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New York Knicks’ Early Season Progress Report

Twenty-one games into the season, Tommy Beer offers his early grades of the Knicks’ players.

Tommy Beer

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Having played 21 games, the New York Knicks have now passed the quarter pole of the 2016-17 campaign.

A 12-9 record may not be much to celebrate in some cities, but for New Yorkers thirsty for just a taste of success, it’s viewed as an important step in the right direction.

The Knicks are over .500 through first 20 games of a season for just the third time this century. And New York is currently three games over .500 for the first time since April 17, 2013.

Thus, with 20-plus games in the rear-view mirror, let’s look back and hand out grades to each player.

Carmelo Anthony: B+
Based solely on the numbers, ‘Melo is not having a great season by “Carmelo Anthony standards.” He’s had to adjust his game playing alongside a true, talented point guard in Derrick Rose and an emerging superstar in Kristaps Porzingis. For instance, last season Anthony posted the highest assist percentage rate of his career (20.9). This season, his assist percentage is under 10 percent for the first time since 2007. Correspondingly, his usage rate is below 29 for the first time since his rookie year in Denver.

Nonetheless, ‘Melo has played a crucial role in propelling the Knicks to a fast start, especially over their last 12 games, when the Knicks have posted a conference-best 9-3 record. Despite getting knocked by many for unimaginative isolation plays at the end of games, Anthony has silenced the critics by sinking multiple game-winning shots.

In addition, ‘Melo remains a truly elite catch-and-shoot marksman. He’s averaging 7.7 points per game off catch-and-shoot shots, which is fifth-best in the entire league. He’s shooting a terrific 50.4 percent on these attempts. To put that in context, Klay Thompson is shooting 43.7 percent. (Anthony and Steph Curry are the only two players in the league shooting above 50 percent on at least at least five attempts). ‘Melo has also been a bit more focused on the defensive end. His Net Rating of plus-1.4 is best among Knicks starters.

Nonetheless, there are still some areas in which ‘Melo can improve. For instance, despite knocking down a few clutch shots, he tends to settle for forced jumpers out of isolation too often. Per the numbers above, we know how deadly effective he can be when spotting up and knocking down jumpers. However, his efficiency drops dramatically when he puts the ball on the floor. Per NBA.com/stats, he’s shooting just 33.8 percent on possessions in which he takes between 3-to-6 dribbles before attempting his shot. That’s obviously far less impressive when compared to his catch-and-shoot accuracy. And if he is going to put the ball on the floor, he should drive far more frequently instead of settling for mid-range jumpers. ‘Melo is averaging a career-low 4.5 points in the paint. Just 16 percent of his total field goal attempts have come at the rim this season. That’s far below his career average of 33.4 percent. He is also averaging a fewer than five free throws attempts per game for the first time in his career.

Kristaps Porzingis: A-
The Knicks thought they had a something special when they drafted this skinny Latvian kid with the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft. They knew they had something special when he exceeded even the highest of expectations during his stellar rookie season. But even the Knicks have to be surprised with the improvement and development of Porzingis in his second NBA season.

After struggling defensively and not rebounding as well as he should have in his rookie season, Porzingis has improved on both fronts as a sophomore. His ability to contribute substantially on both ends of the floor is why so many in the Knicks organization are so high on him. Last week, he became the first player in New York franchise history to block at least two shots and make at least two three-pointers in four straight games. At just 21 years old, he is on pace to become just the seventh player in NBA history to average at least 20 points, seven rebounds and two three-pointers per game.

In addition, he leads the team in most advanced metrics. He is first on the team in PER (19.8) and also leads the team in VORP, offensive win shares and defensive win shares.

Last season, when he wasn’t knocking down shots, he would have a difficult time finding other ways to contribute. This season, that hasn’t been the case. For instance, he is shooting just 31.1 percent from the floor and a frigid 18.8 percent from downtown over New York’s last three games, but has also grabbed 31 rebounds, blocked eight shots and posted a positive plus/minus in those the games – all Knick wins.

Quite simply, the Knicks are at their best when they make a concerted effort to feature Porzingis. New York is 7-3 this season when his Usage Rate is north of 25 percent. They are just 3-7 in the 10 games in which KP’s usage rate dips below 25 percent. The Knicks are 8-3 when he plays more than 33 minutes. They are 0-4 when he plays less than 30 minutes.

