Group Project: How to Maximize RJ’s Summer League

Steve Mills: Professor, are you ready for us?

Yes, yes. Come in. I was just reviewing your grades from past projects, ummm…are we all here? Good, good. Take a seat.

Now, as you know, I’ve been meeting with every group to ensure we’re all headed in the right direction, but this one I’ve had marked on my calendar. I won’t sugarcoat it – the pressure’s on, folks.

Scott Perry: Prof, we can explain.

No need. You learn and move on. Now, your last project, titled “Kevin Knox: All-Rookie, Future Star” did not go as planned, and that’s on the heels of the Frank N — you know what? Never mind. You know your grades. What you should also know, and I’m gonna be blunt, is that if you fail this time, with RJ, you fail the course. Which likely means you won’t be back next year. You understand that, right?

Knicks’ Fan: Yeah, no shit – I might not even WANT to be back next year. Might become a Pelicans’ fan. Get on that bandwagon before it really takes off. Except now LaVar’s gonna be involved, and I really can’t stand –

Steve Mills: Shut up. You were saying, Professor?

You’ve chosen RJ Barrett as your end-of-term project and, looking at your outline here, you have “How to Maximize RJ’s Summer League” as the first component.

Knicks’ Fan: I thought we were calling it “How to Not F*** Up RJ Like We Did Kev-“

Steve Mills: If you don’t stop talking, I’ll get on the phone with Jim, and you’ll-

Knicks’ Fan: Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll be banned.

So what I want from this meeting is for each of you to share what YOU need to do personally to make the Summer League portion of this project a success. I…wait a minute, I miscounted. We’re missing someone, aren’t we? Wasn’t the New York Media in your group?

Coach Fizdale: Yeah, but they couldn’t do the one thing we asked them to do, so we split. Amicably, of course.

What was the one thing?

Coach Fizdale: To not put too much pressure on RJ. To at least wait until he’s taken his first NBA dribble. We thought it was a pretty reasonable request, but uhh…yeah.

Okay, no problem. I’ll just update my notes – so it’s just Coach Fizdale, the front office, and the fans. Got it. Okay. Who wants to talk first? Just a general outline of your plans.

Coach Fizdale: You’re going first, right?

Knicks’ Fan: Me? I’m the least important person here.

Steve Mills: Which is why you should go first.

Knicks’ Fan: Shouldn’t we put our best foot forward?

You don’t seem ready.

Knicks’ Fan: Okay, okay. Fine. I’ll go. Ahem…why do we study history? It’s not because memorizing names and dates makes us any smarter; it’s so we can learn from the past to improve in the present and prepare for the future. Well, the past from which we’re learning is only a year ago. Kev-

Scott Perry: You don’t need to give our whole intro. Save something for the actual presentation, and just tell him what YOU plan to do differently.

I was kind of enjoying it.

Scott Perry: You heard him. Keep going.

Knicks’ Fan: Kevin Knox came in as a young, big, score-first wing from a blue-blood program, just like RJ Barrett. He got to Vegas, got buckets to the tune of 21.2 PPG, and inevitably got hyped as a potential ROY candidate. I’ll admit I was hyped, too. I was like, “Michael Porter who-nior? F*** that, I’ll ride with Tobias Harris 6.0.” But then the regular season came, and while Kev showed flashes, by April even the most positive Knicks’ fans could only describe his performance as up-and-down at best.

After a lot of thoughtful reflection, we’ve come to several conclusions, but the one that matters for today’s meeting is this: we believe many of the issues that plagued Kevin Knox during the regular season began in Summer League. We also believe that if we can make a few key changes with how we handle RJ, he will enjoy the great success as a first-year player that Kevin never got the chance to experience.

Sounds great.

Knicks’ Fan: So my role in this is pretty straight-forward – easy in theory, but perhaps the hardest to actually put into practice.

Scott Perry: You think yours is the hardest?

Knicks’ Fan: Maybe not as hard as missing out on every superstar free agent, but….

Scott Perry: What the f*** did you just say to me?

Coach Fizdale: Whoa, whoa. Calm down. We’re all on the same team here.

Knicks’ Fan: I’m sorry. Sorry. Scott, Steve, I apologize. I didn’t mean it. Just like I didn’t mean the tweets I’ve been firing off the last few days. I actually like what you guys did in free agency, but I’m a fan, and we get emotional sometimes. Which is exactly why my role in this project will be so challenging! The main premise, professor, is that we as fans need to put Vegas in its proper perspective. I mean, RJ dominated the best of the best in high school. He dominated the NCAA. He should dominate Summer League, where lots of guys are fighting for their careers and won’t make NBA rosters next year. So, if he’s getting buckets like Kevin did, we simply need to calm the f*** down.


Knicks’ Fan: Sorry. I just couldn’t think of a better way to put it. We can’t get too high, or too low I guess, either. I haven’t even considered the possibility of him struggling, but even if he does: so what? No big deal. It’s practice. It’s the place where he should be trying new things without fear of failing. So just like we shouldn’t anoint him the next Beard if he’s scoring at will, we shouldn’t declare him a bust and pine for Jarrett Culver if he goes 3-17.

