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NBA Sunday: There’s Reason To Be Excited About The Knicks

As usual, the noise had ceased. The tense silence was eventually broken after what seemed to be an eternity for Knicks fans.

As Commissioner David Stern announced that the club had selected Danilo Gallinari with the sixth overall pick of the 2008 NBA Draft, Gallinari’s selection was met with a mixture of cheers and boos. Although Gallinari would eventually find himself as the centerpiece of the assets that the Knicks sent out in exchange for Carmelo Anthony, what remains incredible about his selection was that he and Jordan Hill (selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2009 draft) represent the last time that the Knicks exercised their own first round draft picks in consecutive years.

The Knicks’ own 2010 draft pick was traded away six years earlier in the deal that brought Stephon Marbury to New York City. The pick would eventually vest as the ninth overall and ended up in Utah. It was used to draft Gordon Hayward.

The club’s 2012 first round draft pick was traded to the Houston Rockets two years prior. The Knicks sent Jared Jeffries and Jordan Hill to the Rockets in what amounted to a salary dump. The club sought to clear cap space for LeBron James, but eventually used the space to sign Amar’e Stoudemire. The 2012 pick would eventually vest as 16th and would be used to draft Royce White.

The Knicks also traded their own 2014 pick as well as the right to swap 2016 first round picks to the Denver Nuggets in the Carmelo Anthony trade. Although they received the Nuggets’ first round pick in the exchange, they would eventually jettison the rights to that 2016 first round pick to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Andrea Bargnani. The 2014 and 2016 picks were used to draft Dario Saric and Jamal Murray, respectively.

In other words, over the past decade, the Knicks have traded their own first round draft picks as often as permitted. They’ve qualified for the playoffs three times during that span and have won one playoff series.

Fortunately, it appears that the club’s thinking has changed, and Frank Ntilikina may be an indicator of such.

With the New York Knicks set to begin preseason play on Tuesday, the 2017-18 NBA season immediately comes to mind as being one of the few in recent years where fans of the team aren’t expecting very much. The Knicks are a team consisting almost exclusively of young players whose true potential remains somewhat unknown, and the team owns the rights to not only its own first round pick in 2018, but, by virtue of the Carmelo Anthony trade, the rights to the second round pick of the Chicago Bulls.

For the first time in a long time, the Knicks will field a roster that only needs to play hard, play together and show signs of improvement to make patrons of the orange and blue feel as though they’re gotten their money worth.

In the middle of it all, though, stands Frank Ntilikina—one of the more intriguing guards in this year’s rookie class.

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“The one thing that is probably the ultimate sign that you’re good enough to play in this league is when you’re gaining the respect of your veteran players on your team,” Jeff Hornacek was quoted as saying by the New York Post after the club finished practice on Saturday.

“The guys are already talking about him and the plays that he’s making. When you have the respect of those older guys, you’re doing something right.”

From the time he was drafted, Ntilikina has been a topic of discussion. Through the course of last season, when the Knicks were turning in one of the more disappointing seasons in recent memory, the lottery pick that awaited the club was the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Some followers of the team hoped that the club would hit the jackpot and end up with either Lonzo Ball or De’Aaron Fox, while others set their hopes on more realistic targets in Dennis Smith, Jr. and Malik Monk.

That Ntilikina was selected while both Smith and Monk were on the board was met with immediate scrutiny. The Frenchman, after all, wouldn’t be the first European player to be selected ahead of superior homegrown basketball talent. With his incredible physical tools and professional resume, the selection of Ntilikina was viewed by many as another swing for the fences. Rather than select a player like Monk or Smith—moves that could have been considered safe and conservative—the Knicks opted to go for it all.

In short order, the masses will find out if the rookie is indeed a home run or just a pop fly.

Amazingly enough, more than three months after being selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Ntilikina is still an enigma. Most fans haven’t seen him play, and most of the team’s competition probably has trouble pronouncing his last name.

Still, to this point, everyone that has been around the Frenchman has had nothing but positive praise for the rookie and nothing but lofty expectations.

“I think the surprising thing for me as a coach is how knowledgeable he is about the game, and how he reads things,” Hornacek said, according to the Post.

“Coming in, you saw some of his raw talent, you saw his length on tape, but when you’re here every day watching him play, seeing the plays that he makes, finding the mismatches and getting the ball to that guy quickly… It’s just natural. Not many guys have that. That’s what’s been impressive.”

As it stands, the Knicks have four point guards on the roster that are competing for rotation minutes. Along with Ntilikina, this past offseason, the Knicks re-signed Ron Baker to a two-year, $9 million contract. Baker won favor last season with the front office and fans alike, so the extent to which minutes are invested in his development will certainly be a storyline to follow.

The Knicks also signed two veteran point guards in Ramon Sessions and Jarrett Jack. Sessions and Jack have each been fairly transient over the course of their careers, but each brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to New York and, without question, each has a vested interest in helping Ntilikina adjust to life in the Association.

Based on what has been seen and said of the rookie, he is the favorite to win the starting job, though all coach Hornacek would go on record as saying recently was that he would be a part of the “heathy competition” for the job.

Still, as the preseason tips off, it’s important to understand that this season, these Knicks are beginning play with no expectations and no proclamations of being great or being a playoff team. The opportunity for a young team to play free, without egos, without the distraction of any superstars in their contract years (Derrick Rose) or ones who seem out of place on the current squad (Carmelo Anthony), allows the club to actually focus on basketball.

Where the Knicks end up, of course, will depend on how Kristaps Porzingis is able to adapt to life as a go-to guy, as well as the extent to which his body can hold up to the rigors of an 82-game regular season. To a lesser extent, the immediate fortunes of the club will also depend on the progression of Willy Hernangomez, Doug McDermott, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and the seldom-discussed rookie Damyean Dotson.

Among the team’s new nucleus, though, is the 19-year-old, 6-foot-5 point guard with the basketball IQ of a true floor general and the wingspan of a small forward.

Even without Carmelo Anthony and even without lofty expectations, if you’re a fan of the New York Knicks, based on what we’ve seen and heard about Ntilikina, there’s reason to be excited. And in short order, we’ll begin to see whether or not he truly is a diamond in the rough, and just how brightly he shines.

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