Derrick Rose: B
It’s been a very long time since the Knicks had a point guard capable of what Rose brings to the table each night. Specifically, Rose’s ability to penetrate into the heart of opposing defenses has been invaluable.

Rose has already scored 200 points in the paint this season in the 670 minutes he played. In contrast, the Knicks’ starting point guard the last two seasons, Jose Calderon, scored a total of 128 points in the paint over 3,294 minutes from 2014 through 2016. Rose is on pace to score 780 points in the paint this season, which means he’d join Amar’e Stoudemire as just the second Knick this decade to score more than 700 points in the paint. In addition, Rose’s penetration does far more than just allow him to score; it creates space and stretches the defense, which puts his teammates in positions to succeed.

Rose is currently averaging 16.7 points, 4.8 assists and 4.1 rebounds. Only two Knicks point guards have averaged at least 16 points, four dimes and four boards over the course of a full season: Walt Frazier (eight times) and Mark Jackson (once).

However, Rose can get into trouble when he tries to do too much. He’s hurt the team at times when he tries to force shots and passes that aren’t there. We mentioned the usage rates stats related to Porzingis above. Well, it’s a far different scenario for Rose. The Knicks are just 1-8 in games in which Rose’s usage rate is greater than 26 percent. In contrast, New York is 11-1 when his usage rate is less than 26 percent. Similarly, the Knicks are 0-7 this season when Rose attempts more than 16 shots in a game. They are 12-2 when he shoots 16 times or less.

Nonetheless, Rose has provided a steady hand to lead the Knicks since the start of the season. He has also remained healthy, playing in each of the first 20 games of a season for the first time since his MVP campaign. Yet, Rose had to exit Tuesday’s win over Miami with back spasms. We shall see if it’s a lingering issue.

Brandon Jennings: B
We’ve talked a lot about stats and figures thus far, but Brandon Jennings’ greatest contributions typically don’t show up on the stat sheet each night. Jennings has provided a much-needed spark of energy and excitement off the bench. He’s also been demanding of his team. Jennings has been unafraid to publicly call out the troops after embarrassing performances.

Jennings has also proven himself as a finisher. He is actually second on the Knicks in total minutes played in the fourth quarter this season (behind only Porzingis).

At times, he’ll try to do too much, but that’s easier to accept when it’s a by-product of the ratcheted-up intensity he supplies on a nightly basis. There were many questions about Jennings coming into the season, as he was still working his way back from a devastating Achilles tear, but Jennings has looked spry and reinvigorated. He’s also revamped his game. For his career, he has averaged 13.8 FG attempts per game. This season, he’s focused on becoming a facilitator. He’s currently averaging just 6.4 shots per contest. He also boasts a team-best 2.94 assist-to-turnover ratio.

If Rose ends up missing time, he’ll become vitally important as the team’s starting PG.

Courtney Lee: C+
The Knicks had high hopes for Lee when they signed him this summer, hoping they’d finally found an elite perimeter defender and knock-down shooter from long distance. Lee hasn’t quite lived up to the hype.

He is shooting 44.2 percent from the floor, below his career mark of 45. Yet, while he hasn’t been quite as great defensively as hoped, he’s certainly been solid. His individual Defensive Rating of 106.5 is fourth best on the team. As he works his way back from an ankle sprain, there is certainly reason to believe he’ll improve as the season moves on.

Joakim Noah: D
Many pundits panned the Knicks for signing Noah to a four-year, $72 million contract back in July. Right now, those that defended the Knicks’ decision don’t have much of a leg to stand on. While most agreed that the deal would look bad three or four years from now, the hope was that he’d play well enough early on in the contract to justify the potential of dead weight down the road. Instead, Noah stumbled badly out of the gate.

Not only has he had trouble staying healthy, missing four of the Knicks’ first 21 games, he’s also been ineffective for much of the time he’s been on the court. The standard stats aren’t pretty. He’s averaging just 4.2 points, 2.9 assists and 0.8 blocks. He’s also dealing with a terrible case of the yips at the free throw line. Noah is just 6-of-25 (24 percent) from the charity stripe this season, including 11 straight misses. It’s extremely odd, considering he shot 73 percent from the line over the first seven years of his NBA career.

Most shocking, his defense has been sub-par. Per NBA.com, the Knicks are allowing 108.4 points per 100 possessions while Noah is on the floor. That’s the third-worst individual DefRtg on the team.

