If KD comes, it’s time to “skip steps” and start trading…even Zion.

Everyone is excited about the draft lottery, but what do the Knicks do with their pick if they land KD?

If Kevin Durant comes to the Knicks, he may not ask them to start “skipping steps.” He isn’t the same person as LeBron James who probably insisted the Cavs trade Andrew Wiggins and more upon his return to Cleveland in 2014. KD seems a bit unique. He went to the 72 win Warriors after they’d just beaten his Thunder. And remember when KD asked to be called “The Servant” instead of Slim Reaper?

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Bringing The Brow to Broadway: lottery, odds, Cap analysis and NFL weirdness

In order for Anthony Davis to don the blue and orange, it’s going to take some luck, some patience, and some navigation of the weird obstacles which may arise; hurdles like accidentally winning games, CBA quirks, salary cap restrictions, negotiations with NFL people (?!) or someone the team burned a bridge with…these are all possible challenges.

But Davis might very well be the best player in the NBA over the next four years so let’s try to figure out how likely they are to get him as of today.

Step 1: land the first pick in the draft (~14%) and prepare to negotiate with football people and potential rivals

First off, if the Knicks want AD they probably have to land the first pick in the draft. The Knicks (11-47) stink and don’t appear very interested in changing that. The chances of them winding up with the best possible odds for the top pick seem high. Nate Silver’s website, 538.com projects them to be the worst team.

Don’t be fooled. That’s great, partly because of Zion Williamson. As Kevin Durant recently said, “Zion Williamson is a once-in-a-generation athlete.” We can infer that the New Orleans Pelicans may have recently felt the same way. It was reported by Frank Isola that former Pelicans’ GM Dell Demps was interested in negotiating with the Knicks in a trade for AD, but not without knowing what pick they had.

Per The Athletic: 

“According to a source familiar with the talks, Demps was not prepared to trade Davis to New York before knowing where the Knicks will select in the 2019 NBA Draft….

Demps was intrigued by the idea of selecting first and possibly drafting Duke freshman Zion Williamson.”

Now that Dell Demps has been fired this may change things, but it’s unclear exactly how. The Pelicans have a very weird power structure. Not only does the President of Football Operations for the New Orleans Saints, Mickey Loomis, the cities’ football team, have the most significant voice in the Pelicans’ front office, but the team is now looking to replace Demps.

Two names that have come up are David Griffin and Mike Zarren, and Isola speculates both could have reason to prefer working with other teams besides New York; the Knicks considered hiring Griffin once before negotiations reportedly went south, and Zarren is currently Danny Ainge’s second in command in Boston and a life long Celtics fan.

Regardless of who New Orleans settles upon to steer their ship, no other projected player in this year’s draft besides Williamson has truly separated himself from the pack. So keeping in mind that the Celtics are prepared to make an “explosive offer” likely headlined by their 20-year-old phenom Jayson Tatum, New York would need all the fire-power it can muster in order to outbid Boston.

Believe it or not, another reason why it is important to land the top pick for a potential Anthony Davis trade are salary implications. Draft picks are paid on a rookie scale amount with the first pick capable of earning about $3 million more than the 5th pick. This is important (as explained in a bit) in trying to match Davis’ salary in trade (which will be over $27m come July 1st).

Step 2: CBA and salary cap hoops to leap through

Special thanks to resident cap expert Knicks Film School (aka Jeffrey Bellone)

Winning the top pick isn’t likely. Even if the Knicks tank as hard as they can, there is an 86% chance the worst team won’t wind up with the top pick because of the league’s lottery reforms designed to curb tanking.

But even if New York gets the 1st pick, there are still more hurdles to clear. Because of the Rose Rule in the CBA, the Celtics (who have the most trade assets in the league) are not allowed to officially make an offer to New Orleans until July 1st, since they already have Kyrie Irving who signed a particular type of extension. Because of this, it does not make sense for the Pelicans to trade Davis before Boston is allowed to join the fray which would force every team to raise their offers.

The Pelicans not trading Davis this February essentially ensured they will wait until Boston can jump into the bidding waters come July.

If the Knicks want to include their 2019 draft pick in a trade, they have their own timing restriction. A draft pick cannot be traded until 30 days after that player has officially signed. Some fans will remember when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the top pick in the draft in 2014 and selected Andrew Wiggins. Because it often takes several weeks to sort out the details of a player’s contract, which it did in Wiggins’ case, the official trade which sent Kevin Love to Cleveland and Wiggins to Minnesota wasn’t consummated until late August.

Now if the Knicks have a winning bid that the Pelicans love, this logistics of when the deal becomes official might not matter. But it won’t make Steve Mills or Scott Perry feel very comfortable if they agree in principle to a deal in late June or early July but have to wait until late August for it to become official.

It simply gives folks like Danny Ainge, Magic Johnson and the rest of the league more time to increase their bids and try to convince the Pelicans to put an end to a saga that will by then have dragged on for about eight months. Think: we can finish this today on July 2nd, instead of waiting until nearly training camp for the Knicks to get their ducks in a row!

If Anthony Davis is indeed a target for the Knicks in this scenario, it would give New York an incentive to get Williamson under contract as soon as possible. They can offer the max 120% salary eligible to a top overall pick (amounting ~$9.7m in year 1) which carries appeal.

But what if Williamson’s camp happens to prefer New York? After all, he did say it “would be dope” to play with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He could wait to see what happens in free agency and then exercise what little leverage he has by putting off signing his contract. He could indicate to the Pelicans an unwillingness to play there.

For New Orleans, the specter of a lengthy summer-long trade process for a player who may be less than overjoyed to come could be a deterrent. Conversely, it has been rumored that Jayson Tatum, for example, would not mind being traded to the Pelicans.

Hypothetically though…

Acquiring Zion should carry tremendous appeal for New Orleans. Described by many experts as the top prospect since Davis himself, signing Zion would mitigate some of the sting of losing Davis. Being able to get a player of that caliber under team control for likely 7 years (perhaps two more than Tatum, who will be a 3rd year player next season) after extension, in addition to the slew of young Knicks’ prospects (who’d need to be kicked in just to make the contracts match) should be very tempting. The Knicks could legitimately contend with the best offers from around the league in this scenario, a marvel in itself.

OK hypothetically, if the Knicks win the draft lottery, and if they wanted to trade their pick and if New Orleans prefers their offer to that of 28 other teams how might this shake out?

Just for fun, let’s assume the Knicks will have spent all of their cap-space long before a deal actually takes place. That’s likely if the Knicks win the top pick and are open to trading it. Let’s say they can get Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to join them.

(That’s obviously what’s being discussed here at the All-Star Game right?)

The timing of signing two max players like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving is important. The Knicks are projected to have just enough cap space to get a 10+ year veteran max and 7-9 year veteran max under contract. If they were to trade for Anthony Davis before signing these two max players, they would no longer have the requisite space to make the signings.

The reason the Knicks can entertain the idea of adding a player like Davis on top of two max players is because they can trade salary on their books to take back more salary (in this case, 125% of the outgoing salary).

So with Davis due to earn $27 million in 2019, New York would need to send out at least $21.6m in salary. Or another way to look at it: they only have to use $21.6 million in cap space instead of being required to have the full $27 million available if Davis were signing as a free agent or being absorbed into cap space in a trade.

The problem is that since the Knicks have cleared most of their roster to make space to sign two max players, the existing salary on the books available to trade is limited.

However, if they packaged Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., and Kevin Knox together, they would have $13.7 million in aggregate salary. This is where the lottery pick becomes important. The rookie salary for the top pick at 120% of scale is $9.7 million, or just enough to push the Knicks over the $21.6 million threshold needed to make the salaries work in acquiring Davis.

Mitchell Robinson’s salary isn’t quite high enough to swap in for any one of the other young players, although he has played well enough lately it seems likely the Pelicans would insist upon including him as well.

Future draft picks don’t count against the cap next season so you can’t substitute those in for a young player but you can include them as well. To top Boston or Los Angeles or a surprise bidder, the Knicks may also have to include a future draft asset or three, although New York could potentially enjoy more assurances they’d be able to re-sign Davis in 2020 than at least Boston, per reports of Davis’ preferences.

Then New York would be looking at minimum roster charges and a ~$5 million Room Exception to fill out the rest of the roster. They could decide to bring back Allonzo Trier using the Room Exception, and sign Damyean Dotson to a minimum deal similar to what he would be earning if the team just guarantees his contract.

The rest of the roster would be thin, although it wouldn’t be surprising if a core of Durant, Irving, and Davis attracted every cheap, savvy “ring-chasing” veteran in free agency or next winter’s buyout market to help flesh out the team’s depth.

What are the chances?

Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 1.14.41 PM

Let’s boil this down to a number.

There’s the great chance the Knicks won’t get the top pick. The slim chance they win the lottery but won’t want to trade it away (maybe Kevin Durant comes and would prefer to play with Zion and all the young guys or maybe he stays in Golden State and the Knicks refuse to part with Zion). There is the solid chance that another team simply blows the Knicks’ offer out of the water and the unknown chance that New Orleans wants a swift resolution that a deal with New York would preclude.

