The New York Knicks looked like a dumpster fire two summers ago and after some savvy moves in the draft and the hiring of David Fizdale as head coach the Knicks not only look like a team on the rise, they might be one of the teams to watch this season as a sneaky play for the post-season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
For all of the criticism I have given the New York Knicks in the past, I must admit that I like a lot of the moves they made this summer. I think bringing in David Fizdale is going to make a big-time difference on the court and in the locker room for this team. New York also did well in adding on players that have actual upside without compromising its cap flexibility moving forward. New York signed Mario Hezonja to a one-year, $6.5 million contract and signed Noah Vonleh to a non-guaranteed one-year, $1,621,415 contract. I like that New York is taking a chance on young players who haven’t fulfilled expectations but still have the chance to develop and contribute. I also liked the drafting of Kevin Knox, who projects to be a very good player. With all of this in mind, New York has its eye primarily on the recovery of Kristaps Porzingis and next offseason. There are rumors that New York could land some big-time free agents next year, so making a good showing on the court this year will be particularly important.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Am I dreaming, or did the Knicks actually play it smart this summer? They uncharacteristically made wise decisions this summer, such as drafting Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. Nobody said the Knicks couldn’t draft but adding young prospects like Mario Hezonja and Noah Vonleh for cheap? Those were smart, not typical Knicks moves. Now, pending any surprises, they won’t see much success this year with Kristaps Porzingis out indefinitely. The upshot is that if this summer is a sign of things to come, then the Knicks are taking that first step towards relevance.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Matt John
Team culture is what it’ll be all about for David Fizdale and the Knicks this coming season. While Kristaps Porzingis rehabs and hopefully returns from his knee injury, others will need to help fill the void. Rookie players Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson are going to inject some much-needed new life into this franchise. Mario Hezonja was a sneaky good signing by general manager Scott Perry as well. Besides those guys, New York would love to see Tim Hardaway Jr. build and improve on last year’s numbers, especially upping that three-point percentage. This ball club is in for a dogfight being in the Atlantic, though.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
In one sense, it feels like the Knicks might finally be lifting themselves up out of the purgatory that was the Carmelo Anthony/Phil Jackson ending. Kristaps Porzingis represents a foundational star the franchise hasn’t had in years, and there’s plenty of optimism about draftees Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. Add in a surprising resurgence from Trey Burke, some strong rookie stretches from Frank Ntilikina and a new head coach in David Fizdale, and there are some real reasons for optimism in the Big Apple. At the same time, though, Porzingis’ torn ACL makes one realize just how thin this current roster is after him; someone like Burke or Tim Hardaway Jr. might legitimately be the star of this unicorn-less squad. The Knicks don’t expect Porzingis back until at least December, likely longer, and they’ll be one of the worst teams in the league until that point. One even wonders whether the priority with Porzingis should be complete, 100 percent health rather than rushing back to add a few wins that almost certainly won’t equal a playoff berth.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Ben Dowsett
The Knicks look like a team that could surprise the pundits and sneak into in the post-season – if Kristaps Porzingis can make a quicker than expected recovery. Keep in mind ACL tears are not what they used to be and while no one wants to risk anything long-term with KP, there is a window in all of this that suggests if KP is back by the end of December, the Knicks might have enough talent to be a 35-40 win team. That kind of production would put the Knicks squarely in the hunt for the 8th seed in the East, which would be a solid season.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Kristaps Porzingis would obviously get the nod here if he were healthy, but KP tore his left ACL last February and is expected to miss at least the first three months of the 2018-19 campaign. In Porzingis’ absence, much of the scoring load will fall onto the shoulders of Hardaway Jr. The Knicks have a lot invested in THJ, as they doled out a four-year, $71 million contract to Hardaway Jr. in July of 2017. Last season, he averaged 17.5 points per game, but was disappointingly inefficient. He shot just 42.1 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from 3-point territory. If he can bump up those percentages closer to his 2016-17 levels (45.5 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from downtown), his scoring average could climb close to 20 points per contest. With limited offensive firepower on the roster, the Knicks need him to step up.
