Development of individual talent: Grading the Knicks progress so far

There’s a right way to rebuild, and there’s a wrong way. In this four-part series, Mike DeStefano will look at four main components - leadership in uniform; leadership in suits; development of individual talent; and development of culture - to help us determine how close this long-awaited turnaround really is.  

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Mike DeStefano continues his four-part series on the main components that can help us evaluate how the Knicks are progressing. Read Part I here and Part II here. Let’s dive into Part III.

PART III:  Development of Individual Talent

Not the D-word again. We’re all sick of hearing about it. We see it all over #Knicks Twitter; read about it constantly; listen to Alan Hahn and Wally Szczerbiak discuss it regularly post-game; I hear it in my sleep and wake up screaming, “Please, Fiz, not another DNP, nooooo!”  We can’t escape it…so we might as well talk about it some more.

Quick facts:

  • Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas are the only Knicks born in the 1980s.
  • Tim Hardaway, Jr. is the third-oldest Knick; he is 26.
  • 26-year-old basketball players are still developing.

How are all these guys progressing? How is the staff – Coach Fiz, his assistants, and former First Brother-in-Law Craig Robinson – doing in their quest to develop these young men into the sorts of players that can fill roles on contending teams? That superstar free agents would want to play with?

Let’s break it down.

YOUNG VETS

Tim Hardaway, Jr. – Coming into the season, pretty much anyone with an opinion about the NBA considered him one of the worst contracts in the League, despite his near 18 PPG last season. Well, this season he’s up to 22.2 PPG; his 3-point percentage has rebounded nicely (35.6%); he’s almost doubled last year’s career-high free throw attempts (from 3.1 to 6.1); and he’s averaging a career-high 3 assists per game. And there’s still a TON of room for improvement. The staff has done a great job getting him to this point; now they just need to get him to tighten his handle, play some defense, and cut down significantly on forced shots.1

Enes Kanter – Kanter looks like pretty much the same player he was last year, only better. He still doesn’t play defense, but his defense is arguably less putrid. He still can’t really hit a jump shot, but he’s shooting them more and with slightly better results. And he’s still a guy whose bread and butter is interior scoring and rebounding, which he’s doing better now than during any stretch of his career (save his first 26 games in OKC). One new development – he’s averaging a career-high in assists per game, and has already led the Knicks in assists multiple times. Not sure what more Fiz & Co. could do here.

For both Hardaway Jr. and Kanter, defense is the biggest issue, and I subscribe to the notion that defense is all scheme and will. The scheme works for other guys on the team, so…

REVIVALS

The one movie I’m looking forward to watching this holiday season is the claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I’ll probably watch it a little bit differently this time around because when it gets to the Island of Misfit Toys, I’ll be thinking about these guys:

Noah Vonleh – I love him. He plays hard on both ends; he’s versatile; he has a burgeoning three-point jumper…he’s a poor man’s Draymond Green. Which got me thinking:

VonlehGreen

In other words: when Draymond was 23, he was a poor man’s Noah Vonleh.

Knicks fans should be thrilled about Vonleh’s resurgence…until we can’t afford to re-sign him this summer.

Emmanuel Mudiay – Just watch the video below. Do you think the Nuggets would’ve traded that guy for a washed Devin Harris and a 2nd-round pick? Well, they didn’t trade that guy. That guy was born in NY. Bravo, Fiz.

Trey Burke – Burke is interesting. I wrote a few weeks ago about how I thought his time in the rotation had come to an end, and while I was right about Mudiay surpassing him, I was wrong to suggest he might end up buried. He came back from his DNPs with a vengeance and since has been up and down. Compared to last year, his FG% and assists are way down and his 3P%, rebounding, and turnovers are almost identical; the only thing that’s noticeably improved is his FT%. I don’t see much growth here.