All in all, I’d ballpark the chances of the Knicks trading for Anthony Davis somewhere around 5 to 7 percent as of today.

The odds will probably rocket up towards 40 percent or more if they win the lottery come this May depending on things like how much the Pelicans’ future GM loves Zion, if any other college players step up, what happens in free agency, or a player potentially involved in the trade gets seriously hurt.

It really comes down to the lottery. If the Knicks don’t win the lottery, they probably don’t have the best offer to convince New Orleans to complete a deal. They also would struggle to meet the salary matching requirements if they fall out of the top 2 in the draft.

To win a title in the NBA, you need to hit on some long-shot odds more than once. Having a 14% chance at Zion Williamson, possibly landing guys like Kevin Durant, and then navigating CBA hurdles or negotiating on the phone with some folks who may be more interested in football than hoops… that could be the path to restoring the Knicks to glory.

Imagine? You get to tell your grandkids that Steve Mills made a trade with an NFL team President for Anthony Davis, future Finals MVP of the New York Knicks. 

Having a six or seven percent shot at Anthony Davis is a heck of a lot better odds than fans in say, Charlotte or Detroit will ever have. New York is still a cool city players truly seem to want to play in, and even with lottery reform, it still just might pay big to avoid winning games.

Now they’ll have to keep losing, get lucky, and be patient while jumping over some weird hurdles and parting with all of their young guys to bring The Brow to Broadway by August.

A midseason review of Allonzo Trier

Allonzo Trier is doing his thing.

The undrafted rookie, who had been struggling since returning from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for seven games, has found his scoring form again, breaking out in the Knicks loss to Houston. He became the first Knick rookie to post 31 points and 10 rebounds since Patrick Ewing in 1985.

It seems like a good time to do a midseason review of his game.

The Knicks roster is a bit fluid right now, as they balance player development, reclamation projects, and potentially creating cap space via trade to chase superstars in the summer. However, unlike a handful of his teammates, Trier can breathe easy that his roster spot is secure, at least until late June. Because of the contract he signed in December, the Knicks can’t trade him before the February 7th trade deadline. And the way he has played, they wouldn’t have wanted to trade him, anyway.

Let’s take a deeper look at how Trier has performed so far and try to identify a player of similar style and fast-rising story.

Some Stats

Let’s start with the former Arizona Wildcat’s shot chart to date, per Austin Clemens:

He’s averaging 10.5 points per game, 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks over 39 games.

Per 36 minutes, that translates into 16.9 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.

He is fourth on the team with a 3-point percentage of 36.9 percent. Because of his big game against Houston, he passed Dallas Mavericks’ phenom Luka Doncic in true shooting percentage (TS%).1 Trier’s teammate Mitchell Robinson leads all rookies with a .672 percentage among players who have logged at least 15 minutes per game. (If Robinson is not swatting the ball, he’s probably dunking it).

Using advanced stats, Trier lives up to his nickname “Iso Zo.”

He is excellent in isolations (86th percentile, per Synergy Sports). He possesses a full arsenal of weapons to pick from in these situations, showing-off a variety of moves on drives in both directions, pull-ups, and jumpers without taking a dribble.

Per Synergy, he ranks in the 75th percentile in “spot up” plays. And he’s elite (87th percentile) with less than 4 seconds on the shot clock and is forced to create under duress.

These are often of the highlight variety:

Having so many offensive skills makes him very unpredictable; something that bodes well for a 23-year old. Try to guess what he’ll do the next time he has the rock in an iso-situation; it’s tricky, I’ve tried. Steer him left and he may start that way, then hop back, shot fake, and go right:

There’s room for him to grow as a Pick-n-Roll ball handler; he ranks in just the 44th percentile. Some argue this area will define whether or not he’s a long term solution for New York as a starting point guard in the modern NBA. If he wants to continue to prove his doubters wrong, this is the area he’d spend his upcoming summer on.

Something that surprises: his numbers suggest he’s better in catch-and-shoot situations (71st percentile) than he is off the bounce (46th percentile). But Knicks fans know well his fondness for putting the ball on the floor before pulling up. And while that appears to be his first instinct, it’s not necessarily more efficient. In the future, head coach David Fizdale might encourage him to shoot more off the catch.

He’s shooting 42.3% from beyond the arc on catch-and-shoot jump shots.

Defensively

The eye test would tell us that Trier isn’t the worst defender, but he isn’t the best at stopping people either. Per Synergy, the undrafted guard ranks a bit below average in overall defense. For a rookie, that’s not the end of the world. He’s made some really exciting plays on that end:

Funny enough, the area he’s been the best at defending is against isolations, where he receives a Synergy grade of “excellent” (for a limited 20 possessions).

Maybe he knows a thing or two after becoming a one-on-one wizard of his own? If this continues, the Knicks will really have something. I have an idea! We can call him “Iso Zo” when he scores in iso and “Iso Zone” whenever he gets a stop while being targeted.

He’s very good at the point-of-attack if he doesn’t have to figure out how to navigate screens and switches.

New York Jets legendary cornerback Darrelle Revis would be proud. Notice the fluid hips and quick feet here against John Wall:

He can use the most improvement in defending high screen-n-rolls. He’s a little better in side pick-n-rolls where the defense generally has less options, and he’s about average when chasing his man around screens.

Of course, struggling against a high pick-n-roll isn’t uncommon for rookies. Right Collin Sexton? 

Being able to catch and shoot, score in isolation, defend the pick and roll and defend in isolation are four skills Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey undoubtedly keeps an eye on when scouting. Zo is already quite good at three of those four.

Who does he remind me of?

When I study Trier’s game, I see a confident, aggressive, talented, but streaky player. I think his limitations are mostly in screen-n-roll situations, which he will improve upon as he gains more experience and understanding of NBA details. Certainly, he didn’t see these situations as much at Arizona. To reach his ceiling, he’ll need to improve significantly in this area.

I’m a biased Knicks fan who lived through Linsanity, but I often think of former Knicks’ guard Jeremy Lin when I watch Trier play. Lin made a name for himself in the NBA as a hyper-aggressive slasher who’d put relentless pressure on an opposing defense by getting into the paint and wreaking havoc.

During Linsanity, Lin was actually in the 95th percentile in the NBA in isolations. He was truly unstoppable for a stretch of time playing in former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. It would have been fun to see the coach/point guard duo get to work together more while surrounding Lin with shooters.

Knicks fans know he wasn’t afraid of the big moment:

We saw this same confidence when Trier delivered in crunch time against Houston.

Lin has had a tough road in the NBA. Almost like a child actor, Lin experienced the pinnacle of his career right at the very beginning. He openly struggled with having to start fresh and fight and claw just to maintain the role he has held in the league since.

But Lin is a fighter and capable of handling that pressure and has responded by learning the intricacies of the game that didn’t come naturally to him early on. He morphed into a pitbull on defense, before having to start from scratch again following the patellar tendon tear that cost him his age-29 season. Lin is roughly average from long range but offers more in the relentlessness of his game on both ends.

Lin is a great model for an undrafted and overlooked, but talented player with a chip on his shoulder. Trier isn’t shy. He once started a clothing line branded with his personal motto at the time: “When the lights come on, it’s time to perform.” He was in 6th grade at the time. Precocious, but that might be some of what’s needed to keep your head level when playing at The Mecca becomes your full-time job.

I’ve heard the Jamal Crawford comparisons as well. They’re both from Seattle, as is Nate Robinson. I think Trier has less offensive gifts than Crawford, but looks like he’ll be a better defender and rebounder.

Constant attack mode. That’s what I see in Trier so far. Unlike a few of our other favorite players, we can count on seeing more of him in the uniform the rest of this season and perhaps more.

And if there are any opposing team scouts reading, don’t bother testing “Iso Zone” if he’s alone on an island. He’ll be ready when the lights come on.

Is Frank Ntilikina the answer to all of David Fizdale’s lineup shuffling?

Let’s do a thought experiment for a moment.

Let’s say you’re David Fizdale, head coach of the New York Knicks (10-35), and you want to figure out a way to get your team to play better moving forward and you also want to get more out of struggling former lottery pick Frank Ntilikina.2

Maybe you pop in a simple 5-player lineup search on NBA.com and you see that for any Knicks lineup that has played together for at least 36 minutes this season, this has been your best one per net rating:

Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway, Mitchell Robinson, Damyean Dotson, and Noah Vonleh.

You might try it again at some point right?

That 5-man lineup was used for 94 minutes in the team’s first 15 games of the year. Leaned on, they won 3 of 7 and recorded one of the NBA’s best net ratings (+8.1) at the time.

But David Fizdale didn’t think they got off to a good enough start in the first quarter of games so he broke up the band. Here is what he said at the time per Newsday’s Steve Popper:

Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic wrote about the curious decision back in mid-November too.

