What to watch for from the young Knicks down the stretch

The games stopped having meaning a long time ago, but what happens on the court still has some importance to a select group of players. Jonathan Macri takes a closer look.

After the Knicks play their Tuesday night game against the Pacers in Indianapolis, they’ll have completed over 80 percent of their schedule. This long, arduous, soul-crushing siege of a death march will almost be over, possibly with fewer wins than the franchise has ever accumulated in a single season.

We’re in the endgame now.

Thankfully, even though the basketball is often unwatchable for quarters, halves and occasionally games at a time, this season is a bit different than many of the losing campaigns that came before it. As has been pointed out by every pollyannish Knicks fan this year1, there is a vague outline of a young core here that could make for an interesting future regardless of what transpires this July.

Would that core look a lot better surrounding a 7’3” Latvian? You betcha. Are we positive that the development of these kids has been executed to perfection across the board? Not in the slightest. Is it possible that they, along with the incoming draft pick, will all be sent packing for Anthony Davis quicker than you can say “We’re going to build things the right way?” Don’t count it out.

But I’ve written about all those possibilities already this year and my brain might slowly start to seep out through my ears if I try to do so again. Instead, let’s go on the assumption that these young’ns will be here and this staff does know what it’s doing – which, in fairness, we have seen ample evidence of despite what could be argued are some glaring miscues.

As such, if you’re one of the 18 people who plan to take in this last fifth of vodka season in all its glory, here’s something to look for from each of the guys that figure to stick around for a bit.

Allonzo Trier

Problem: He’s not shooting enough threes

Solution: Shoot more threes

Save for the ugly nine-game stretch after his December injury, during which his effective field goal percentage dropped all the way down to 33 percent, Trier has been the model of efficiency this year. He is one of only four rookies averaging 20 minutes a game with a usage rate over 20 that has an effective field goal percentage above 50. The other four are the first four picks in the draft.

The problem is that he should be even better. On the season, Trier is putting up two 3-point attempts per game despite hitting over 41 percent from deep. If that number doubled? We might see…well, we might see the guy we’ve seen over the Knicks last eight games.

Over that stretch, Trier is averaging 3.8 long range shots per contest, and it’s resulted in a scoring average over 16. The best part? His deep ball percentage has actually improved to a certainly-unsustainable-but-still-nice-to-see 46.7 percent. If he can simply take around four threes a game for the rest of the year and hit somewhere around his yearlong average, the narrative surrounding his perceived ceiling might really begin to change.

Oh, and his passing? Obviously that’s Trier’s main issue, but getting him to be more of a playmaker is too hefty a task for right now, and figures to be offseason homework. For now, just let the bombs fly.

Frank Ntilikina

Problem: He’s not on the damn court

Solution: Get on the damn court

Can you blame a guy for getting injured?

I mean…no. No, you can’t…

Right?

For a lot of fans, not having to look at Ntilikina put up brick after brick is probably a relief. For those of us who had staked our claims on Frank Island and are now feeling the water between our toes, having him miss what will wind up being over a quarter of the season is like a final punch to the gut in what has been a brutal year.

On one hand, there was a sense before the injury that maybe he could finish strong. If you take away the month of November – when he looked like someone playing basketball for the first time – Ntilikina was a 36.6 percent 3-point shooter on the year. Putting all of his other issues aside, anyone with his defensive profile that hits outside shots at an above-average rate is a useful player.

On the other hand, save for the three-game stretch that followed his three-game benching, there was never a sense that Frank was on the verge of really putting it all together.

There are a lot of complicating factors at play here, not the least of which is that the Knicks may need to choose between Ntilikina and the combination of Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier for salary cap purposes, assuming they’re able to ink two max players this July. If that’s the choice, it’s easy to see which way they’ll go.

That said, if the Knicks sign Kyrie Irving and they can get something for Dennis Smith Jr, maybe he’s the one to depart, especially considering the fact that Ntilikina might not even be worth a late first-round pick based on his play thus far.

Of course if he does come back and play well, that might only hasten his exit out of town. Might that be for the best, as it’s now quite clear David Fizdale favors a particular type of guard to run his offense? Wouldn’t Frank’s skill set would be far better suited running more complex offensive sets in a Warriors or Spurs style system? Does it even matter if his offensive struggles continue? Which team might take the risk of finding out?

