Insider Info: The Future of the Knicks’ Young Core

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If it still hasn’t sunk in just yet, it bears repeating: the New York Knicks are making their first trip to the NBA Playoffs since 2012-13.

Naturally, it’s understandable that most Knicks-centered articles are examining their ceiling this season. Alas, according to Kanye West, the present is the past – so, like Yeezy, we’re looking ahead.

Currently, the New York roster features seven players that are 23 years old or younger. Given that the franchise will look to grow on its current, unpredicted successes, and possibly bring in help via free agency, all of the team’s up-and-comers will have to improve to maintain a spot in next season’s rotation.

But all prospects aren’t created equally. Rookies have longer leashes and the sample size is still low, so we’ll leave Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley out of this discussion for now – while Jared Harper has appeared in just 16 minutes all season, meaning more information is needed to provide an accurate assessment.

That leaves us with four contributors to assess and we’ll do just that. With the help of well-known skills trainer David Zenon, the following capsules identify areas of improvement, recent growth and what they must accomplish to keep pushing alongside the Knicks’ budding core.

Frank Ntilikina

22 years old, 4th season

Entering the 2020-21 season, Ntilikina’s Knicks’ career could be described as consistently inconsistent. Strangely, this season has been worse.

Ntilikina received a career-low 9.8 minutes per game, shooting a career-low 19 percent on two-point field goal attempts and notching a career-low 2.7 points. This all came while playing for head coach Tom Thibodeau, whose penchant for defense led many to believe the veteran leader could get maximum production from the strong-willed guard.

But Ntilikina never received a serious look – Quickley hit the ground running; Austin Rivers, Elfrid Payton and RJ Barrett ate up most of the remaining minutes; and Derrick Rose’s arrival eventually sealed the rotation up.

In that limited action, however, Ntilikina demonstrated an improved jump shot, giving supporters hope that he can still turn a corner. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, his struggles have been about more than just shooting.

Ntilikina’s decision-making has been problematic. Yes, he’s been good in catch-and-shoot opportunities this season, but he’ll have to improve dramatically to secure a spot as a reliable 3-and-D contributor. He must also become a threat off the dribble as, currently, Ntilikina shies away from taking the ball to the hoop at all –shockingly, the guard has attempted just three attempts at the time all season.

Still, Ntilikina’s potential makes him somebody that Zenon wants to begin training with:

“The consistency in terms of his footwork and shot [is lacking]. And his release point, ” Zenon said. “This is year four, so it’s frustrating to see him [continue to struggle].”

The three things I ask people about Frank: is his footwork the same? Is his release point the same? And are his hands the same when he loads up with his shot?” Zenon continued.

Sometimes, he’ll turn his guide hand and at other times it’s not the same motion. It could be that he’s overthinking or it could be how defenses play him.”

Zenon would also like to see Ntilikina become more decisive off the dribble:

“When teams run you off the line, ice you, hedge you, opponents might force you to your off-hand. Are you comfortable going downhill with your left? Because I don’t see it.”

At best, Ntilikina will face stiff competition. Rose could possibly find his way back to the team, a long-time disciple of Thibodeau. Quickley and Barrett will receive serious minutes as assumed franchise cornerstones too. Hell, the Knicks have already signed Argentinian guard Luca Vildoza, a former MVP overseas.

Ntilikina could cement a role in that group too, but it’s fast becoming an uphill battle. If he doesn’t improve soon, he’s probably out of time in New York.

Kevin Knox II

21 years old, 3rd season

Knox will probably return next season since he’ll still be on a rookie deal – unless he’s involved in a trade – but after a disappointing season in which he averaged career-lows in points (3.9), rebounds (1.5), assists (0.5) and minutes (11.0), he’ll have a lot to prove.

Knox frustrated the coaching staff and fans alike with his low motor. Still, Zenon still has hope, all inspired by Knox’s shooting improvements.

“He was turning the ball, so it was sitting in the palm of his shooting hand last season,” Zenon explained. “Then he started turning his hips, developing some other bad habits.”

This year, he’s done the opposite,” Zenon said. “Straight up, straight down. The problem is that the rest of the roster has been phenomenal, so it’s hard to break back into the rotation.”

And breaking into the rotation will continue to be a problem, even if Knox improves again this offseason.

Knox solved his Sophomore shooting woes, but he still needs to get to the hoop more decisively, rebound the ball better and become a more engaged and willing defender.

Above all, Knox must have a greater impact while in the game. His impact has been non-existent for too long, something that will not fly with Thibodeau. Yet he possesses important, modern skills – he’s big, long and he shoots it from deep.