Per The Athletic: 

“When Fizdale changed the starting lineup Wednesday, he went away from one of the few things that was objectively working for the Knicks.”

It was a head-scratcher then, but it’s really weird now. The quintet has not logged a single minute together since November 11th. It’s one thing to shake up the starting unit for better starts. But to literally not give a group that had one of the best net ratings in the entire NBA another minute as the team free-falls?

Talk about a baby-bath-water-tank situation.

Well OK Ok. Mitchell Robinson has been hurt, Frank was recently injured, and they needed to get Kevin Knox and others some run.

But much of all that has come at Ntilikina’s and the team’s expense and it feels at least a little unnecessary.

Have the changes helped?

Frank averaged 27.7 minutes per game over the team’s first 13 games. He has averaged 16 minutes since (counting his healthy yet inactive games, but not counting the games he missed with injury). Coach Fizdale lopped off more than about 10 minutes per game from Frank’s playing time following a stretch where Ntilikina was among almost all of the team’s best lineups. He played 30 minutes or more seven out of the team’s first nine games. He’s only played 30 minutes once ever since. Emmanuel Mudiay is the biggest beneficiary. But has that been good for New York?

The team to date now has a -3.5 net rating with Ntilikina as the primary ball handler (that means none of Trey Burke, Allonzo Trier or Mudiay for a total of 289 minutes per Fantasylabs.com).

When Emmanuel Mudiay is the primary ball handler (no Burke, no Frank, no Trier) the team’s net rating is -12.0. per FantasyLabs.com. But those Mudiay lineups have now been used for over 700 minutes. So the Mudiay-led lineup has received about 2.5 times more minutes as the Frank-led lineup while performing almost 3.5 times worse per net rating.2

And while Mudiay has certainly reached a bit of a turning point in his career, it has not necessarily made the Knicks better:

Since the change, Ntilikina has not only received fewer minutes overall but he has had limited opportunity to play with lineup combinations that were once effective.

For example:

  • A trio of Ntilikina, Vonleh, and Robinson logged 113 minutes with a net rating of +3.0 over the team’s first 15 games. But they only logged 17 minutes together total over the team’s next 30 games.
  • A four-player combo of Ntilikina, Dotson, Hardaway, and Vonleh logged 131 minutes with a net rating of -0.3 in the first 15 games, but they’ve only played 8 total minutes over the subsequent 30 games.
  • A four-player combo of Ntilikina, Dotson, Vonleh, and Robinson played 105 minutes (net rating +4.1) over the first 15 games, and didn’t log a single minute together over the next 30 games.

Fizdale was absolutely right that he didn’t have a winning unit. But he did have a much better unit than most of the seemingly infinite permutations he’s experimented with ever since.

New York is now tied for the third worst net rating per game of -9.2 per NBA.com. They have absolutely plummeted since trying other lineup combos. Since Fizdale abandoned his better lineup in early November, the team has won less (their winning percentage fell from 28.6% down to 19%).

The team previously held their own in first quarters (net rating -0.3 with the aforementioned 5-man unit, but now they just get smoked after jump balls with a net rating -10.8 ever since)3; and the team’s overall net rating went from bad to pathetic (from -5.1 down to -9.2).

Man did that backfire. Unless of course…

But even if the Knicks are tanking did Ntilikina really deserve less than 17 minutes per game over a two-month period? Ten minutes less than Mudiay?

In the team’s first 13 games of the year, Frank was not only starting and taking on the likes of Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving but the team had a respectable net rating of -3.6. The kid was showing the defensive brilliance Knicks fans learned to expect during his rookie season:

Ntilikina was in 8 out of 10 of the team’s best three and four-player lineup combinations. You can go back and swap Vonleh in for Dotson, or Hardaway in for Robinson. But that French kid was a constant.

Yet Frank was the one who was essentially demoted when a shakeup came. Did Fizdale sub out the right guy though?

How has the second-year guard from Ixelles, Belgium responded?

Frank took a backseat. He said the right things. And he has quietly rebuilt his resume back up from scratch with some new partners in crime. Per Synergy Sports, he’s a very good defender: elite when guarding isolations or handoffs, and good against pick-and-roll ball handlers. Offensively he’s been below average but performs his best out of isolations.

He’s had plenty of tests. Because coach Fizdale has essentially refused to allow any lineups the time to gel, Ntilikina has been forced to mesh with new faces on a near nightly basis.4

But Frank has made due. For any 3-player combination on the season, given at least 50 minutes, the third best net rating belongs to Ntilikina, Dotson, and newcomer to the rotation Luke Kornet.

Ntilikina paired with Dotson and Knox has a +5.9 net rating. Swap in Kornett for Dotson and that healthy rating doesn’t change.

Using net rating, for a minimum of 50 minutes played together, Ntilikina is in four of the team’s six best performing four-player lineups for the entire year. He’s adaptive and selfless.

Vonleh, Ntilikina, Dotson and Knox have only played 25 minutes together so far this year. Their net rating is +47.4. That number will regress but it’s a signal: there are plenty of combinations that will likely lead to improved play by incorporating more Frank. It’s really remarkable how many lineups he is in that have a slightly positive net rating given how poorly the team has played on the whole.

Somehow, someway, this kid who everyone is certain is underperforming, and whose confidence is shot, has consistently helped a 10-win team play some of its best basketball past the midway point of the season.

It could be because Frank makes plenty of plays that help the game score but not the boxscore: 

Ntilikina is in two of the team’s top three 5-player combinations for the entire season, for those that have logged 50 minutes. I’ve probably bored you with all of these combos but read this last one again. It was a surprise to me.

Even when Frank is not passing all of our fallible eye-tests or statistical measures of success, he plays a role within many of the team’s best lineups. We’re not seeing the type of offensive production we usually associate with NBA success. But whether he was playing with and against starters, or on bench units, (for any reasonably robust sum of minutes ) Frank’s name filters to the top.

He should challenge the way we evaluate NBA players the way Shane Battier once did; a player Fizdale knows quite well from their Miami Heat days.

Frank’s contributions are not lost on the Hall-of-Famer who once ran point for one of the most mesmerizing dynasties the sport has ever seen:

Is it fair to put this on the coach?

What’s perhaps most head-scratching about all of this is how putrid the team has been since Ntilikina’s role was reduced. It would make sense if the team was competing and the coach felt he wasn’t able to keep it up. But he IS contributing and they’re NOT competing.

What if Frank and some of the combos that have worked were allowed to log the type of 700-minute chunks we’ve seen Mudiay receive? Could they have been any worse?

Now I’ve picked on coach Fizdale here, but the team’s front office may have much more to do with everything we’ve seen. It’s entirely possible Fizdale is simply carrying out orders. And tons of losing is not on Mudiay, who has played some good ball in a tough situation.

If Ntilikina is traded, we will know he wasn’t in the front office’s long term plans. In that case, reducing his minutes to avoid injury is prudent.

If Mudiay is traded, we may learn the team was just showcasing him for an asset before turning the ship over to Ntilikina.

And of course, if the team plays so badly they wind up drafting Zion Williamson every single measure taken to make that happen will be seen as a stroke of brilliance in hindsight.

But, hypothetically, if the team wanted to win more games or wanted to develop Frank, they’d give him some more burn. The kid has been slowed down and the team has missed his presence, but he hasn’t been stopped. The advanced team stats prove the name Ntilikina just keeps filtering to the top.

Film Study: Analyzing Frank Ntilikina’s shooting form

Frank Ntilikina has struggled with his shot this season. It stands to reason that if he were hitting better than 28.9% from three, he might have avoided some of the benchings and trade rumors he has recently endured.

The margin between success and failure in the NBA can feel pretty slim. If Frank had hit ten more threes than the 28 he’s hit on the year, he’d be at an elite level of over 40 percent. If he’d hit just six more. he’d be at a very respectable 35 percent. Going from bad to good over the next 100 attempts may be a matter of subtle fine-tuning and not some dramatic overhaul.

Free Throws as a Petri Dish

If you want to predict three-point success at the NBA level, surprisingly, using college statistics, free throw percentage is a better indicator than three-point percentage. Part of this might be because it acts like a petri dish in a lab and allows scouts a way to put aside many variables inherent in the sport, like defense or footwork, and simply track a shooter’s form.

Frank shot 27/42 from the line in France (64 percent). So far in the NBA, he is shooting 74.5 percent from the line. But he’s trending up. This season he’s up to a career best mark of 80.8 percent. The video above will show you why he’s making more from the line this season. Hint: he’s more disciplined in his follow through.

When translating to three-pointers, Frank is a better shooter the more closely he uses his free throw form. If you’re skeptical, like me, you can watch the video and say “c’mon Dave, he’s wide open on a lot of the 3’s you included, everyone is better like that.”

And this is fair. But why would this be? Because the closer a defender is, the more it can cause a player to change his shot. Variance, the number one enemy of great shooters, increases as we try to gauge different levels of power, arm drift, or depth perception.