Top Defensive Player: Frank Ntilikina
Despite entering the league as a teenager last season, Ntilikina quickly established himself a terrific perimeter defender. The French Prince uses his height (6-foot-5) and length (seven-foot wingspan) to terrorize opponents as they cross halfcourt. His size and athleticism allow Ntilikina to guard multiple positions, from points guards to small forwards. His Defensive Rating (104.9) was best among Knicks regulars in 2017-18. If Frank can take his defense to the next level, he may have a chance to earn some consideration as an All-NBA defender in 2018-19.
Top Playmaker: Trey Burke
Burke is one of the more intriguing players on the Knicks roster heading into the 2018-19 campaign. Despite being selected with the ninth overall pick by the Jazz in the 2013 NBA draft, Burke had fallen off the NBA radar by the end of 2017. With no team offering guaranteed money, he was forced to settle for a G-League contract with New York. Burke rededicated himself and averaged 26.6 points and 5.3 assists per game for the Westchester Knicks. He was finally called up in mid-January and posted impressive numbers right away. He eventually worked his way into the starting lineup by March and started the final nine games of the regular season, averaging an impressive 18.7 points, 7.7 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 1.2 steals and just 1.9 turnovers. Can Burke come close to matching that type of production again next season? We shall see.
Top Clutch Player: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Until Porzingis gets back in the mix, the Knicks will likely have to lean on Hardaway Jr. late in games. Unfortunately for New York, THJ has historically been a bit too reliant on his sometimes unreliable jumper. The Knicks need to encourage him to attack the basket more frequently and get himself to the free-throw stripe, especially in late-game situations.
The Unheralded Player: Courtney Lee
Looking at Lee’s final stat line from last season doesn’t tell the whole story. After the Knicks fell out of contention after the All-Star break, New York significantly reduced his playing time and opted to see what their younger players could bring to the table. However, when receiving consistent minutes over the first half of the season, Lee proved he was still a valuable 3-and-D wing. Over the first 60 games of the season, Lee led New York in total points, made 3-pointers, steals, minutes played and ranked third in rebounds. He is a bit misplaced on a rebuilding squad featuring a pair of teenagers, but talent evaluators around the NBA respect what he can bring to a competitive “win now” team. With two years and $25 million left on his current contract, the Knicks will likely look to move him by the February trade deadline in order to create the most cap space possible for the summer of 2019.
Best New Addition: Kevin Knox
When the Knicks selected Knox with the 9th overall pick in the 2018 draft, most pundits assumed it would take a while before he acclimated himself to the NBA game. At just 18 years of age, he was one of the youngest players in the entire draft and was inefficient offensively as a freshman at Kentucky. However, Knox was spectacular during Las Vegas Summer League action. He was named to the Summer League’s All-NBA First Team after averaging 21.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.5 three-pointers and one steal in 32.2 minutes.
– Tommy Beer
WHO WE LIKE
1. Kristaps Porzingis
It’s tough not to like Porzingis. At the start of last season, he showed that he has the potential to be one of the more dominant two-way players in the entire sport. Over New York’s first 12 games in 2017-18, he averaged 30.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 three-pointers and 2.3 blocks. In the process, he became the first Knickerbocker in franchise history to score at least 300 points over the first ten games of a season. If he can return healthy, his upside is enormous.
2. David Fizdale
Fizdale was one of the hot free-agent coaching commodities on the market this summer. He interviewed for numerous teams and was offered the Suns head coaching gig, but said it was a dream of his to coach in New York. He won’t have much pressure on him next season in terms of wins and losses, but he will be tasked with developing the Knicks young core. With Knox, Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson all 20 years of age or younger, it’s imperative that New York’s coaching staff puts these youngsters on the path to maximizing their full potential.
