Key things to watch throughout this Knicks season

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Photo: @nyknicks

Zach DiLuzio takes a look at some high-level points to keep an eye on throughout the season.


The season is finally here! And it’s off to a pretty good start.

The first few weeks will be overwhelming as we begin to overanalyze everything we see (myself included). With that in mind, it would help to have a list of things to watch for this upcoming season.

For now, I’m going to focus on the young individuals that could end up being the future of the New York Knicks. Ideally, we can continue to check back on this throughout the season and see how if/how our guys measure up. This one in particular will focus on the main pieces of the so called puzzle (although some may take umbrage with that terminology once they see who’s on the list). But there’s reasons for my choices — for example, I haven’t watched nearly enough Hezonja tape to speak with authority on what to watch for. Emmanuel Mudiay needs to do, like, anything at a high level. It’s still unclear if Luke Kornet is an NBA player. So on so forth.

Anyway, introductions are boring, so let’s dive in.

KEVIN KNOX

Any assessment of Knox’ game comes from his short, small sample Summer League stint in conjunction with his college tape. I already broke down his college film for Posting and Toasting, but it’s already looking outdated, as Knox’ Summer League performance assuaged a ton of my concerns.

The most important area for Knox to improve in is his finishing around the rim. He’s got the athleticism, but a clear lack of confidence in his left hand will give opposing coaches an easy out while scheming to stop Knox early in the season. While I think concerns about his left hand are overblown — you’d be surprised at how much a guy with the size and athleticism of Knox can get away with, even at the NBA level — Knox needs to work on his overall finishing, particularly through contact, in order to fully realize his potential as a monster mismatch. It’s been pretty ugly in the preseason, but that’s OK! Remember, he’s 19 years old. We’ve already been through this with Frank. Let’s not get crazy here.

Knox has already shown underrated passing ability, and he’s more than willing to make an extra pass, so that’s not on my radar right now. He won’t be a ball stopper. It’s tempting to focus on his defense, but in the context of a Knicks team without Kristaps Porzingis, he’ll have a much larger offensive burden than you would otherwise expect. He deserves at least a year before we start ripping him apart for defensive struggles. And I’m a big believer in his jump shot despite relatively poor percentages in college, summer league, and preseason. The more I read that, the dumber it sounds, but I stand by it.

We’ll have a better idea of where to go with this in a couple of months. Stay tuned.

MITCHELL ROBINSON

Robinson is an insanely intriguing young talent, but he’s equally raw. His few early minutes (if he gets any…) will be hugely important for assessing his game; all of his “professional” tape (Summer League and preseason) was one part “holy shit this guy is going to be a monster” mixed with two parts of “does he think that’s what a screen is” and a healthy serving of “oh boy he’s tired already”. Don’t take that the wrong way — I don’t particularly blame Robinson for those things, and I went into depth on this HERE if you’re interested in a full explanation. That kind of performance, however, is really, really tough to assess. How much of his poor defensive positioning was fatigue, or the fact that he hadn’t played 5 on 5 ball in a year (let alone against NBA caliber talent)? It’s impossible to dissect.

For now, I think Robinson can at least be a reasonable backup 5 if he focuses purely on shoring up his basketball fundamentals. Setting solid screens, at the right time, will snowball into ally-oops. Getting his hands up on defense, instead of reaching for the ball almost literally 100% of the time, will yield a higher defensive impact at the cost of some blocks and steals (and he won’t get 14 fouls per 36 minutes, to boot). By incorporating those two things alone, Robinson can take the first step towards transforming his sky-high potential into actual ability. This is the biggest thing to watch for early in the season, and those areas may dictate whether he spends his season in Westchester (which would be OK!) or in the big leagues.

KRISTAPS PORZINGIS

This is easy. Health is obviously the main concern here, but in terms of X’s and O’s, Porzingis’ biggest weakness remains his passing ability, particularly out of double teams. I could throw some really damning stats out here, but this is a relatively low concern — last season, I wanted to see Porzingis dominate out of the post, and he was able to do that (and more). The next step is making the right read when those doubles start coming. It’s not as easy as it looks, but interestingly, Kevin Knox might be the type of guy who can help coax it out of our Latvian demigod.