It’s important for Frank to practice using the same form he uses on his free throws, even when we introduce new elements like dribbling, footwork, and a contest from a defender.

The benefit to a good follow through is that it allows a shooter to seek consistency with respect to depth perception. Frank misses lots of shots short, which is not a coincidence since he often drops his follow through, sometimes swings his arms back, or begins heading backwards on defense before his shot even reaches the basket area. Frank doesn’t do any of these things on his free throws.

For a great look into Frank’s foot-work, here is an awesome breakdown by Steve Dagostino, an NBA development coach, who works with Atlanta’s rookie sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter. Frank is still very young and may not even know which of his footwork choices will wind up being the best for him, although it appears he’s more comfy stepping into a shot rather than waiting with a foot planted (except on corner threes, where this changes).

There are plenty of other principles to look at in examining Frank’s shot, including his guide-hand, a slight “tilt” in the positioning of his feet, which some longer armed shooters enjoy, but this video/post was meant to simply point out one area he may be able to improve upon right away.

Go ‘head and pose for us, Frank. You’re better when you’re a bit cocky anyway. Follow through and freeze through the entire shot and don’t go back on D until the ball is long gone from your hands. Give us a chance to take some photos.

Enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments or on twitter.

Happy 2019 folks. Here’s to better form on all of our jump shots.

Who should the Knicks call about a potential Courtney Lee trade?

Courtney Lee has recovered from his neck injury and for the first time in this young season saw game action, logging 16 minutes and shooting 1-4 from the field vs. the Wizards. It will be interesting to see how he is deployed in the near future. There may be some incentive to ease him back into the rotation, but also to showcase his health and talent for a possible upcoming trade.

He is a leader and a mentor as our own Michael DeStafano has written. But signing Kevin Durant is the master plan for the Knicks and they’re currently a bit short financially for that goal. As our Knicks Film School Founder, J.B., recently wrote: 

“Really, it all boils down to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee.”

There are plenty of salary details in that last link, but the gist is they’re going to need around ~$6.4m more in order to create a max roster spot for Durant and that means someone on the books has to go.

A Refresher on the Lee Situation

If you know this well, feel free to skip ahead to trade scenarios. But here is some context:

As early as September, it seemed as if Lee was the most likely Knick to be traded for expiring contracts. Remember, Coach David Fizdale called Lance Thomas a “natural” leader but didn’t offer similar praise for Lee back in September and the team did not include him in their “Future of New York” promo and Lee appeared to reply to what the NY Post called a “slight” on his social media. 

With the stated focus on developing young players, and Lee’s apparent interest in playing again for a contender, it makes sense to reluctantly part with the 11 year guard out of Western Kentucky.

But…

What’s going on with his neck?

Then there was the mysterious injury which complicated things. On the third day of training camp, he took a hard foul from Ron Baker which sent him flying into the support beam under the hoop. Despite getting close to returning more than once, he was held out the lineup until this past week. There was even mention of nerve stuff and spasms at one point. He finally appears healthy again, or healthy enough to return to the lineup, so now it’s about revving the engine back up and finding a team where he fits.

Caught up? Good. Now one disclaimer: I researched this piece before Frank Ntilikina’s name popped up-a few times a day since Thanksgiving in trade rumors. I’m simply not emotionally ready to research much bigger trades that send out Lee with Frank.5 So for this piece, these are all trades of the “keep Frank a bit longer” variety.

Now let’s make some calls.

Click NEXT/SWIPE to view trades

Pelicans

The Pelicans have that clock in their heads. They may want to act boldly in order to retain their superstar, Anthony Davis, who might already have that wandering eye.

There are some players on the Pelicans who aren’t exactly indispensable.

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Wesley Johnson is on the books for $6.1m and his deal expires this summer. He makes an ideal candidate to build a trade around.

Wesley is shooting a blistering hot 42.5% from three and holds a more than respectable .572 true shooting percentage.  Not exactly the kind of play that gets you shipped out for someone coming off a spooky neck injury. However, Wesley has regressed to career averages recently and may continue to do so.

A player like Ian Clark (eligible for trade on Dec. 15th) or Tim Frazier could be strewn into the deal to make the contracts work.

The margins are slim and the Pelicans may have their sights set higher as teams like Washington or Miami consider major changes. But in the event they whiff there, or if the Knicks sweetened the pot somehow, this might become something they’d consider and would fully clear Lee’s salary.

Wolves

It has been rumored since the Jimmy Butler trade that the Timberwolves would waive Jerryd Bayless.

They have not done so yet, and it might be fair to speculate that they’re considering if Bayless has any value as an expiring contract before doing so. By trading for Lee, it would give Tom Thibodeau a player he has long had his eyes on, per the Minnesota beat (you remember the Lee for Ricky Rubio rumors).

Perhaps Thibs could extract an asset in addition to Lee. I wondered aloud if this exact deal, pending Lee’s health, is part of the reason Minny hasn’t waived Bayless and heard back from the top two members of the T-Wolves’ beat:2

So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance!

Grizzlies

The narrative surrounding this one is too good, isn’t it?

If you looked up Knicks’ Coach David Fizdale’s track record, then you know that he helped JaMychal Green develop into a player who was instrumental to the Grizz’s gritty playoff run in 2016-2017. Green saw perhaps his most efficient season as a pro, and played the third most minutes behind Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol in their first round run.

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Green received that compliment, likening him to Udonis Haslem, known as a leader on the 3-championship Miami Heat teams, and where Coach Fiz was an assistant coach. Well, Green recently broke his jaw which gave the exhilarating rookie, Jaren Jackson Jr., an opportunity to flourish. It doesn’t appear that Jackson is going to relinquish his role anytime soon – dude just dropped 36 and 8 on Brooklyn and he turned 19 in September.

Reuniting Green with coach Fiz and letting Memphis welcome back Lee, who enjoyed a couple terrific years in Music City, makes lots of sense. The Grizz have some choices for who to kick in to make the salary match, like MarShon Brooks, Omri Casspi, and Wayne Selden; none of them are exactly tearing it up.

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For Memphis fans, they get this guy back:

I think this is my favorite one for both sides as of this writing.

Pacers

Rookie Aaron Holiday is coming on. The Pacers may not feel they need both of Darren Collison and Corey Joseph (each expiring). Parting with one for Lee could create more opportunity for Holiday, while assisting their off-ball perimeter play on each end of the floor with a touch more size. Collison is involved in lots of twitter trades by Pacer fans, often in a bundle for Kemba Walker. Indy has loads of upcoming cap-space, maybe more than they’d “need” given their situation. They could afford ~$12m-$13m for Lee’s talents if preferred deals for players like Terry Rozier or Walker fail to materialize. Indy is Lee’s hometown and they’re a good team so there could be some “do right by Lee good karma” there too. He’d be a really great fit here.

Kings

The idea that Lee would want out of New York to join a contender and the Kings name would come up is absurd. But amazingly the Kings aren’t a dumpster fire. They’re on a skid lately, losing 8 of 13, but with no draft pick, and therefore, no incentive to tank, they have reason to remain scrappy. They have cap-space, but not a ton of options to lure players to Sacramento. Lee could potentially provide an excellent replacement for Garrett Temple, a mentor to Buddy Hield, and be a key contributor in a push to make the playoffs, no matter how unlikely.

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The Kings are missing an athletic, experienced wing like they once had in former Knick Doug Christie, and they have an unbalanced roster, weighted towards lots of front-court players. Why not Courtney?

Jazz

The Jazz fall into the “non-expiring Plan B” section of my trade scenarios. Maybe finding someone else to pay all of next year’s salary is tricky, but at least the Knicks could reduce the cost of what they owe to Lee. Remember, they are only about $7 million shy of max space for Durant. Lee is owed north of $12 million, so they could technically take some money back and be ok.

Utah was really ailing, which is why they already pulled the trigger on sending Alec Burks and a couple second round picks to Cleveland for Kyle Korver. But that doesn’t mean they’re done making moves. Especially because Korver doesn’t address one of their biggest needs.

As that piece above suggests, the aggressiveness with which a team can defend high-screens has been limited with “freedom of movement” rule changes. This has hurt the Jazz especially, who had a stifling defense a year ago, and this change further increases their need for specialists on the perimeter.

Thabo Sefolosha was a solid perimeter defender and career 34 percent 3-point shooter, but he’s 34 years old now. He’s coming off knee surgery. And he’s played just 80 minutes this year.

Sefolosha’s expiring $5.2m and Ekpe Udoh’s (Knicks love former lottery picks!) $3.3m gets you the building blocks for this one. But you may need to involve trade exceptions (Utah possesses two, and NY one) or Raul Neto’s non-expiring but paltry $2.2m to make it all work which gets a bit complicated. But the need is there.

When healthy, Lee is a speedier version of Jae Crowder, enabling them some much needed depth. Tim Hardaway Jr. would have really infused life into an offense that now lives and dies with Donovan Mitchell’s creation. Another 3-level scoring counter punch might really have helped. But with Burks in Cleveland now, it’s less likely. All the more reason to talk about Lee.