3. Mario Hezonja
Scott Perry, the Orlando Magic vice president and assistant general manager in 2015, and the Magic were reportedly hoping to land Porzingis with the 5th pick in the draft. However, Phil Jackson and the Knicks snagged KP at No. 4 and Orlando selected Hezonja. Super Mario did not live up to expectations over his first two years in Florida. As a result, the Magic decided to decline hia fourth-year option on his rookie contract last October. However, due to a rash of injuries to Magic forwards, Mario was given extended opportunities to play and he made the most of it. He started 30 games last season and averaged 14.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.8 three-pointers and 1.5 steals, while shooting 46. percent from the floor. With Porzingis sidelined, there will plenty of minutes and shot attempts up for grabs, especially at power forward. Hezonja has a chance to step in and step up.
4. Mitchell Robinson
Like Knox, not much was expected of Robinson this season. After a stellar high school career, Robinson mysteriously sat out his freshman season on the collegiate level, choosing instead to prepare for the draft by working with an individual trainer. As a result, he slipped into the second round, where the Knicks scooped him up. Like Knox, he greatly exceeded expectations in Las Vegas. Robinson averaged 13.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, one steal and (a record-breaking) four blocks per game, while shooting a scorching 66.7 percent from the field.
– Tommy Beer
When a team finishes a season ranked 24th in offensive efficiency (scoring 104.1 points per 100 possessions) and 23rd in defensive efficiency (allowing 108.4 points per 100 possessions) as the Knicks did in 2017-18, it’s difficult to pinpoint many strengths. However, for the first time in a long time, New Yorkers have reason to be optimistic about the future. It looks like the Knicks may have nailed both their 2018 draft picks. Their 2017 lottery selection, Frank Ntilikina, is only 19 has flashed elite defensive potential. And New York will likely have enough cap space next summer to make a max offer to the top free agents on the market. While the short-term outlook is somewhat bleak, the Knicks should be a fun team to watch next season and could be markedly better by 2020.
– Tommy Beer
Ever since Phil Jackson was hired as president back in 2014 and “encouraged” the head coaches he hired to run the Triangle Offense, the Knicks have been far too reliant on mid-range jumpers. Last season, even though Jackson had already been fired, former head coach Jeff Hornacek failed to fix this flaw. In 2017-18, 62.1 percent of the total points the Knicks scored came off 2-point field goals, which was the highest such percentage among all NBA teams. In addition, 73.4 percent of all New York’s field-goal attempts were 2-pointers. In today’s NBA, the 3-point shot is more important and valuable than ever, yet the Knicks have been behind the times. One of the reasons David Fizdale was hired was that he has shown an ability to get his teams to take and make shots from downtown.
– Tommy Beer
THE BURNING QUESTION
When will Kristaps Porzingis return to the Knicks lineup?
As noted above, KP is working his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee. The typical recovery time for NBA players is usually 10-12 months. There have been some rumors from Porzingis’ camp that he is targeting a return around Christmas. However, that may be overly optimistic. It’s probably safe to assume that New York won’t be competitive this season. They had the second-worst record in the NBA over the last 50 games of the 2017-18 season. Vegas sports books have set their 2018-19 win total over/under at 29. They also have a very unfavorable schedule early on. With Porzingis sidelined for at least the first two months, they will likely be well under .500 by the time he is close to being cleared. At that point, why would there be a need to rush him back into action? It would be prudent to wait until he is as close to 100 percent as possible. In addition to extra patience likely being best for Porzingis, it could benefit the Knicks as well by increasing their odds of landing a high lottery pick next summer. Having KP return after the All-Star break makes sense for all concerned. This way Porzingis still gets two months to show he is healthy, which is important for his confidence heading into the offseason, and also serves as proof to potential free agents that KP is ready to reclaim his spot as an elite NBA player.
– Tommy Beer
NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard
The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.
At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.
Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.
The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.
He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.
“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.
Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.
“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”
There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.
Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.
Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”
Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.
Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.
But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.
There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.
But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.
“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”
But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.
More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.
“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.
He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.
NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up
Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.
When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.
This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.
Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.
“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”
The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!
Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.
“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”
No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.
“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.
After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.
Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.
Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.
“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”
Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.
Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.
In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.
To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.
“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”
The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.
“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”
NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards
Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.
From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.
Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.
He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.
Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.
And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.
Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.
“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”
But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.
“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”
Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.
“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”
And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.
While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.
“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”
To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.
Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.
“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”
If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.
Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.