Or 2-18.

Knicks’ Fan: I know you’re my professor, but it’s too soon, and I will fight you.


Knicks’ Fan: Anyway, we fans need to watch with our heads…well, with our eyes, duh…but we have to react to what we’re seeing with our heads and not our hearts. More analytical, less critical and hysterical. Don’t feed into the way-too-soon tabloid BS, and don’t, don’t, DON’T fan the flames on social media.

Let me stop you there. How does this relate to mistakes made with Kevin?

Knicks’ Fan: We put pressure on these guys. Yes, we’d like to believe that they don’t pay attention, or they shouldn’t care, but I mean – we booed Kevin on draft night, then worshipped him after Summer League, then began jumping ship when he started slow, then praised him in December, then slandered him all across social media when he hit the wall…not all of us, of course, but a lot of us. Speaking specifically about last July, we believe that summer worship and hype contributed to a raised bar that he wasn’t prepared to meet.

Steve Mills: All that fan engagement on social media, whether positive or negative, also shapes the narratives or angles that some “journalists” pursue. So it’s not even about the players seeing what fans have to say and getting upset. Sometimes it’s: fan gets mad and posts something, other fans see it and jump on board, journalist sees it and a light bulb flicks on…next thing you know, the questions are being asked in interviews, critical stories are being written because that’s what the readers want, and boom! Drama.

Do you honestly think fans will lay off social media so that RJ can reach his full potential? Everyone’s already Twittering –

Knicks’ Fan: Tweeting. How old are you?

You threaten to fight me, and then you insult me. You wanna go for that third strike?

Knicks’ Fan: Wrong sport, but…

Steve Mills (on the phone): Hey, Jim. It’s Steve. Yeah. Yes, I loved the new song. I thought you sounded fantastic. Yes. Exactly like Mick Jagger. Yes, the look, too. Sure. Anyway, I need you to issue a ban –

Knicks’ Fan: No, Steve. Please. Professor, I’m so sorry. Can you ever forgive me? If I get banned, I don’t…I don’t know what I’ll tweet.

Okay, fine. Steve, hang up the phone. Thank you. Now, as I was saying: everyone’s already tweeting up a storm about free agency. Do you honestly think they will take a break and STOP being critical once there’s actual basketball to discuss? First glimpses of RJ Barrett will be a pretty big deal.

Knicks’ Fan: No, I don’t think everyone will stop, but we can still try to be better. Like…okay: did you know that Kevin Knox was Rookie of the Month last winter? Did you know that he’s one of only ten teenagers IN THE HISTORY OF THE LEAGUE to average at least 12.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game for an entire season?

I did know, this, yes.

Knicks’ Fan: Well, most people don’t. Because if you searched his name on Twitter and saw how many of us were calling him “trash” and “bust” and “a homeless man’s Anthony Bonner,” you’d think he was the worst player of all-time. So with RJ, we’re asking fans to just relax a little bit. He’s a teenager. What the f*** were we doing as teenagers? MAKING MISTAKES. So yeah, they’re millionaires, and they’re professionals, and they should be held to a high standard, but they’re also human children. And if we ever want to see this team return to prominence, this is the role we as fans can play: don’t get too emotional either way, and don’t feed the frenzy online, especially now when the games don’t count.

Scott Perry: And that’s actually a perfect segue, because it’s true: the games are essentially meaningless. We are not prioritizing wins and losses in July, and likely won’t during the regular season either.

Steve Mills: Though we are trying to win games this year. We’ve made that clear.

Scott Perry: Yes, but again, our top priority is the development of our young core. So what can the front office do during Summer League to this end? Support them in every way possible.

One, like the fans, we can’t add to the pressure. That means measured responses when microphones and cameras are shoved in our faces, you know, when Rick Kamla asks us to join the table leading up to halftime.

Two, we do what we can to make sure vets are out here supporting RJ and the young guys. Coming to the games. Working out with the SL squad. Building the camaraderie that will indoctrinate RJ into the culture immediately.

Three, do what we always do – keep an eye out for talent. Steve and I consider ourselves particularly adept at recognizing under appreciated talent; you know the cliche about another person’s trash…well, a lot of players are out here looking for jobs, training camp invites, et cetera, and we still have one spot on the big squad open. So we’re gonna keep tabs on guys who perform well for our team, for other teams, and try to create the best possible competitions in training camp. We feel we must perform now so that training camp is as strong as possible so RJ, and everyone else 2-15 for that matter, understand what we’re about here.

And this is all after having completed our most obviously-important task, which was building the Summer squad in the first place. We’ve got our three sophomores, plus the veteran Kadeem Allen, plus a good bunch of players you’ve probably never heard of. We believe that A) the competition pre-training camp will be great for RJ, and B) we believe the talent on this roster will allow RJ to get his feet wet without having to feel like he single-handedly needs to win games. He can focus on rounding out his game, fitting in…an introduction to NBA basketball in the most seamless way possible.