Spurs

Gregg Popovich shoved his chips to the center of the table. Rumored to be contemplating retirement around 2020, he all but confirmed as much by seeking packages for talented All-Star DeMar DeRozan instead of asset bundles or developmental projects when he traded Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio has never been a place stars yearn to go, so $13m in 2019 cap space might not be as valuable to them as it would be to say, the Clippers.

Don’t you get the sense that Pop sometimes looks out at Davis Bertans heaving 3’s and thinks “two years of this for $7m per… or pay a little more for guy who can do that but also plays the other half of the game! Especially now that Dejounte Murray is hurt and Danny Green is gone. Man do I miss Timmy.

Here was what Pop offered last year on Bertans:

“It’s not his strong point, but it’s not for lack of effort,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said about Bertans’ defense in February, via Orsborne.

And here is what Marilyn Dubinski of Pounding the Rock recently wrote: 

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You can’t not do whatever it takes to make the playoffs after going all in to win now in the Kawhi deal. They’re currently in a brutal conference and 538 hates their chances of making the playoffs as presently constructed.

Davis Bertans and Quincy Pondexter (expiring) for Lee. Who says no?

This is possible after January 15th since Bertans was recently extended. It would grant the Knicks very close to the amount they’d need to get KD, and offer a moveable contract in the form of a cheap stretch big, who just might rub off some Spurs-magic on Kevin Knox and the other young guns.

Pistons

Ahh the PuPu Platter. The east is open. The Pistons are currently 4th in the standings. Weird, I know. Because look:

How about Lee for Big Dog’s son, Glen Robinson III. Also everyone’s favorite NBA goon Zaza Pachulia and the best part of all…welcoming back José Calderón! That still leaves us a few million short. But man welcoming back Numero Ocho, the guy who you once thought was a solid centerpiece in a return for Tyson Chandler as a triangle point guard!

The trade that began the miserable march towards drafting King Kristaps Porziņģis.

Detroit has had almost impossible luck finding two-way wings who can space the floor and stay healthy3. They have even worse luck recruiting great free-agents. A healthy Lee could offer what they once loved about Avery Bradley, who they recently coveted before sending him to LA in the Blake Griffin deal.

As Detroit continues to involve promising rookies like Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown into their rotation, there are even more players on their roster who could become expendable like Ish Smith (expiring) or former Knick, Langston Galloway; although both of them are key members of the Piston’s rotation now. Worth a preliminary phone call to see what they’d be open to down the road.

What about Tax Teams and Title Contenders?

Finally, a team who reasoned that acquiring Lee could put them over the top might consider making a win-now move at the cost of future cap spending. These teams might include the Thunder, Rockets, Celtics, Sixers, Raptors, Bucks or Warriors.

It’s tricky. The Celtics, Warriors, and Sixers are all playing in two competitive time zones, now and in the future. Philly has shot down any rumors of interest in Lee in the past. Maybe a call to see if that’s changed now that Markelle Fultz and Ntilikina might be in play?

The Bucks don’t have much in terms of cap-relief (a deal involving Matthew Dellavedova would only save NY a few million dollars). The Thunder do have one fit in a move for Alex Abrines and Raymond Felton, but major tax issues to address. The Rockets are always creative enough to give a call to as one of the teams who value Lee’s skill-set the most. But because Brandon Knight has two years remaining on his contract, it’s hard to find deals that work.

Because many of the deals in this article cannot even happen before December 15th and January 15th, anyway, it gives Lee a chance to prove he is healthy and rehabilitate his trade value, while giving the laws of attrition a chance to thin out some rosters as injuries have a way of creating new market needs.

 

Where Frank Ntilikina’s struggles began and what the Knicks should consider before entertaining any trade ideas

What did Frank Ntilikina do to deserve this?

Is he experiencing a similar fate as Willy Hernangómez, who was once billed as the future of the Knicks, then quickly relegated to a bench role before being traded to make room for more experienced veterans? It seems every day we get a new report that makes a trade feel at least a little more likely. 

Then David Fizdale implied that his players have started to settle into who they are going to be, only 25 games into the season! And if this is in anyway a reflection of his views towards Frank, who has been awful lately, it may lend another waft of smoke to the grey plume recently hovering over the sophomore’s head. Here’s the full quote, see what you think:

“Some of it still gotta be fight,” Fizdale said, explaining why the Knicks’ young players have seen their minutes drop lately. “Some of it still gotta be take and grab it and earn it. I don’t want to just give it all to them, especially now that we’re getting closer to the 25-game mark. Guys have kind of settled into starting to see who guys are going to be.”

Is it possible Frank has already shown him who he is?


How did we get here?

Let’s start with what has happened on the court. Clearly, Frank is struggling. His numbers this year are worse than his rookie campaign with Jeff Hornacek. Yikes.

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At times, watching him struggle recently has been cringe-worthy. It’s almost tempting to think: “Fiz has all the other young guys ballin’. Look at Allonzo Trier! It’s gotta be on Frank.”

To recap, Frank averaged ~30 minutes per game in October. Then he averaged a few less (23.8 minutes) when the calendar turned to November. Then came a home game vs Orlando. The team came out flat on both ends. Sure, Frank came out with his usual defensive acumen…but we already knew he could do that, we need offense now.

Both Frank and Tim Hardaway Jr. opened the game 0-3 with a turnover. Tim got plenty more chances but Frank was pulled for the night. A clear message was sent. Fizdale reduced his role significantly since this moment (he’s averaging about 16.9 minutes a contest since the benching) and his minutes have come sporadically, and not with the same units he enjoyed when he was last seen at all playing well. 

In case you’re curious, here were the 3 shots he missed. All pretty, with a similar flaw that a full-time shooting coach would be able to help. I’m not sure if the Knicks have one employed. But if they do, it’s one of the more fixable problems. It’s still a pretty shot, not like Josh Jackson’s or Markelle Fultz’s.

It’s condescending to use teaching or parenting metaphors for coaches because players aren’t children. I don’t mean it this way but it’s apt. Parents and teachers understand that rewarding effort can pay off more than rewarding results. Think: she got every problem wrong but she tried really hard. Offer praise for effort and teach proper technique. Avoid discouraging the student.

Frank can control his defense, but not whether or not he hits a couple of shots in just three tries. I disagreed with this extended benching and ensuing revocation of basically all lead-guard duties outside of garbage time. It’s possible this is still in the back of Frank’s mind, wondering if he plays good defense but misses a couple of jumpers, he could get a quick hook.

He hasn’t looked the same to me since this moment and has had almost no opportunities since to play with the lineups where he looks his best.

(For persuasive and compelling counterarguments on how less is sometimes more, or how Frank may have been benched because playing him could have done “more harm than good” read Jonathan Macri’s thoughts on this if you haven’t already. Great stuff.)

But Frank wasn’t nearly as bad just a couple of weeks ago. In fact, one of his best games came against the defending champs.

Two-way play like this has the attention of many teams, if not New York’s. It actually seemed as if the Knicks were onto something with a lineup of Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Noah Vonleh and Mitchell Robinson. There was real chemistry there. But then the team got spanked in Oklahoma City and Fizdale has largely abandoned the project that seemed like the best course for developing Frank.

Why?

Fizdale was right the team was not winning. And since then he has gone to a lineup featuring more veterans and nearly doubled his win total since this date.

Trey Burke has shined. And Emmanuel Mudiay’s inspired play has earned Fizdale tons of praise for his ability to rehabilitate the career of guys who once appeared completely lost on a court. Frank’s partner in crime, Damyean Dotson, was weirdly benched altogether for four games.4 The Knicks rattled off three wins in four games with scrappy play by Burke, Mitchell Robinson, Mudiay, Enes Kanter, Vonleh, and undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier. All of this was really exciting. Fizdale has spread the minutes around to everyone on the roster and increased the trade value of some guys who may not stick around long term. Awesome!

But then the Frank trade rumors began and we started to realize maybe we were leaving someone out of all the fun.


Where Has Frank Thrived?

Let’s now dig into the lineups that have allowed Frank to play some of his best basketball. Below are the Knicks best 3-man combos to date. You’ll notice Frank is in three out of the team’s top 5, per Basketball-Reference Lineup Finder tool:

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So it’s interesting isn’t it? Not only was he personally playing better ball within these combos, they also comprise the Knicks best 3-man units to date, per that +/- measure. Wow.

For what it’s worth: this athletic trio of Dotson, Frank and Hardaway Jr. pass the eye test also. They were just developing a nice chemistry before the band was broken up. 

The idea that the Knicks could simultaneously develop their core players and also play some of their best basketball seems almost too good to be true. How serendipitous, as Clyde Frazier might say.

This trio, without any of the other ball-handlers, like Burke, Mudiay, or Trier, appear to embolden Frank with just enough responsibility in terms of initiation, but without forcing him to have to do too much or relegating him to harmless bystander. 

