With more than three weeks of training camp and four preseason games in the books, there is a decent sample size from which we can make some snap reactions. Thus, let’s discuss a few New York Knicks players who have seen their stock rise and some who have seen their stock dip.
Guillermo “Willy” Hernangomez:
Hernangomez, who was acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers on draft day last June after being selected No. 35, has been New York’s most pleasant surprise during training camp and into the preseason. It was assumed Willy would be stashed in Europe for a season or two before the Knicks would consider bringing him over. However, he played better than expected in Spain last year and was eager to get his NBA career started, signing a four-year deal with the Knicks this summer. He has unexpectedly received plenty of preseason minutes due in large part to an injury to starting center Joakim Noah. Hernangomez has greatly exceeded expectations thus far, leading New York in rebounding (5.5 boards per game) and also chipping in 7.5 points per game. His per-36-minutes stats are an impressive 13.8 points and 10.2 rebounds.
However, it’s not just the stats that are turning heads. Watching Hernangomez, his high basketball IQ and innate feel for the game are immediately evident. He has already received high praise from his captain, his coach and his point guard. Over the weekend, Carmelo Anthony told reporters, “I try to not make comparisons, but I see a lot of Marc Gasol in him. That’s a great sign because Marc is a great player. So for him to have the skills knowing that he has at his age, it’s something special.” Head coach Jeff Hornacek said, “We’ve got to find him some minutes. He deserves it.” Brandon Jennings tweeted out that he “loves [Willy’s] game!” There are obvious holes in Hernangomez’s game (his defense will be a major issue), but he has made an undeniably favorable first impression.
The Knicks’ offense has been stuck in mud the last few seasons. New York’s inability to get easy buckets in transition and early in the shot clock were major impediments to scoring efficiently. NBA data tells us that shots taken earlier in the shot clock have a higher field goal percentage than those attempted later. New York finished last season ranked 29th in the league in shots made within the first six seconds of the shot clock. They have finished dead last in fastbreak points per game in each of the last four seasons, never averaging more than nine fastbreak points per contest. Unsurprisingly, the Knicks have been near the bottom of the league in pace (possessions per 48 minutes) each year since 2011-12 (when Mike D’Antoni was fired). New York’s pace last season? 95.8. In 2015-16, they were at 93.6. They came in at 92.6 and 92.3 in the two seasons prior.
From the moment Jeff Hornacek was hired as head coach, he has made it abundantly clear that his goal is to speed up the Knicks’ offense. It’s only a small sample size, but over the first four games of the preseason the Knicks are in the middle of the pack in regards to pace, averaging over 101 possessions per 48 minutes. This is obviously a step in the right direction. The last time the Knicks maintained a pace north of 100 for an entire season was 1988-89, when they were running and gunning under coach Rick Pitino.
Jennings’ preseason stats don’t jump off the page. Although he does lead the Knicks with 15 dimes over four games, he is struggling to find his shot. However, Jennings has already electrified Madison Square Garden on numerous occasions. He has dished off some beautiful passes that have left the crowd buzzing, and he has played with energy and enthusiasm that is contagious.
Last Monday, he scored 11 points and led the Knicks to a two-point victory over the Washington Wizards at MSG. In the third quarter, after several electrifying plays and getting physical with the Wizards, the crowd started chanted Jennings’ name.
“I never heard 20,000 people chant my name before,” Jennings told reporters after the game. “That was pretty awesome. This is New York, the concrete jungle. So when you walk in the Garden, it’s not gonna be sweet at all. Every night.” It’s been a long time since New Yorkers had a villain (in the mold of the 1990s Knicks) whom they could embrace. It looks like they have two this season in Jennings and Noah.
Jennings was an inefficient scorer and sub par defender even before his Achilles injury, so expecting too much from the veteran point guard would be foolish. But the reality is that the Knicks have very little depth at point guard (injury-prone Derrick Rose is the only other point guard on the roster), so the fact that Jennings has looked healthy and explosive this month is a certainly a positive development for New York.
As of the publication of this article on Wednesday afternoon, there has not yet been a resolution to Rose’s civil trial. However, regardless of the outcome, the trial has been a big distraction for both Rose and the team. This is obviously bigger than basketball. But all off-court implications aside, this has been a disaster for the Knicks since they need as much time practicing together as possible. New York has only six players returning from the 21015-16 squad. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann has pointed out, New York is bringing back only 39.2 percent of last season’s minutes to this season’s roster. This accounts for the second-most turnover in the league, with only the Brooklyn Nets bringing back fewer rotation players (30.8 percent).
Throw in the fact that you have a new head coach installing a new offense, and being present for training camp was crucial this year. Rose has tried to stay in shape by working out in Los Angeles while defending himself against very serious allegations, but obviously basketball can’t be his primary concern right now. And from a team perspective, the Knicks have missed out on an important opportunity to build cohesion and chemistry. The Knicks will enter the regular season without having their starting five having played a single minute together in a preseason game.
In addition to a lack of depth at point guard, the Knicks are thin at shooting guard as well. Holiday had an opportunity to assuage concerns by putting together a strong preseason. However, Holiday has struggled to find his grove or locate his jumper. He is shooting just 30.4 percent from the floor and 27.3 percent from three-point territory. Holiday is averaging just 4.8 points per game and he has been outplayed by Sasha Vujacic (who’s averaging 8.2 points per game). This is not a great sign.
Randle would have been slotted securely in the “stock up” category based solely on his play this preseason, but then he suffered a left orbital fracture that will sideline him for three-to-four weeks. The question now is whether he will make the Knicks final 15-man roster.
New York already has 15 players with guaranteed contracts, which means they would have to eat a guaranteed pact in order to keep Randle. As of a few days ago, that seemed possible – even probable. Due to the aforementioned lack of point guard depth, Hornacek and the front office were leaning toward keeping Randle and cutting one of the extra big men (likely either Marshall Plumlee or Lou Amundson). But with Randle out for a month, it’s possible that the Knicks might decide to waive Randle prior to the start of the regular season and (assuming he clears waivers) assign him to the D-League while he rehabs. This would allow the Knicks to keep 15 healthy bodies on the initial roster and have a full roster of players to practice with over the first couple weeks of the season. However, Hornacek has intimated that Randle still has a good chance to make the roster, despite the injury. The Knicks unearthed an undrafted contributor in Langston Galloway two seasons ago; might Randle follow in Galloway’s footsteps?
Which Knicks have stood out to you so far? Who has disappointed early on? Leave a comment below.
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