This is what we failed to do last year. Frank’s injury took one veteran away, and Mitchell was rusty from his year off, so Knox had to carry us. We gave him the green light and he flew right through it, to the tune of 19.2 FGA per. Led Vegas. As we looked back on it, we realized this may have set a bad precedent and created some habits-

Last year, that was not the case. Frank’s injury took one veteran away, and Mitch was quite rusty, so Knox felt like he had to take the entire scoring load upon his shoulders. We gave him a green light, and he sped right through it, to the tune of 19.2 FGA per game. Led Vegas. We believe this set a bad precedent and created some bad habits –

Knicks’ Fan: Like the habit of not passing. Ever. One-on-three in transition, oh sh**, there’s Dot filling a lane for a wide open three, but nooooo, Kevin tries to take it himself and misses. I’m getting angry just thinking about…I…I’ve got to tweet KNOX IS TRASH, all caps.

Steve Mills: Why don’t you come take a walk with me? Calm down a little bit. Let Coach Fizdale say his piece to the professor. Scott, join us?

Coach Fizdale: Thanks, Steve. I’ll take us home. Actually, I was gonna pick it up there anyway, because some of the stuff Scott talked about get into coaching.

I was gonna pick it up from there anyway, because I think this gets into coaching. Like the green light. First adjustment my staff and I need to make, and this summer it’ll be led by the legend Jumping’ Jud Buechler, is we gotta rein RJ in more than we did Kevin. We do NOT want him leading Summer League in FGA. Now, this may sound easy, but think about who we’re dealing with here. RJ Barrett is a mini-Mamba. He makes James Harden look gun shy. He sees a green light when it’s stale red and there are pedestrians waving hands telling him to STOP before he causes a three-car pile up and-

I get it. And please don’t use any of these driving metaphors on the actual project.

Coach Fizdale: Really? Because I have more, about him literally driving to the…anyway – while it’s important to encourage guys to be aggressive, RJ’s confidence is not an issue. Instead, we’ll be emphasizing defense and a greater willingness to pass, two areas where Coach K failed RJ and where we failed Kevin last year.

Sounds like a good idea.

Coach Fizdale: This might be more of a post-Summer thing that I should save for later, but I’ve also been encouraged to put in more of a system, since a little more structure can help young guys like RJ acclimate-

If it’s not specifically about Summer League, you can save it for our meeting in a few months.

Coach Fizdale: Got it. Then I guess the last thing is – I have to stop making exceptions for guys, and it starts now. When I was hired, I said I wanted to emphasize ball movement and unselfishness and talked about a “one-second rule” and then Zo had one good game scoring the ball and I came out publicly and was like, “That rule’s gone out the window.”

A guy’s good at dominating the ball, so you let him.

Coach Fizdale: Yeah. I still believe in encouraging guys to be who they are and do what they do, but it needs to be within reason. Within the bounds of the philosophies and values that I was hired to instill into this ball club. So when RJ goes rogue, even if it’s in a way that makes you salivate, I can’t have one standard for him and another standard for others just because he’s a Top-3 pick or I like his style better.

Steve Mills: Or, at least don’t do it publicly and make us all look stupid.

Coach Fizdale: Thanks, Steve. I didn’t realize you were back. Very helpful contribution.

But he’s right, isn’t he?

Coach Fizdale: Yeah. I get it. If I’m gonna preach defense, we can’t let RJ get away without slacking on that end, especially if it’s some Summer League no-name beating him backdoor. If I’m gonna preach unselfishness, we can’t let RJ get away with any hero ball, even if that same Summer League no-name doesn’t have a prayer of staying in front of him. I need to hold RJ accountable, and I need to hold all his teammates accountable – every one of them – so he understands right away the type of culture we are trying to build here.

Maybe if I’d done this with Kevin, he wouldn’t have struggled so much on both ends last year.

This seems like quite a bit of work for you.

Coach Fizdale: For my entire staff. I’ll be in Vegas overseeing what I can, but it’s up to Jud and everyone else to get it started in these first few contests.

Well, I’m pleased – this approach seems to be on the right track. If you can actually do what you say

Coach Fizdale: Why are you all looking at me?

then the Summer component of this project should go splendidly, and should lay a nice foundation for the rest of the year. It’s clear that you’ve worked hard and learned from past mistakes, so I have high hopes for you this time around.

Steve and Scott (simultaneously): Thank you, professor.

Coach Fizdale: Thanks, Prof.

Where’s the fan who…

Scott Perry: Tried to send a critical tweet, and…there was an accident. Their phone. My heel. We don’t need to get into it, but they’re crying in the hall.

It’s always something with this organization, isn’t it?

Okay, umm…I guess the last thing is, when you look at your plans for this project, what are they key dates?

JULY 5TH AT 9:30 PM vs. New Orleans
JULY 7TH AT 9:30 PM vs. Phoenix
JULY 9TH AT 9:30 PM vs. Toronto
JULY 10TH AT 9:30 PM vs. Los Angeles Lakers

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