But ok, lineup data is noisy, maybe the net rating is only good because of other factors.

Well take a look at the following splits. They’re from a cool website called FantasyLabs, and show how Frank personally has performed (per 36 minutes) in various lineup combinations:

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(“Frank Primary ball handler” means lineups with Frank excluding Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, and Allonzo Trier. FPTS is DraftKing’s fantasy points, a proprietary algorithm that’s similar to PER although adjusted for shooting efficiency).

You’ll notice certain things like:

  • Frank just hasn’t played as well with another on ball-guard in the lineup. Interesting for those obsessed with his “true position.”
  • He hasn’t played especially well with Enes Kanter.
  • His assists are pretty low when he’s the primary ball-handler, unless we put him in a lineup with Dotson and Hardaway, and then he sees some of his best numbers of all.
  • While he personally plays well with Dotson and Hardaway, the presence of others with them (like Mudiay, Burke or Kanter especially) sometimes thwarts progress.
  • You need to remove Mudiay, Burke, Kanter and Hezonja, and replace them with Vonleh and Robinson to unlock not only Frank’s potential, but the unit’s overall potential on both ends of the floor. There has existed a Frank + team synergy not long ago. And it came with his highest usage of this comparison.

My takeaways are this: 1) the net ratings for Frank are better with the lineups highlighted above, and the team is better, too; 2) if the team is truly “agonizing over whether he’s a point guard or wing,” as has been reported, the best way to find the answer is to play him in the situations he plays well in. Then let the answers come to you. Channel creativity and foster positivity.

Using whether or not the team actually won a game (where you’re literally pitting 19-year-olds against Paul George) as a barometer for a specific lineup is a mistake that’s so silly you just hope the reason given to us wasn’t true.

I understand the incentive to determine whether or not he can be a superstar before everyone else and get ahead of it. Having more information than the competition can be a major advantage whether you’re selling high on Anthony Bennett or Michael Carter Williams. And selling late, like in the case of Jahlil Okafor, can be disastrous. But if you’re at all open to a player being good and are still curious about his position, then the best way to learn is experimentation and the ultimate lab is an actual game.


Competing Goals

I might be a little hard on Fizdale in this post and that doesn’t sit well with me because I think he’s done a very good job in a very difficult environment, and like others, I refuse to judge him completely in a rebuilding year like this. He’s outmatched and has so many competing priorities. I get it.

Consider his competing goals:

  1. Develop his youngest players to see which ones are truly part of the long-term plan
  2. Develop and showcase some of the team’s one-year reclamation projects and trade candidates
  3. Keep most of the fans happy and compete and win as many games as possible
  4. Create the perception that the team is on the way up for potential free agents who are looking for a “win now” team, while realizing this team is anything but a win-now team, and might be best suited to “tank” for the highest possible lottery pick
  5. Keep lineups balanced and staggered so that every rookie or sophomore gets some reps with the vets
  6. Eventually find a few lineups, and keep them, so guys can develop cohesion, chemistry, confidence, rhythm. (Remember, Fiz’s former team, the championship Heat, even struggled acclimating to each other in their first 20 games) 
  7. Add ten other things I can’t even think of

It’s nuts. And we’ll forgive him if he can’t tackle each one of these each evening.

As fans continue to show their support for Ntilikina, it’s entirely possible this front office has (accurately) determined his ceiling isn’t high enough, the way Sam Hinkie once crushed swaths of Sixers fans’ spirits when he traded Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter Williams.

***Can you honestly even imagine if Frank won ROY and then was traded for a pick that might not convey for 4 years and that you’d also look back on it and think that was one of the most wonderful fleecings of the decade? That happened! And it was the right decision.

All of that being said, whether you want to keep Frank and develop him, or trade him, it would behoove the Knicks while he’s here to put him back in situations where he has recently played his best basketball. Some rebuilding teams aren’t as lucky. Their 20-year-olds aren’t part of any winning lineups. We’ve seen a couple with Frank that have worked.

Trading him now at an all-time low value standpoint (after cratering some of his value with benchings and frenetic lineup changes) without first exploring some of these lineups again would be a mistake unless you know you’re getting something really really special in return.

Report: Knicks seeking draft picks to package for a star?

This morning we learned from ESPN’s Ian Begley that the Phoenix Suns may be interested in acquiring Frank Ntilikina.

Then John Gambadoro of Arizonasports.com reported that the Knicks are looking for draft picks to package for a star player in any deal that involves Ntilikina.

In his estimation, the Suns’ pick from the Milwaukee Bucks (acquired in the Eric Bledsoe deal) might be sufficient to get the deal done.

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Gambadoro is the same reporter who was first to break the story that the Suns and the Knicks discussed a potential trade for Kristaps Porziņģis before the 2017 NBA Draft.

This report was later confirmed by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, then with Yahoo Sports.

And so now we know what the Knicks might want in a deal for the former 2017 8th overall pick from France. Because they may be of the mindset that Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving (both once reportedly interested in teaming up with the Knicks) are both staying with their respective teams, the Knicks could be setting their sights on acquiring a star via trade.

It will be interesting to see if the Knicks have altered their strategy in chasing star players to add to their young roster. Could they be considering moving Frank Ntilikina for draft picks that they could eventually bundle for a star? We shall see.

Is Kevin Knox good enough to lure Kevin Durant?

Want to hear a weird fantasy of mine? Ok here goes. Kevin Durant comes home from another boring blowout win, and some bickering with Draymond Green, and then puts on his pajamas and some highlights from around the league and what does he see? A kid who doesn’t hide that he grew up idolizing Durant putting on a show at MSG. And Durant thinks to himself, “Hey this kids pretty good. I bet it would be so fun to be his teammate.” And that kid is Kevin Knox. 2

We may not get to see much of a healthy Kristaps Porziņģis this year, so we really want one of our “puppies,” as Coach David Fizdale says, to show some legit potential as an added selling point to attract the biggest fish. Otherwise it could be another year of waiting, or worse, settling for a sub-par but expensive consolation prize.2

Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball didn’t need to be world-beaters last year for the Lakers. They just needed to show enough potential to give LeBron James the hope that he could build something with that young core one day. Can something similar happen this year for the Knicks? Because to acquire KD without showcasing a healthy Porzingis, it may have to.

I know Knox hasn’t played much, just 120 total minutes, but it’s time for the first of hopefully several way-to-early video breakdowns of his game. We need one or two guys on this team to really step up and show that the future in New York is bright and Knox might just be the best bet. Maybe his coach showing some confidence in him will help.

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Finding an Expert

I didn’t fully trust my own eye for talent, so I enlisted a little help from an expert, The Stepien’s wonder-kid, Jackson Hoy, is a must follow on Twitter. I was blown away by Jackson’s writing and analysis this past spring and it changed the way I think about certain b-ball elements so it was super exciting to get his perspective. He had Knox 18th overall last June on his Big Board.

So for this piece, I asked Jackson if his opinion has evolved after Knox’s  Summer League breakout, or early NBA career. Here is what he told me:

“I really haven’t had a chance to see Knox much in preseason or regular season, but I do think he has looked more quick-twitch athletically since his time at Kentucky. He’s moving better on defense and having an easier time getting past guys off the dribble. His shot mechanics were always there at UK so I wasn’t particularly worried about his shot translating, especially with how much he shot off pindowns. So, the way he has been able to move in NBA space has definitely been a positive and has allowed him to look more like a big wing than a small-4.

I still want to see him continue to develop higher-level decision-making and court awareness on both ends, as he was never much of a passer at Kentucky and was notoriously bad at racking up blocks and steals. Beyond that, his defensive attentiveness was lacking on tape, and even in Summer League we saw him drive into crowded lanes rather than passing to open teammates. So the court awareness is probably the biggest thing for him to work on going forward.”

So with his thoughts in mind, let’s go make up our own. Get your your popcorn and get into your favorite Knicks onesie pajamas KD probably wears. It’s time to watch film.3


Runners

At UK, Knox was 25/61 on runners for 40.1%, per Synergy

He has already attempted eight runners so far this season and made three, pretty close to his college percentile. Below is a nice one:

As you get to know Knox as a player, you’ll also begin to notice Knox sometimes tries these “in between” shots that Synergy Sports still classifies as a runner but they have a slightly indecisive feel to them. Above, he rejects the screen but then … am I taking a jump shot? Am I taking floater? Am I taking a jump hook?

Here’s another:

Then below, he sometimes takes a clear floater, not an in-betweener, so that’s good. It’s makeable. But he probably shouldn’t have taken it at all. Look:

Remember Jackson’s input: court awareness, ball handling and passing are things we want to see Knox improve upon. To entice Durant, we’re looking for sets of skills to snowball, so that one day they avalanche. For example, if he were just a little more confident with his dribble, he might take one more into the teeth of the D, suck up the help then make it easier to spot Mario Hezonja open there in the right corner pocket. Did you spot Mario? Watch it again. He might have attacked contact too. The open 3’s for teammates and free throws help avoid efficiency pitfalls like ESPN’s Kevin Pelton cautions against here:

Now I hear a couple of you resisting. “Doofus! He’s played in 7 games, don’t restrict him already!” And you know what? You’re very persuasive so I’m going to I agree with you. But let’s compromise. I suggest he keep working on his handle and attacking and drawing contact while also intentionally seeking shots for teammates or “sharing the game” as Coach David Fizdale would tell him. We’ll check back in down the road on his runner efficiency. For now, it’s great that he has the touch to confidently take them as they’ll make him less predictable to cover.


