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The Knicks are getting 2019 Duke back together, and they’re only missing Zion Williamson

The Knicks are Zion Williamson short of getting 2019 Duke back together.

2019 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The New York Knicks were the NBA’s biggest surprise last season. The Knicks entered the year expected to be one of the worst teams in the league before a shocking turnaround in their first season under Tom Thibodeau that saw them earn home court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the clock struck midnight when the postseason began, and their charmed year ultimately had a sour ending when Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks dominated New York over five games.

The Knicks hoped to build off last season’s success heading into Year 2 under Thibodeau, but it just hasn’t happened. Halfway through the season, the Knicks are a .500 team and would miss the play-in tournament if the season ended today. Part of that is because the East is much improved from last season; part of it is because several key performers — most notably, reigning All-NBA forward Julius Randle — have experienced significant downturns in production. The Knicks aren’t bad in the ways they’ve usually been bad, but they are still disappointing.

On Thursday, the Knicks swung a trade for another piece in attempt to make a push up the standings. New York acquired Cam Reddish from the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for a 2022 first round pick originally owned by the Charlotte Hornets and fourth-year wing Kevin Knox. Reddish should provide minutes on the wing for New York right away, but it’s more fun to think about how the deal could impact the franchise’s future.

Only a few years back, Duke basketball had one of the greatest freshmen classes in recent memory. The Blue Devils landed the top three recruits in the country for the first time in the modern history of college basketball in RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish. Duke also had another consensus top-20 recruit in Tre Jones.

While Barrett was the consensus top prospect heading into the year, Williamson immediately emerged as a supernova. He was one of the great talents college basketball has seen over the last decade, and it made every Duke game feel like a must-watch. While Williamson thrived, Barrett and Reddish also had their moments. Duke earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and was the favorite to win the national championship before getting stunned by Michigan State in the Elite Eight.

Williamson was the no-brainer top prospect heading into the draft, with 14 NBA teams hanging on the lottery results to see who would get him. The New Orleans Pelicans jumped way up the order to be the shocking winners of the No. 1 pick and the rights to Williamson. The Knicks came in with the third pick. Williamson was reportedly bummed to see Knicks fall to No. 3 because he’s always had an affinity for playing in Madison Square Garden.

Zion went No. 1 to the Pelicans, the Knicks took Barrett at No. 3, and Reddish went No. 10 to the Atlanta Hawks.

Fast forward two and a half years, and Barrett and Reddish are together again playing in New York. Williamson hasn’t played a game all season as he recovers from a foot injury, but he’s been incredible for the Pelicans when he’s actually on the court. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, Zion’s love of New York has never really dissipated. There have been reports he’s been upset with the direction of the Pelicans, and he never misses an opportunity to talk about how much he loves Madison Square Garden.

Now Williamson’s close friends Barrett and Reddish are together on the Knicks. Williamson remains stuck in New Orleans, and he might not play all year because of this foot injury. All three players have one more year left on their rookie contracts and then will become extension eligible. Anyone who doesn’t sign an extension will have two options: a) become a restricted free agent and give their incumbent team the right to match any offer, or b) play on a one-year qualifying offer and then hit restricted free agency the next year.

Williamson will still likely get a max extension offer from the Pelicans despite his injury issues. He would have to turn down a contract potentially worth $200 million for the right to pick his team starting with his sixth pro season. That’s a huge risk for someone with his injury history, though perhaps Zion’s lucrative endorsement deals make it more palatable.

It’s no secret Zion loves New York. It’s also no secret Zion loves Reddish and Barrett. With the Knicks move to land Reddish on Thursday, it’s possible New York is laying the groundwork to one day land Zion. It’s still complicated getting Williamson to New York, but at this point it’s hard to imagine him playing anywhere else on his next team.

Are the Knicks going to pluck Tre Jones from the Spurs next? What about acquiring Marques Bolden from the Jazz’s G League team? The Knicks are getting the 2019 Duke band back together, and they just need Zion to finish the job.

The Knicks just better hope they don’t see Cassius Winston or any other Spartan in the near future, because we know how that one turned out.

For now, Barrett and Reddish are reunited on the Knicks. Zion is sidelined in the present, and his future remains unknowable. It just isn’t hard to imagine all three coming together again one day in New York.