Mario Hezonja – Hezonja is equally interesting. From a fan’s perspective, he’s had a rough go of it this year, the highlight below excluded. But the Knicks have won four games since he became a starter, despite the fact that his minutes, numbers, and percentages are better as a reserve. What he has brought is athleticism, movement without the ball, and, if you ask Fiz, defense. Huh? Still, he’s the same streaky-shooting, turnover-prone, bad decision-maker he was in Orlando. Improvement on one end, at best.

HOME-GROWN TALENT

Allonzo Trier – If you didn’t like Trier coming out of Arizona, you’ve almost certainly converted by now. I’ll admit it – I didn’t like him AT ALL in college. I saw a chucker with no point guard skills. And to be honest, I’m not sure that’s really changed, but the skills he does have – attacking the basket, a cerebral mid-range game, a surprisingly strong 3-ball, and flashes of defense – are enough for me. He may never be the passer I want him to be (though we’ve seen a newfound willingness lately), and he may always take a bad shot here and there, but there’s a place for guys like him in this League. He will win Sixth Man of the Year one day. All that said, I’m not sure Fiz & Co. have done much to develop him. Based on Fiz’s comments earlier in the year, it seems the main thing they’ve done for him is they’ve gotten out of his way.

Damyean Dotson – Started the season like a bat out of hell after rotting away on Horny’s bench last year. Then, inexplicably, DNPs. But he got time in a blowout loss to Detroit, went off, and boom – 18 PPG and a combined +25 over his three games back in the lineup. Are there new aspects to his game this year? Is he doing anything differently since the DNPs? I’m not sure. We saw signs of this last spring; the difference is he’s getting the minutes (sometimes), and he has Fiz’s confidence (sometimes).

Mitchell Robinson – Here, I give the staff all the credit in the world. To have a guy that didn’t play organized basketball last year perform like a guy fans desperately want to see play more is a testament to his development. He’s getting better every day, and I LOVE that they let him play through foul trouble. His first big challenge as a professional is learning how to stay on the floor – letting him see every shot fake and figure out how to avoid the ticky-tack fouls that currently plague him will fast track his procurement of a larger role.

Kevin Knox – At halftime against MIL, he was 2-8. I, like most fans, worried that Fiz would pull him. After all, in the wins vs. New Orleans and at Memphis, he was yanked quickly after poor stretches. 16 total minutes. But this time, Fiz stuck with him, and Knox made sure that decision paid off:  26 points (including five 3s), 4 rebounds, and 4 assists. These weren’t empty stats, either. He had huge buckets to spark the run, and huger buckets when the game got close again. Both his shot and defense, at least in this one game, looked better than they did even in Summer League.

Frank Ntilikina – I don’t need to talk about Frank.  Between @JMacri, @DavidEarly, and more, Knicks Film School has all things Frank covered. The only new development? While Knox was breaking out against MIL in 36 minutes, Frank was cheering from the sidelines. DNP.

The Knicks’ coaching staff, particularly Fiz, is in a tough spot.  They have twelve guys on the roster that have to play. There are only 240 minutes to be distributed in an NBA game. You can’t just give each guy 20 minutes and call it a rotation, so it becomes an impossible puzzle to solve. However, the priorities should be clear:

Most Important:  Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson

Not Far Behind:  Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson

Everyone matters, but no one matters as much as these five. Their development this year is paramount. So it’s confounding that they are the ones constantly getting jerked around. Knox’s two-game, 8-mpg stretch. Dotson’s four DNPs.  Robinson’s quick hook from the starting lineup. Frank’s short leash and DNP.

Reasonable minds can disagree regarding how to effectively develop talent. After the Memphis game, Hahn made the conscious effort to remind fans that YES, you can develop from the bench. You can develop by watching other guys and how they handle certain situations. This is not up for debate. We as human beings develop through learning, and in the NBA, you learn in practice, in film study, and from the sidelines.