Finishing

Finishing has been something Knox had a bit of trouble with going back to Kentucky. The raw numbers in school turned out OK relative to some other prospects:

At the Rim:

Kevin Knox: 66/97, 68%
Miles Bridges: 74/115 64.3%
Mikal Bridges: 101/145, 69.65%

… but the film often told a different story. 4

Per Synergy, Knox currently ranks in just the 2nd percentile in terms of finishing around the rim so far, and while that number is likely to regress in a good way, it’s also indicative of something college fans of Knox already knew: he has a bit of trouble with this.

Here, see what you think:

You’ll begin to notice there is less explosiveness off of a single leg jump. That one was way too easy for Jarrett Allen and his 7’4.5 wingspan to time.

This play above feels indicative of an issue for him. He is fairly quick and capable of gathering the ball from a huge distance from the cup. That’s great. But it seems to me like he burns a bit of his energy and power in getting to the hoop and can run out of steam when it comes time to get up, seek contact, and finish over the help. That’s just my humble opinion but see what you think, here’s another:

It’s certainly not an easy layup. And it doesn’t seem like one he can’t make. But it does appear again that he sort of expends his burst. Maybe this will come with power training and as his lower body and core continues to get stronger. 5

One more for you where an NBA level big who isn’t exactly Joel Embiid or Rudy Gobert, but simply understands the concept of verticality, gives Knox lots of trouble. One of his coaches will probably note that he had the wrap around bounce pass to Noah Vonleh here. It’s not a concept that is foreign to him. You can see him do it below at UK, he drives, feels the help, decelerates then drops the dime.

In the next video, you can watch his three best finishes of the year, in my opinion. Notice they’re all off two-foot jumps. The first one, after a really nice sequence he shows Michael Jordan-style probing jab steps, then a cross-over earns a trip to the stripe and gets the Garden crowd going.

In his most recent game, the route vs. Orlando, Mike Breen noted a few positives. Aside from Mitchell Robinson’s block-fest, he observed Knox seeking contact. He wound up shooting 10 free throws, having not even shot 3 in any previous game. Here, (yes it was garbage time from the moment he entered the contest but still) he even takes on the ludicrous length of Mo Bamba and gets to the line.

Finding ways to get to the rim for these types of two-legged bursts while drawing fouls is one way to increase his efficiency until he continues to fill out a little more.

And of course, we got this this one-handed master-blaster.

If Durant saw more plays like that, he might tweet something like this about Knox:

(You may not think that’s a good thing, but having poop with you to Durant, is apparently very good!)

Finding creative ways to take shorter strides, or an extra dribble, and get to a two-legged jump would help as he gets stronger. Maybe like this move by his teammate, Allonzo Trier:


Pull Ups

Here the film and the stats contradict a little bit. He’s only 2/9 so far on pull-ups per Synergy, with a grade of “poor,” but they don’t look bad to me. For example, a player like Robert Covington is an elite defender and a very good catch-and-shoot player, but not good off the dribble. And when you watch him play, you can almost feel Covington’s lack of comfort firing off the bounce. Not so with Knox. While he may never be as good off the bounce as catch-and-shoots, his shot looks comfortable and mechanically sound enough to be a weapon for him over time. See if you agree.

His favorite thing to do has been to take one or two dribbles off a screen-roll for an 18′ pull up like so:

And another couple below:

I’m leaving you the full possessions so you can get a complete feel for the shots he’s taking. He’s been a little early, not always letting Vonleh get set on the pick and the second clip probably isn’t a great shot but the mechanics are sound.


3’s

Shooting in the 70th percentile in the half court is very good. Three-point shooting is the best thing about his game so far. An overwhelming positive. His release point is so high. Here’s a little Devin Booker patented “sorry tall person, I didn’t notice you were in my face” for ya:

That was the recently injured, Caris LaVert, and his 6’10 wingspan. No problem. Impervious, as Clyde Frazier would say.

Vince Carter the legendary leaper can’t reach this shot anymore. This jumper works. This one below is even more impressive.

And above, notice he sells the cut before accepting the back-screen from Baker. This looks easier than it is. He has to retreat and get behind the three-point line but not step out, a mistake he’s made a few times this year. Big feet. Maybe still growing. Enes Kanter draws the whole defense and has to avoid lots of arms to get this through. It’s still a tough catch and shoot play, and man, Knox has some poop with him, as KD might say.

You may have seen the reports that while Knox was rehabbing his ankle, he tinkered on his mechanics with his dad, a former NFL wide receiver, and now unfortunately Knox shoots exactly like one throws a football! Devastating. Just kidding, but if they were looking for something, here on both of these two pretty releases, he drops his shooting arm a hair early and back pedals a bit; likely why he misses short.

Again from the top, see all that backwards momentum he has? Had he just stayed put or leaned into this one, he probably makes it. Short by a couple inches.

Actually though, by my count he’s been almost twice as likely to miss long so far rather than short. Something to keep an eye on.


Moving Forward

Knox feels like a player to me, who, like perhaps Otto Porter, has the potential to make a dramatic impact on a game before he looks like a star. I don’t mean to imply he’s like Otto, or that’s his floor or ceiling. I mean that Porter is someone who is not a prolific scorer, highlight machine, or freak athlete. But unlike Porter’s teammates, he offers the Wizards a complete Swiss army knife skill-set. He offers a combination of interior + post defense, cross-position switching. He became someone who could play both the ball-handler and the roll-man in a pick and roll, could both grab-and-go or a fill the lane in transition, and of course, knock down jump shots and 3’s. Unlike some of the higher-floor, lower ceiling players that were drafted in and after his range, Knox at least has the potential to do all this and more. It’s possible he could become really really good before your casual fan even notices.

We want to see progress in the areas Jackson mentioned: court-awareness, aggressive contact seeking, ball handling and passing. He has been attacking the offensive glass lately, maybe it’ll translate to defensive rebounds soon, too.

Remember my fantasy? This is New York, I need to dream much much bigger. Fantasizing about Kevin Durant watching Kevin Knox play isn’t exactly dreaming big. The real scenario we should all spend more time daydreaming about is Kevin Durant, Kevin Knox and ME all on the Knicks, and we’re all tall and rich and best friends, and we hang out all the time!

I kid, but the truth is, Kevin Durant or other stars will absolutely be keeping an eye on our young players like Knox. Let’s check back in soon on their progress, hopefully with some highlights that knock KD’s socks off.

Tim Hardaway Jr. is scorching hot, but so is whoever he is guarding

Tim Hardaway Jr. has been on absolute fire to start this season. He’s 12th in the NBA in scoring, with 26.0 points per game, and he is attempting over 9 triples per contest connecting on a remarkable 41.1% of them. For those who have argued (absolutely guilty) that he’s overpaid, he suddenly appears a lot less overpaid than he did 8 games ago, doesn’t he?

Certainly this level of scoring is what Knicks Team President Steve Mills had in mind in July 2017 when he inked him to a contract similar to the one Joakim Noah received the summer before.

But you probably also noticed that opposing teams so far this year have been going at Tim Hardaway Jr. And I mean going at him.

Ideally, teams look for the best open shot for anyone on their club. But in order to achieve that gold-standard they may begin by exploiting a mismatch. They might look to involve someone who isn’t a great defender in lots of pick and rolls. They might force certain switches in order to get a little guy on a big guy or a slow guy on a fast guy. Whatever the goal, it seems that some teams have been focusing on attacking the former Wolverine.

It happened a couple Mondays ago in Milwaukee when Hardaway lead the team with 24 points but was a -25 +/- for the game. And we saw that type of paradoxical statistic again on Wednesday night, when he went for a team high 37 points but was a team low -14 plus/minus. Now, of course, a single game, or two, of plus/minus data isn’t something to worry about, so let’s check out some film to see what we think.

Well vs. the Bucks there was this:

And this:

As you can see in the clip above, it seems Hardaway sometimes has trouble on very standard elements of defense. Most people reading this probably know you cut off-baseline because you don’t have help that way, and those who played organized ball will certainly have heard you put your  inside foot along the baseline inviting the player to drive out of bounds. The middle is where your help will come from.

By contrast, a two-way player (yes, I said it) like Allonzo Trier, undrafted, and playing in his 4th ever NBA game, below, has this simple principle down cold:

In Wednesday’s game, Nate McMillan’s Pacers seemed to have had in mind the exact same thing Bucks’ Coach Mike Budenholzer had in mind back on the 22nd: make Hardaway work his butt off on defense. Let’s take a look.

