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NBA Daily: The Knicks’ Point-Forward-In-Waiting

As the regular season inches closer, Drew Mays makes the case for the New York Knicks to play Julius Randle at point guard.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The New York Knicks struck out in free agency.

New York’s hopes were high again this summer – and again they were let down. Kevin Durant twisted the knife in the wound last week:

“I didn’t really do any deep, full analysis on the Knicks.” Then, even worse, continued and delivered the knockout blow: “It’s like the cool thing right now is not the Knicks.”

Some of the media’s opining that New York could land Durant or Irving or another star wound up as empty speculation — thus, the fanbase and their clamoring for stars will continue.

What made the Knicks’ offseason all the more puzzling wasn’t that they didn’t land a star, it was who they acquired in the aftermath.  It’s a strong collection of veterans that don’t inspire any future promises — but they do, in a weird way, give New York a slight chance of relevancy now.

While the NBA zigs to small ball, the Knicks zagged, albeit not in a way that raises hope, like the moves in Philadelphia.

But for the first time in a handful of years, New York has something here, that’s for sure. And the way to best maximize whatever this new-look squad has is to play Julius Randle at point guard.

Seriously.

The point guard battle in New York is currently comprised of three players: Elfrid Payton, the non-frontcourt addition to the New York roster, Dennis Smith Jr., the still-intriguing 21-year-old, and Frank Ntilikina, the much-criticized 21-year-old.

Payton is a middling player who has been more placeholder than foundation over the last few seasons. His inability to shoot — a career 30 percent three-point shooter on 1.7 attempts per 36 minutes — is a large part of that; however, he’s maintained a steady 8.0 assists per 36 minutes over his career. That’s impressive, especially considering the teams of which he’s been part.

Smith and Ntilikina are uber-talented, but equally as inconsistent. The former was sent to the Knicks after overstaying his welcome in Dallas, while the latter may be overstaying his welcome in New York, an encouraging FIBA performance notwithstanding.

Playing Randle at point mitigates many of these issues. Payton’s lack of jumper inhibits his game; Randle, a 250-pound bowling ball, doesn’t need a jump shot to be a capable scorer. Defenses can’t sag off of him as they can Payton – standing off only gives him a running start. Randle going downhill can spin into layups and bully into half-hooks and scoop shots. He’s even flashed Draymond Green’s four-on-three playmaking ability in spurts. Better, his floater is too good for defenders to wait for his arrival.

More importantly, Randle as a playmaker lowers pressure on both Smith and Ntilikina. Point guard is the most competitive and toughest position to learn in the NBA — that in itself is a reason for Smith and Ntilikina’s struggles. With Randle shouldering more ballhandling responsibility, the two have less to worry about. Before the Porzingis trade, the fit of Smith next to Doncic in Dallas was intriguing because it allowed Smith to use his athleticism and aggressiveness off the ball. Randle as a ballhandler reaches the same goals.

Ntilikina now ideally owns an improved jumper – his looks will be easier and the up-and-comer can be more prepared for them when he isn’t worried about actually playing point guard.

Both of these positives also hold true for The Great New York Hope, R.J. Barrett. Barrett is a skilled offensive player, a scorer who played point guard out of necessity at times for Duke last year. Extremely talented, he struggled with turnovers, forcing plays that weren’t there and shooting when he should’ve passed.

What helps all of those things? That’s right: Offloading playmaking responsibility onto Randle. Barrett can then develop his passing ability as he maintains his one-track scoring mentality without torpedoing the offense. As the Knicks’ most significant perimeter threat, he’s likely to have a huge role with the ball anyway — so why not make it easier on him?

Perhaps the two most commanding reasons for inserting Randle at the point are that he’s New York’s best player and they have nothing to lose.

Ideally, if you’re striving for wins and not ping-pong balls, your best player should spend the most time with the ball. Randle is the Knicks’ best player and the only surefire guy that would log minutes on a competitive team. Every bit of usage that head coach David Fizdale gets out of Randle over Ignas Brazdeikis is a good thing.

It would also cause matchup problems for opposing defenses, without having to alter expected rotations – all three of the guards in the point guard battle will get minutes, so Randle doesn’t even have to play the position full-time. Randle and Payton in the backcourt would force opposing teams to contemplate matching size; Randle with Ntilikina would give the Knicks a chance defensively, whereas Randle and Smith could be surrounded with whatever the best shooting lineup ends up being to mask inequities.

Really, the 2019-20 version of the Knicks may be best served by playing a throwback style. Marcus Morris was suspended after one preseason game for hitting Washington’s Justin Anderson in the head with the basketball. The bully-ball approach Morris advocates would muck up the game and give the less-talented Knicks more chances to win. Of course, these methods are also more apt to succeed with bigger lineups — obviously, bigger lineups will naturally surface if Randle is playing the point.

Over 311 career games, Randle has averaged 3.4 assists per 36 minutes. But per Cleaning the Glass, his assist percentage has been in the 85th percentile or better over three of his four seasons. Those assist numbers were affected by playing with the Kobe farewell tour, D’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams, Lonzo Ball in Los Angeles and Jrue Holiday in New Orleans.

He’s never had the chance to make plays on a consistent, full-time basis. The opportunity is there now.

On a randomly-constructed and weirdly-passable Knicks team, why not see what he can do?

Drew Mays is a basketball writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find him on Twitter @dmays0

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