These are all questions that will likely remain unanswered unless Frank can get back on the court. And he better hurry…we don’t have enough life-jackets in the boathouse for everyone.

Damyean Dotson

Problem: Getting lost off-ball

Solution: Purchase a map

This one’s simple.

Dotson has arguably been the Knicks best perimeter player since Tim Hardaway Jr. got traded away. So he’s been their best perimeter player all year.

Over his last 11 games, Dotson is averaging 15 points while shooting 38.4 percent from downtown on over six attempts per game. Those sure seem like the numbers of a starting shooting guard. His on-ball defense, though…that’s where it’s at.

His activity level makes you feel annoyed on behalf of the guy he’s guarding. He gets around picks better than anyone on the team, and his defensive rebounding – he’s over three a game – is more than solid.

That said, his off-ball defense needs a lot of work. We’ve routinely seen Dotson lose track of his man and get caught ball-watching this year, often resulting in cuts to the basket or wide-open threes. Theoretically, this shouldn’t be an offseason thing; he should be able to up his engagement and attention levels as the year finishes up. It just hasn’t really happened yet.

If that changes, it’s not hard to see him slotting in as the starting two-guard on this team next season, regardless of who New York signs in July.

Mitchell Robinson & Dennis Smith Jr.

Problem: Lack of playing time together

Solution: Paging David Fizdale…

In the 15 games they’ve been teammates2, Mitchell Robinson and Dennis Smith Jr. have played a total of 145 minutes together, or just under 10 minutes a game. For a pick and roll combo that could be devastating and needs as much time as possible to develop, that’s…not ok.

Obviously, it’s tough to play a pairing much more than that if one guy is starting and the other is coming off then bench, as Robinson still is. Here were David Fizdale’s most recent words on the topic from about a week ago, courtesy of NorthJersey.com’s Chris Iseman:

“I just like his rhythm right now. Why mess with it? If you do throw him in there I’d be pretty [mad] off at myself the first game I throw him in there, he gets two and I’ve got to sit him for a bunch of minutes…I want to keep the kid feeling good and in a good rhythm. It allows me to do some different stuff with him in the second half. When he’s playing well I can play him more minutes. I can even start him in the second half like I did one game at home.”

I get all of that. Robinson himself has even spoken of feeling less pressure and more comfortable with coming off the bench.

At some point though, maybe just throw caution to the wind and say “fuck it.” I’m sure DeAndre Jordan wouldn’t mind getting an early start on his planning for Cancun, perhaps over the season’s last ten games. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Kevin Knox

Problem: He hit the rookie wall

Solution: Break on through to the other side

There are some out there who look at how the last two months have gone for Kevin Knox and are ready to proclaim him a bust.

In fairness, he has looked bad. Like, “Emmanuel Mudiay is my spirit animal” bad. This clip from Sunday night’s Wolves game pretty much encapsulates how the last several weeks has gone for him:

Here’s the thing though: Kevin Knox can make a layup at this level. We know this because we’ve already seen him do it many times, along with a lot of the things he’s seemingly been incapable of doing for a while now, when the Monstars stole his powers he hit the rookie wall.

Is that just a convenient excuse? Maybe…but there are some numbers to back it up.

I noted on the podcast recently that if you stopped Knox’s rookie season after his 44th game – the exact point where he exceeded his minute total from last year at Kentucky – he’d have finished with a .422 eFG%, including 34 percent from deep, and a 9.3 TOV% on a 22.3 usage rate. Over the next 15 games – the ones that have everybody jumping out of open windows – those numbers dipped to .366/.299/12.2 on the exact same usage.

Keep in mind that this is the same dude who was voted rookie of the month in December and was the coaches’ injury replacement for the Rising Stars Game on February 63. For a guy to go from “top ten rookie” to “bust” in the span of a month feels like more than a bit of recency bias.

All this being said, it would still be nice to signs of life. We kind of did on Sunday, in a game where Knox finished 5-of-11 for 13 points and four (four!) assists. It was the first time this year Knox has had that many dimes in a game where he scored more points than shots he took. His best stretch came late in the first half when he had a drive with a nice finish, a triple, a cross-court assist to an open Damyean Dotson for three, and a dish to DeAndre Jordan for what should have been an easy two.

If he just had a few minutes like this during every game from here on in, everyone would feel a lot less anxiety heading into the summer. The Knicks needed to get this pick right. Despite recent evidence to the contrary, maybe they actually did.

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