By all accounts, he is a terrific teammate and a leader in the locker room, and there is obviously still plenty of time for Noah to turn it around, but the pressure on Noah will only continue to grow if his play doesn’t improve.

Mindaugas Kuzminskas: B-
Kuz has unexpectedly become a fan favorite among Madison Square Garden faithful, and for good reason; the kid can play.

Kuzminskas is 27 and has a wealth of international experience, so he isn’t your typical rookie. That experience has been hard to miss, as his impressive basketball IQ and solid all-around skill set have earned him plenty of minutes along with coach Jeff Hornacek’s trust. Coming into Tuesday night’s game in Miami, Kuz was second among all rotation players in Net Rating (plus-4.3).

Justin Holiday: B-
Holiday was an afterthought in the “Derrick Rose trade,” but the young, skinny wing has been a pleasant surprise for Hornacek and the coaching staff.

He is shooting a career-high 40 percent from the floor and 37 percent from three-point territory. Holiday has also been better than expected on the other end of the floor. He is an active, pesky defender that uses his length to his advantage.

Kyle O’Quinn: B-
After a slow start and struggling just to maintain his spot in the rotation over the first month of the season, O’Quinn has been a man possessed recently. Over the Knicks’ last three games, O’Quinn is averaging 12 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks, while shooting a scorching 70.8 percent from the floor. And it should be noted that the opposing centers he’s matched up against in these contests were Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins and Hassan Whiteside.

O’Quinn’s effort has been inspiring. He’s been a beast on the offensive glass and has seemingly come up with every loose ball for a week straight. His strong play has made the disappointing performance of Noah far less damaging than it could have been. On the season, his PER currently sits at 19.6, just ahead of ‘Melo for second-best on the team. We’ll see if KO can keep this up.

Willy Hernangomez: B-
Hernangomez has been another pleasant surprise for the Knicks. And, like O’Quinn, Willy has done an admirable job filling in for Noah when called upon.

Hernangomez has a terrific feel for the game, possessing great hands and good vision. Furthermore, his footwork around the basket is phenomenal for a player his age. He currently leads the team in both True Shooting percentage (62.5) and Effective Field Goal percentage (60.9). He also ranks first on the Knicks in defensive rebounds per 100 possessions.

The knock on Hernangomez is his defense. He doesn’t have the lateral agility to guard quicker opponents, and he’s not yet strong enough to move bigger centers from their preferred spots on the low block.

Lance Thomas: C-
Thomas greatly exceeded expectations last season and played the best basketball of his career. The Knicks rewarded him with a lucrative four-year, $27.5 million contract this past summer. However, the early returns have not been overly encouraging. He is shooting 41.5 percent from the floor and his individual DefRtg of 110.5 is the worst on the team.

Still, to be fair, Thomas has been hampered by injuries this season. An ankle sprain cost him three weeks in November and he is still dealing with the nagging effects of plantar fasciitis. To his credit, Thomas stepped up and played his best game of the season Tuesday night in Miami. Maybe that boosts his confidence and he begins playing closer to the 2015-16 version of himself.

Sasha Vujacic: C+
Vujacic’s standard, offensive stats are far from impressive. He’s averaging only 2.2 points while shooting just 35.7 percent from the floor. However, he has actually played far better than anticipated on the defensive end (Defensive Rating of 96.2). It is safe to assume this won’t last, and he’ll need to start knocking down shots in order to see additional minutes, but the steady professional has been a calming influence on the floor whenever his number has been called thus far.

Maurice Ndour: C-
Ndour was on the fringe of the rotation early in the season. He appeared in seven of the Knicks’ first 12 games, averaging over 10 minutes per contest. However, he wasn’t overly impressive on either side of the ball and eventually lost his playing time to more productive bench contributors, such as Q’Quinn and Kuzminskas. Ndour has played a total of only seven minutes over the Knicks’ last nine games.

Ron Baker: Incomplete
Baker played well in the preseason to earn a roster spot, but has played sparingly since the regular season commenced. Baker has played a total of 34 minutes in four brief appearances. However, he may be forced into action if Rose misses any time.

Marshall Plumlee: Incomplete
Plumlee has only appeared in two games this season. Last Wednesday in Minnesota, Plumlee came off the bench and gave the Knicks a solid 20 minutes of effort and energy. However, it’s too small of a sample size to draw any fair conclusion.

Which Knicks have surprised you the most? Who needs to step up for the team moving forward? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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