If Porzingis can start to add that to his game — it’s not gonna happen overnight — he could become one of the most game changing offensive players in the NBA. I’m not exaggerating. Shit, you could argue he already is (see: Jarrett Jack’s season last year). There’s other minor stuff to nitpick, of course, because nobody is perfect. But this is the final piece of Exodia, and it’s within reach.

FRANK NTILIKINA AND RON BAKER

This one is fun, because it’s super obvious, but it’s also 100% of the reason these two don’t have as much of an impact on the offensive end of the floor despite having certain valuable skills. Ntilikina and Baker are really similar players; they specialize in defense, playing team ball, and doing the little things that tend to only be seen on tape after the game is long over (bumping screeners, organizing the offense, making the right pass at the right time, etc).

And yet, both of these dudes are held back by the same attitude that makes them so great at everything else: they don’t score. They often don’t even try. When Ron or Frank gets in the lane with a head of steam, everyone knows they’re looking to pass. It’s on every scouting report in the league. And even though it’s a little counterintuitive, Baker and Ntilikina have to at least TRY to score in order to open up passing lanes, which allows them to do what they actually want — pass the ball at a high level.

These guys have to be more aggressive. They don’t even have to make the damn shots in order for this to pay off (see: Marcus Smart). They just need to keep the defense honest. If a rotating defender isn’t sure if Ntilikina is gonna try to finish at the rim, he can’t overplay the passing lane; if he does overplay the passing lane, it’s an easy layup. Therefore, aggressiveness can actually open up opportunities for others. And it pays off on defense as well — when opponents overplay those passing lanes because Frank and Ron refuse to shoot, it leads to live ball turnovers, which is easily the worst result of any offensive possession in the modern NBA.

Both Baker and Ntilikina need to internalize an aggression on offense that matches their aggression on defense (although it’s definitely more of a priority for Frank; Baker just needs to hit some damn 3’s to be a solid role player). The fact that Frank has thrown some absolutely sick dimes despite this fact is what makes me a true believer in his potential. But in order to unlock it, he’s gonna need to understand that playing aggressive, in this context, is actually unselfish. Frank has clearly looked to improve on that facet of his game, but I haven’t seen anything from Baker in that regard.

TREY BURKE

Everyone seems to have forgotten about this guy, for some reason. Burke had an absolutely stellar showing in the NBA last year, but a quick glance at his shooting percentages, and you worry that he is bound to regress this season.

Burke ranked in the 100th percentile (yes, the highest) in mid-range frequency and in the 98th percentile in mid-range efficiency last season, per Cleaning the Glass. Those are INSANE numbers. He will not repeat that. Remember when Kristaps came out the gate shooting 60% from midrange and scoring 30 PPG for a month? That’s what we saw from Burke last season.

With that in mind, I’d like to see Burke take on a larger role as a playmaker…but his passing was good enough last season, and his defense was fine for a player with his size and physique. He tries, and that makes a difference. What I’ll be monitoring is Burke’s midrange percentages (both the volume of his attempts and his percentage of makes), as they’ll likely be a strong barometer for his overall level of play.

I’m not one of those guys who wants to avoid the midrange completely — a contested 3 point shot, taken by a bad 3 point shooter, is NOT a better shot than an open midrange jumper taken by a good midrange shooter. I don’t care that 3 is better than 2. That doesn’t mean I disagree with the modern offensive philosophies of the NBA…it just means I believe the midrange shot can be undervalued by analytics. Burke is a really good midrange shooter. If he’s getting those shots, he should take them. But he’s almost certainly not gonna shoot as well as he did last season over the course of 82 games. And that’s fine!

To combat that, however, I’d like to see Burke’s shooting profile trend more towards pull-up 3’s. He doesn’t need to be Steph Curry or Dame Lillard — he just needs to keep the defense honest. If he can hit those at a 33% clip, and hit the midrange pull up at about 45%, he can get those shots any time he wants. And when he gets hot, he can play off those shots to get to the rim at will. Trey Burke should absolutely continue to take the shots he’s comfortable with…but converting 5% of his midrangers into 3’s will help his efficiency, even if his overall percentages drop.

And that’s all for now! Stay tuned, as I’ll probably try to check in on this every once in a while for some progress reports and updated goals. Feel free to hit me with your thoughts and ideas on Twitter, as I’m sure there’s stuff I overlooked.