Gone are the days of hoping that Knox grows into a star (or even a starter) – perhaps he can still be productive off the bench. Knox might not have the ball in his hands, but there are plenty of other ways to impact the game.

In any case, the onus is on Knox to figure out how best to do so.

RJ Barrett

20 years old, 2nd season

Of the five Knicks profiled here, Barrett is in the best shape. After playing only a portion of his rookie season due to the COVID-19 play stoppage, he’s made serious improvements.

Barrett’s jump shot is significantly better as he shot 48 percent on three-point attempts through the month of April and 45.5 in May alone. The Canadian also played with more poise this season and helped anchor the league’s fourth-rated defense (108.97) – which featured only one ‘elite’ stopper for most of the year, Nerlens Noel.

In short, his role with the team is pretty set. Barring a star signing, Barrett should come in as the Knicks’ second option next season.

“I know RJ personally, he’s very competitive,” Zenon said. “Since he’s been at Duke, he’s been a perfectionist. He knew he had to work on his jumper before he came into the league. If you don’t see it by now, you won’t see it.”

It speaks to the player development system in New York,” Zenon continued. “From everything I’ve heard from players around the league and with the team, it’s phenomenal.”

But it’s also personality. That’s a locker room full of dogs, and it’s going to help RJ develop year-to-year, adding to his game.”

Barrett’s off-season program is probably locked in as well. The top prospect is a willing driver, but he’ll have to improve his execution. Right now, he lacks an elite leaping ability, resulting in blocks or misses at the rim. Furthermore, Barrett should also look to add a step-back jump shot, which would make him even harder to guard.

“I’ve heard that ‘RJ needs to get stronger or finish better’. Until you see him, you don’t realize how big he is,” Zenon said. “RJ is wide, he’s got a good core, thick legs. And remember, he didn’t play a full season last year.

This season, he’s had to learn a new system. Derrick (Rose) joined, which was an adjustment. He hasn’t had to focus on driving to the rim as much, so he’s done a great job of shooting from the corners [which is what he’s been asked to do].”

Year three will be even better,” Zenon explained. “I always say, year three is when you make the jump. And it’s when you have to show that you’re established offensively and defensively. If he’s going to be the type of player I know he’ll be, he’ll come back better next season, and he’ll finish better at the rim.”

Mitchell Robinson

23 years old, 3rd season

Robinson was once seen as the only member of the Knicks worth building around. Oh, how one season can change a narrative.

When he’s played, the center’s impact is undeniable. Over his three-year career, Robinson has averaged 8.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Of course, he also set an NBA record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%).

Historically, Robinson has struggled to stay on the floor, getting in foul trouble through mostly silly plays (e.g., not remaining vertical on shot attempts). Still, he made incredible strides in his defensive decision-making this season.

Through 31 games, Robinson got the tally down to 2.8 fouls per game over 27.5 minutes of action. For context, Robinson averaged 3.3 fouls in 20.6 minutes per game during his rookie season and 3.2 in 23.6 in 2019-20.

Robinson’s impact is profound on the defensive end. Offensively, though, there is room to grow.

The 7-footer is an incredible rim runner and he’s among the best alley-oop targets in the league – beyond that, he’s limited.

Robinson leaked a number of long-range shooting videos last year but he’s yet to demonstrate that ability in games. Granted, he’s been hamstrung by coaching changes throughout his career, now on his third coach in three seasons. The limited timelines with each coach have probably hurt his opportunities to stretch an offensive repertoire.

With Thibodeau returning next year, Robinson can begin making his case. There are plenty of examples of bigs adding a shot later in their career (Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol) and having a center that stretches the floor clearly benefits an offense.

Zenon, who regularly works with Robinson, believes that a jump shot is in his client’s future.

“First of all, he’s a great person,” Zenon said. “He’ll listen to the coach and understand the game plan.”

Thibs is doing a great job,” Zenon explained. “No one wants to step on toes. Eventually, Mitch will break out the jumper, but it’s not his time yet. Ultimately, the team is winning – and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

For the first time in a long time, the Knicks have serious upside. They’ll have options to infuse their current roster with talent this offseason, but much of their improvement will probably come from their relatively young core continuing to mature.

While that’s great news for the team and its fans, some players will be on the outside looking in. Sure, everyone could improve enough to secure a role moving forward – but if history is any indication, a few of the above-mentioned players won’t.

For now, it’s just time to enjoy the long-awaited postseason return in New York.

David Zenon is a skills trainer with a special focus on shooting. His first basketball-related job was with the Westchester Knicks – but he currently works with 14 NBA players including Serge Ibaka, Mitchell Robinson, Mason Plumlee and Ignas Brazdeikis.