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NBA Sunday: Knicks Emerge From 2017 NBA Draft As Winners

Passing on other top prospects and selecting Frank Ntilikina was a wise move by the Knicks, write Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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One of the keys to succeeding in NBA is harmony. All of the talent in the world does no good if the front office and the head coach aren’t on the same page or if the front office attempts to fit square pegs into round holes.

That is precisely why the selection of Frank Ntilikina makes the New York Knicks one of the winners of the 2017 NBA draft.

Heading into the draft, there were agents and scouts that had the Knicks selecting Malik Monk with the eighth overall pick. The knock against Monk, however, was that he is considered an undersized, “score first” shooting guard whose fit into the triangle was questionable.

As for Dennis Smith, Jr., there are some that feel that he has the talent to become a perennial All-Star. Smith is explosive and athletic and, in some ways, is reminiscent to Derrick Rose, whom Phil Jackson famously (and appropriately) dubbed an “attack guard.” Weeks ago, the concerns against drafting another attack guard were discussed, with the possibility of the Knicks trading out of the eighth spot broached.

But the more Ntilikina was watched, the more it became obvious that he was precisely the type of player that Jackson would prefer to be his lead guard.

Historically, Jackson is known to have had a preference for larger-framed point guards who could both effectively operate out of the pinch-post area and play off the ball without disrupting the floor spacing on which his beloved triangle depends.

Standing at 6-foot-5, the 19-year-old Ntilikina is a tad light to play shooting guard full-time in the NBA—he’s currently estimated at 170 pounds—but gaining weight and muscle mass is one of the easier things for NBA players to do. Asking the 19-year-old to gain 25 pounds of mass over the next two to three years is a much easier task than asking an older guard to grow three inches. With an impressive wingspan (about seven feet) and what’s considered to be a high basketball IQ, from a physical standpoint, there is nothing else that one could require in a high-level prospect. Considering that Ntilikina has been playing professionally since 2015, there’s even more reason to be excited about his potential. Spending formative years in a professional setting can have a profound impact on the development and trajectory of an NBA talent. Look no further than the easy example of Tony Parker—he entered the NBA mentally and emotionally prepared for the challenges that awaited.

Obviously, at this point, there’s no guarantee that Ntilikina will amount to anything close to Parker. The Hall-of-Famer, after all, is one of the greatest international players in history.

But one of the major considerations for the Knicks must have been simply finding a piece that fits into what the organization is doing. And like it or not, Phil Jackson is still running the organization in the exact same way that the Knicks are running the triangle. It is what it is.

That being the case, drafting an explosive attack guard or a score-first shooting guard would have simply introduced more discord into a franchise that is laughably and embarrassingly at odds with its two best players in Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. So even if Monk or Smith ends up being a more prolific scorer in the long run, which is actually likely, neither would have fit into the triangle as well as Ntilikina will, and for Jackson, creating harmony within the organization needs to be a priority. That is one of the major keys to succeeding in the National Basketball Association.

That, and, of course, selecting talented players.

* * * * * *

Standing at the podium at Barclays Center, Commissioner Adam Silver stood before heartbroken Knicks fans, as the players that the franchise’s fans truly wanted came off the board, one-by-one.

And when Silver announced the newest member of the New York Knicks, a European player that made his way through the pre-draft process as still somewhat of an enigma, he was met with a ferocious chorus of boos.

This sounds an awful lot like what transpired last week when the Knicks selected Ntilikina with the eighth pick of the 2017 draft, but it’s easy to forget that this scene is precisely what unfolded with Kristaps Porzingis in 2015. Porzingis was famously the victim of ethnic profiling in a basketball sense. Appearing to be another in a long line of tall, smooth-shooting Europeans players, Porzingis was thought to be soft. He was labeled as being “years away” from contributing at the highest level. 

Two years later, he’s a unicorn.

The rise of Porzingis has been so dramatic that now, apparently, the Knicks can’t even entertain the possibility of trading him. Although the Knicks may still trade Porzingis, the purpose of pointing this out is simple—there is a real possibility that Ntilikina will become a great, great player. Criticizing Jackson and his regime for their mishandling of any number of situations or player personnel decisions is fair. But if fairness is a requirement, one has to give Jackson and his regime credit for both drafting Porzingis and for discovering Willy Hernangomez.

Hernangomez has already shown flashes of brilliance with his post moves and footwork and seems destined to join Pau and Marc Gasol as being excellent Spanish post players. The Knicks effectively selected Hernangomez with the 35th selection in the 2015 NBA Draft, acquiring the pick in a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He also happens to be signed to a team-friendly contract that will pay him a combined $3 million over the next two seasons.

Say what you want about Jackson, and feel free to point out the laundry list of things that have gone wrong during his tenure in New York—there are a great many to choose from. But, without question, Porzingis and Hernangomez are the things he has done right.

Ntilikina, at the very least, deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt in that regard. It’s okay to be optimistic about the young guard’s prospects until he proves himself to be a fluke on the basketball court.

Both Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow were both considered to be better prospects than Porzingis.

How’d that turn out?

* * * * * *

As Phil Jackson attempts to return the Knicks to respectability, to this point, he has failed in laying the most critical brick on the Knicks’ crumbling foundation. He has seemingly gone out of his way to destroy the harmony and common accord that existed within the organization prior to his arrival  

Fortunately, for Ntilikina and the Knicks, the drafting of the 19-year-old Belgian-born point guard could signify something that hasn’t been seen nearly enough over the course of Jackson’s tenure in New York City. With Ntilikina, the Knicks, finally, aren’t attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole.

If talent is all that matters when it comes to playing winning basketball, Kevin Durant wouldn’t have had to take his talents to Oakland to win a championship.

Success requires the intersection of immense talent and the proper system.

Either Smith or Monk would have checked the talent box, without question. But buying in on the system? The belief that it would have been a disaster waiting to happen absolutely had an impact on what the Knicks opted to do with Ntilikina.

Hardly strangers to controversy and infighting, for once, the New York Knicks have managed to dodge a punch. They got themselves an intriguing prospect who appears to be a perfect fit for what the organization has decided it is going to do.

In the end, believe it or not, the Knicks may have done something wise by selecting Frank Ntilikina; they have emerged from the draft with a talent that fits.

In the end, believe it or not, that may go a longer way toward building a winning culture than selecting the most explosive athlete or prolific scorer.

And believe it or not, in at least that instance, for the first time in a long time, the Knicks can call themselves winners. 

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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