But it’s just as inarguable that people learn by doing. Experiential learning. You can’t become a good surgeon by simply reading medical journals and watching other doctors; you need to do some cutting of your own. You can’t become a good writer unless you’ve written and rewritten and re-rewritten hundreds and thousands of pieces, with varying degrees of success. There are people across every industry in high positions that did not study or earn degrees in their fields – they worked hard and learned on the job.

To the same point, you cannot become a good NBA basketball player without getting on the floor night in and night out against other NBA basketball players and putting what you’ve learned and practiced to the test. And 5, 6, 8-minute nights don’t cut it.

These guys need to play. Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina need consistent minutes to adjust to the athleticism at this level. Mitchell Robinson needs to hack a hundred more guys and have a thousand more bad PnR passes thrown his way. Trier needs to see every kind of help defense so he knows where the right play is, and Dotson needs to learn how to create offense when his jumper is taken away. Watching will help with all those things, but not more than playing. And not instead of playing.

But what if they simply aren’t ready to contribute?  Won’t that harm their development more than it helps?”  This is a fine theory, but numbers suggest that these guys ARE ready to be relatively effective; they simply need the regular playing time to get in a rhythm and build confidence.  Look at these splits:

Frank Ntilikina

October 29.9 mpg, 8.8 points, 3.6 assists, 38.7% from 3, 101 ORtg
November 19.9 mpg, 4.3 points, 2.2 assists, 15.4% from 3, 78 ORtg

 

Allonzo Trier

20+ mpg 14.2 points, 4.1 rebs, 50.3% FG, 44.1 % from 3
Under 20 mpg 6.8 points, 1.8 rebs, 40.5% FG, 42.9% from 3

 

Damyean Dotson

20+ mpg 12.9 pts, 4.9  rebs, 47.5% FG, 39.7% from 3
Under 20 mpg 4 points, 1.7 rebs, 41.7% FG, 33.3 % from 3

(*Both Dotson’s and Trier’s numbers leap significantly at 30+ mpg*)

And it’s not only them.  Mitchell Robinson is shooting 64% from the FT line when he plays 20+ MPG vs. 45% when he doesn’t. Mudiay is a different player playing starters’ minutes vs. as a reserve. Check out Noah Vonleh’s career numbers: he’s shooting his best-ever percentages and sporting his best-ever ORtg and BPM now that he’s playing a consistent 25 minutes every night.

I’m a proponent of experiential learning, and this is where the Knicks’ have fallen short. The young guys, the guys we need to become either foundational pieces or asset-fetchers, will get better by playing. They will find it easier to get into a rhythm, see more shots fall, and see numbers improve by playing. They will become more confident, assertive, aggressive, by playing.

And if they struggle, who cares? Last I checked, winning wasn’t a priority this season.

GRADES

Leadership in Uniform – C

Leadership in Suits (F.O and Staff) – B+

Development of Individual Talent…

  • Young Vets: A — A staff of James Naismith, Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, and Gregg Popovich couldn’t get those guys to play D. Can’t downgrade Fiz & Co. for that.
  • Revivals:  A- — The ascents of both Vonleh and Mudiay make up for the stalled development of Burke and Hezonja thus far.
  • Home-Grown Talent:  C+ – Harsh when you consider that three of the five (Zo, Dot, and M-Rob) have played well for stretches now. But each of the five could be further along – with more consistent minutes, with less flux in the rotation (chemistry is a thing, you know), with the installation of a more organized system, with more defined roles…These are factors that, if handled differently, maybe Knox would’ve broken out weeks ago and could’ve been building on that ever since. Also, Frank…
  • OVERALL:  B – The home-grown talent is most important, worth 60% of the grade. Luckily for Fiz & Co., as they pursue an A, this grade is NOT final. Consider it a first draft. There are 58 games remaining – plenty of time to rectify these issues. Compared to what we’re seeing now, I expect the post-All-Star rotation to be unrecognizable, both in minutes’ distribution and quality of play.