R.J. Barrett stepped out from Zion Williamson’s shadow to rescue Duke

The 2019 Duke season has been about Zion Williamson, Zion Williamson, and only Zion Williamson. Despite coming in ranked No. 2 in the country in ESPN’s rankings behind his own teammate, R.J. Barrett, (and as low as No. 5 by Rivals), Zion’s dunks, incredible shooting percentages, leaps through the air, and forceful rebounds have captivated the college basketball audience and beyond. He’s become a nation-wide celebrity outside sports culture, singlehandedly claiming the spotlight that was supposed to be shared with Barrett.

To no fault of Zion’s, Barrett has been left in the dust so-to-speak. The godson of Steve Nash had been known for torching Team USA’s U19 team for 38 points to lift Team Canada for an upset win in 2017, and was projected to be the No. 1 NBA pick. But his poor shot selection and erratic play has overshadowed the good he’s brought on the court at times. And he’s almost all but out of contention for the top spot in June (though he still will likely go top-5).

But on Sunday, Barrett had his moment that won’t be forgotten If Duke is to go on and win this tournament.

Down three points with less than 20 seconds to play against UCF in the Round of 32, it was Zion, Duke’s superhero, who charged towards the bucket and finished an acrobatic and-one to put his team within one point and put himself on the free throw line. In the process, he fouled out UCF’s 7’6 giant, Tacko Fall.

The storyline wrote itself up with Zion saving the day — until his free throw clanked off the front of the rim.

In swooped Barrett, the forgotten child desperate for the spotlight he would’ve had at any other program but Duke. And he couldn’t have come at a more perfect time as he cleaned up Zion’s error and swooshed home the game-winning play.

This is such a feel-good story. Even if he plays for Duke.

R.J. Barrett is no peasant. He still scores 23 points per game with eight rebounds and four assists, and could still go as high as No. 2 in June’s draft. But Barrett’s fallen off discussion as the No. 1 pick, and left some wondering if he was getting in Zion’s way throughout the season.

He shoots a mere 46 percent from the field (compared to Zion’s outrageous 22 points on 70-percent shooting.) From three-point range, he’s fired at a disappointing 31 percent, while Zion, who was criticized for his inability to shoot, has made 32 percent. R.J. Barrett signed up to play next to one of two players — counting Ja Morant — who could’ve possibly overshadowed him. And he largely has.

But now he has a play Duke fans will remember and thank him for. Sure, Zion got the Blue Devils in position to win, but it was R.J. Barrett who truly saved the day, and Duke’s championship hopes. His 14 other points and seven additional rebounds probably helped, too.

UCF truly felt the 1-2 punch of the nation’s top recruits in the closing seconds of their Round of 32 game. This was the terrifying Duke team fans had envisioned, and probably the one Barrett dreamed of too.

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