MVP and kickstarting his early draft hype.
I don't usually say this lightly, but R.J. Barrett showing superstar level talent here at BWB. On another level athletically, creating shots— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) February 18, 2017
Another opportunity Barrett had that Williamson didn’t was the chance to play in the prestigous Nike Hoop Summit twice. Barrett was the youngest player on the world team in 2017, scoring nine points in 20 minutes. He returned the next year and led the World team to victory by finishing with 20 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
Williamson was chosen for the Hoop Summit on the U.S. side, but didn’t play as he nursed a hand injury.
R.J. played for a basketball factory in high school. Zion stayed local.
Though Barrett grew up in Canada, he transferred to Florida-based prep school Montverde Academy, a de facto basketball factory that plays a national schedule and helped develop Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell, and many more. Meanwhile, Williamson stuck with his hometown school Spartanburg Day despite it having no reputation for producing elite basketball talent.
While Barrett played and starred in Nike’s EYBL grassroots circuit, Williamson played for Adidas, which tends to receive less national attention. Williamson also didn’t play a full schedule during his rising senior year on the grassroots circuit because of minor knee injury.
Barrett’s numbers on the EYBL circuit for UPlay, while impressive, did start to show some holes in his game. He averaged more turnovers than assists and shot only 43 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range.
Zion unofficially surpassed Barrett on Duke’s Canadian exhibition trip
Barrett was the No. 1 recruit on every 2018 high school class ranking. He was the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick on every early projection. Things changed when both players finally put on a Duke uniform for the first time during the Blue Devils’ three-game exhibition trip to Canada.
Williamson was absolutely electric during those three preseason games. Barrett, the hometown kid, was also productive, but the shear spectacle of Williamson’s talent immediately overshadowed him. When it was over, we wrote that Williamson was college basketball’s next mega-star.
There’s no debate between Williamson and Barrett now
Barrett had an ultra productive freshman year at Duke, averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. Williamson still eclipsed him in every conceivable way.
Williamson was simply the most efficient player college basketball has seen in the modern era. He was a game-breaker on defense, too. While Barrett finished with a true shooting percentage of 53.2 percent, Williamson finished at a historically good 70.2 percent. As Barrett drew criticism for his shot selection and tunnel vision as ball handler, Williamson proved to be a terrific teammate who consistently made winning plays.
Williamson is going to be the first pick in the 2019 NBA Draft to the New Orleans Pelicans. Barrett is likely to go No. 3 overall to the New York Knicks. It all seems so obvious now, but no one would have believed it before they each arrived at Duke.