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NBA Daily: Knicks Youth Movement Is In Full Effect

Will the French Prince, Super Mario and Skinny Shaq affect change in New York? Drew Maresca dives into the future of the Knicks.

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The Knicks are among the most polarizing teams in the NBA. They reside in the country’s biggest market, and their fans regularly see the world through rose-colored glasses, but the team seems unable to avoid controversy.  Over the years, the team has been involved in scandals and negative news coverage – from Isiah Thomas to Phil Jackson and everything in between.

Yet, the tide seems to be turning for the Knicks. The organization’s management team seems to be making sound decisions based on logic and rationale – a rarity as of late in New York.  The team has built a young and talented roster predicated on upside, which boasts seven lottery picks selected between 2013 and 2018.

Organizations must build teams that not only compete, but engage the fans and give them hope that the team will continue to improve. While we all know that young players rarely reach their full potential, a team with a good amount of young talent is more entertaining than team of predictable veterans – and for good reason.

If a young team’s talent materializes as expected, you’re often times dealing with a contender. Unfortunately, and far too often, players don’t mature as expected. In some instances, teams give up on players a year or two too soon and trade away stars-to-be. Injuries also play a role in untapped potential.

The Knicks are approaching that inflection point. They spent the past two off-seasons collecting young, and sometimes discarded, players. With Kristaps Porzingis out until at least Christmas (although likely longer), this is the season to determine what they have. Specifically, three players should be of particular interest to the Knicks front office: Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson and Mario Hezonja.

Prior to this past NBA Draft, Ntilikina was the most recent youngster with the weight of New York on his shoulders. He enters the 2018-19 season having grown to 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, up one inch inch approximately 10 pounds. The guard should take nicely to head coach David Fizdale’s positionless philosophy considering his size, defensive versatility and instincts. The knock on Ntilikina last season was that it seemed as though he was thinking instead of reacting on the offensive end of the court. More than any one skill, he needed to develop confidence in himself and his decision-making.

With that being said, Ntilikina played with much more confidence this summer. According to ESPN’s Ian Begley, Knicks rookie Kevin Knox said Ntilikina instinctively attacked the pick and roll during offseason pickup games. This news is welcome to the Knicks organization, who certainly need Ntilikina to develop into a playmaker.

Ntilikina is well aware of the criticisms leveled against him. He says he plans to shoot the ball without hesitation when left open this year. If Ntilikina can put pressure on opposing defenses, be it by driving on pick and rolls or spot-up shooting, he becomes exponentially more versatile. That, in conjunction with his defensive abilities, makes him all the more valuable, especially considering he can now play three or four positions– a ridiculous versatility considering he was drafted as a point guard.

The popularity of second-round picks has grown over the past decade or so. There was a time when they were an afterthought. Now, fans and front offices alike are hopeful that their second-round pick will grow into the next Draymond Green or Manu Ginobili. But remember, there is a reason that players slip into the second round. It does not mean they aren’t talented. It usually means that there are question marks around a player’s physical or mental health, work ethic or other factors at hand.

Cue Mitchell Robinson. Robinson is an unusual case in that there was a limited amount of information about him entering the 2018 NBA Draft. Robinson exited high school in 2017 as the No. 11 ranked player in ESPN’s top 100, ironically just one spot behind Knox. But his draft stock was badly affected by his decision to unenroll from Western Kentucky, thus limiting his visibility with NBA scouts. It was further hurt by his representation’s decision to pull him from the combine – a major impetus for the firing of his agent and signing with John Spencer. Still, when the Knicks selected him with the thirty-sixth overall pick – the hype immediately began to mount.

First came the summer league. Robinson averaged four blocks and a steal to go along with his 13 points and 10.2 rebounds per contest. Trey Burke recently added fuel to the fire at media day, comparing Robinson’s athleticism and explosiveness to a younger, skinner Shaquille O’Neal. While those are big shoes to fill for any rookie, it speaks volumes that Burke thinks so highly of Robinson’s talent. And while Burke wouldn’t be the first NBA player to incorrectly gauge a teammate’s abilities, the comparison speaks to how Robinson’s impact is being felt.

Will Robinson make an impact immediately? Probably not consistently. But his upside is enough to make Knicks fans look to the future with excitement. If he can tap into his potential, he could grow into a player similar in nature to DeAndre Jordan or Clint Capela. That kind of a player can most certainly contribute to the success of the Knicks now and into the future.

Last, but not least, we have the rehabilitation project: Mario Hezonja. Hezonja was drafted fifth overall by then-assistant Orlando Magic general manager Scott Perry, just one spot behind Knicks All-Star Kristaps Porzingis. The young Crotian came to the NBA with such high expectation that some felt he, not Porzingis, was the right pick for the Knicks in 2015.

Perry, now the New York GM, was bullish on the prospect of bringing Hezonja to New York given their relationship and history. Greg Logan of Newsday reports that Perry still believes in Hezonja’s potential – as he should. Hezonja hasn’t put it together consistently enough to warrant much praise, but he’s shown flashes of both his shooting ability as well as his explosiveness, which are the reasons why he was viewed so favorably as a top prospect.

Hezonja can hit shots consistently, but he is also a fearless penetrator who can initiate offense for others in the pick and roll and finish strongly over defenders. He has many of the skills needed to succeed in the NBA. A change of scenery could be exactly what Hezonja needs to succeed.

And in addition to his potential, Hezonja seems happy to mentor the younger Knicks, especially Ntilikina. He singled Ntilikina out at media day, alluding to the fact that he will gladly show the 19-year old the ropes (and pitfalls) of NBA life. Hezonja sounds like a well-adjust veteran, despite being only 23 years old. He seems genuinely excited to be in New York and appears totally bought in to the culture Fizdale has already implemented. It’s early yet, but the Hezonja-Knicks marriage could be a good long-term fit.

While the abundance of youth doesn’t lead to much optimism pertaining to the Knicks’ success this season, it certainly speaks to their potential. The Knicks have the aforementioned high-upside guys on the roster, along with others like the highly-touted Knox, Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay and Alonzo Trier. The Knicks are finally on the right track to team building. Gone are the days of chasing (and missing on) free agent additions. The team has learned from its mistakes and now seems to understand the impact that future picks and recycled first-rounders can have.

While it has been challenging to ramp up for the rebuild, the next step is no easier – which is to identify keepers on a roster full of young and talented players. But regardless of how difficult the process is, the organization and its fans should feel optimistic about the future and confident that New York has the right pieces in place.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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