Hardaway Erupts for a Career High 7 Triples and 37 Points But…

The Pacers feature a couple players (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis) who Knicks GM Scott Perry helped the Orlando Magic draft. But then they committed the cardinal sin of quitting too soon on high lottery picks and let them get away to rent veteran Serge Ibaka’s services for a little bit. Below, Victor Oladipo, now a budding superstar, casually sets Hardaway up on a double screen. It’s only October so neither the offense nor the defense is in gear during the first quarter. But as former Knick, Mark Jackson says…hand down man down.

A casual October jog to conserve energy for offense, but look! Timmy’s teammates Frank Ntilkina, Noah Vonleh and Trier combine to force a a stop! The ball comes back out but unfortunately finds the guy Hardaway is guarding, Corey Joseph. Hardaway forgets to cut off baseline again and an easy dump off. Sigh.

(By the way, I know this is a piece about Hardaway’s defense, but can we just look at the lob that Mitchell Robinson even attempted to dunk in that last one? If he even considered dunking that which it looks like he did we may be in for some freak-show highlights eventually).

This isn’t the 1994 Pat Riley days of “no layups” anymore but couldn’t it at least be the days of “try to force a pull up or something?”

This above isn’t a play Hardaway is in at all. But on a night he dropped 37 with 7/11 from three, Jeff Van Gundy accidentally called James Harden “Hardaway” so it must be showed. Also, gorgeous Harden-style step-back move by Oladipo!

Moving on…

As we enter the 4th, the Pacers hone in on their target over and over. Just like Milwaukee did, Nate McMillan employs “seek-and-destroy Hardaway” throughout the night.

Transition moment: Trey Burke fails to stop the ball and Hardaway makes the correct read and slides over to protect the rim but he doesn’t take an angle that gets him there in time and he’s completely vulnerable. This exact type of play (shuffling into the restricted area too deeply and too late) leads to loads of And-1’s. It’s nuts, but if Tyreke Evans was an All-Star he may have even been able to get away with elbowing Hardaway in the chin or putting a knee into his chest and still drawn a continuation. That’s how bad of a spot Tim was in given the way this type of play is often officiated around the league.

We get to crunch time now. Domantas Sabonis, above, makes a careless mistake but it’s clear what Indiana intends to do: find no. 3 and hammer him!

Oladipo gets the kick out with 17 on the shot clock. Assesses the situation. Basically tells the troops, “let’s not get too cute, fellas. Find no. 3. ’cause there’s a mouse in the house for Thad Young.”

Sabonis and Oladipo have great chemistry. Sabonis initiates the dribble hand off. Sets a punishing pick on Tim and ‘Dipo drops the dime. It feels unfair.

Ough. You can start to see the cumulative effect here. Now our own Michael DeStefano argued that Hardaway should not be the primary ball handler in this situation. But carrying the team offensively all night and being sought out and attacked mercilessly on defense, Hardaway’s now running on fumes. It’s like a running back in the NFL playing every offensive snap but then also asked to play middle linebacker for every defensive snap. Tim played so well on offense but he did give chunks of it back on D.

All Knicks fans know that it’s a rite of passage for pretty much every superstar, at least once in their career, to rip fans’ hearts out in the Garden. Oladipo goes back to the well on no. 3. KD would be impressed by the KD patented “hesi pull-up jimbo” dagger.

Knicks fans might say “Frank has the length to get a better contest on that, why isn’t he on ‘Dipo?” And they’re absolutely right. But we already saw the Pacers react to that by forcing Hardaway into a switch then feeding Young or Sabonis to hammer him. If he’s on Oladipo, go to work. If he’s not, run a screen to get a switch. They not only get easy buckets but also utterly exhaust the Knicks’ only true scoring threat. Double whammy. Story of the brief season so far when they play better teams. Tim’s final misses were unsurprisingly short.

This Isn’t Fair

So look, I know what you’re thinking. And don’t get me wrong, I’m thinking it too. Tim is what he is and he’s not a great defender, although he’s improved some from his days in Atlanta when Mike Budenholzer relegated him to the G-League for these exact types of lapses. So how fair is a piece like this just after one of the best games of Hardaway’s career? Not very. I get it.

Bad defense can be made worse by compounding risk factors; that is variables that work together to make everything exponentially worse. For example, what’s your personal risk level for being eaten by a bear? Tons of variables could affect your odds. Do you live in a rural area? Do you live in a colder climate? Do you spend lots of time outdoors? Are you a wild Alaskan Salmon? A “yes” to one of those is a risk. A yes to all four compounds risk exponentially. In basketball, that principle is called synergy and it can be good or bad. Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala are all great defenders, but paired together and we see a championship level defensive synergy.

The Knicks have some negative synergies that don’t help. Tim Hardaway sometimes has Trey Burke on one wing and Enes Kanter “protecting” the rim behind him. All are poor defenders. You get the gist. They combine their powers to form Matador Voltron. So it’s not fair. In the Eric Gordon role on last year’s Rockets he might appear eminently capable on the defensive end.

But for Hardaway specifically, what is going on? Is it effort? Is it athleticism? Is it awareness or B-Ball IQ? Is it fatigue from being, as Knicks Film School’s own Jonanthan Macri would say, a third banana playing the part of the top banana? Is it that teams not only like their chances scoring on him but also want to tire him out? Is it knowing this is the first couple weeks of a rebuilding year? If you asked “What’s all of the above, Alex?” I’d think you’d just hit the daily double.

One thing we know. As long as coach David Fizdale continues to challenge his best scorer with matchups like Caris LaVert, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, Kris Middleton or Victor Oladipo, there are going to be some very rough nights ahead defensively. But some more really fun shoot-outs for us to watch too. Coach Fiz has already begun to shuffle the lineups and will continue to tinker so he may discover some better synergies and ways for his “puppies” as he calls them, to complement each other.

Knicks Film School Presents…The Strange Case of Dr. Wario and Mr. Hezonja

It’s Halloween so you know what that means. Time for some poorly crafted sports connections to wonderfully creepy works of fiction!

Today’s case is Mario Hezonja, whose game for the Knicks so far can be said to at times embody the good and the bad that Robert Louis Stevenson hinted may be in all of us, when he wrote Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Every great book has some redemption themes in it. Knicks GM, Scott Perry, the former Assistant General Manager of the Orlando Magic, may or may not have had that in mind this summer when he signed Mario to a one-year, $6.5 million deal. After all, he was an executive in the Magic’s front office that drafted the handsome Croatian 5th overall, just one spot behind Kristaps Porzingis in 2015.

Here was what NY Daily News’ Stefan Bondy wrote about that back in March:

2015: Mario Hezonja (5th): Another mistake. Chosen right after Kristaps Porzingis, Hezonja could barely crack the rotation in his first two years and will likely leave Orlando this summer because the team declined to pick up his contract option.

This will be a redemption story for both Hezonja and Perry if everything works out in New York. Mario played well enough last year to shed his less flattering nickname among disappointed Magic fans on Twitter and re-earned the  “Super Mario” moniker he was drafted with when he bulked up from 190 pounds to, at one point, 230 pounds.  

He’s settled into a healthy looking 215 pounds in New York. Now he has a chance to turn his career around and continue the tradition of late bloomers like Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo, who improved significantly once they left the Magic and the lair of temptation and sin known as Downtown Orlando.

Hezonja is a player with a really large range of outcomes, isn’t he? On the one hand, if he sort of fizzles out, and a year from now you hear he’s on the Kings or playing for the Croatian Club Cibona, you wouldn’t be stunned. But if he blossoms and earns himself a contract as a stretch 4 for a title contender, like the one Ersan Ilyasova signed with the Bucks, or a larger one year prove it deal, you might find that pretty likely as well. Some truthers may even still be hopeful for an All-Star appearance one day.

I don’t know if he has a long-term future in New York, if Perry wants to showcase then trade him with others to help clear cap space to afford a superstar like Kevin Durant, or something else. But he’s here now so let’s break down his game so far.

We’ll start off with bad Mario, known by Nintendo fans as Wario. I know in the real book, Dr. Jekyll was the good guy and Mr. Hyde was the bad guy. But I was a Mario Kart guy so I wanted to go with the Mario vs. Wario angle, and in the NBA, ferocity is a good thing. All you need to know is that Dr. Wario is our villain and Mr. Hezonja will be our fearsome hero. But this is Knicks Film School and you’re not here for just words, so like the great New York sports anchor Warner Wolf says “Let’s go to the videotape.”

Dr. Wario

On this play above Wario turns the corner on a pick. He sees quite possibly the Heat’s two best defenders, Bam Adebayo and Josh Richardson, spying him, while the Heat sag off Allonzo Trier, Ron Baker, Damyean Dotson, and Noah Vonleh to protect the rim. Naturally Wario decides to cup it and try a running banking hook over Bam. It turns into a “Kobe assist” but yikes was that a poor read for the situation.

One of the things Magic fans know about Hezonja is that he can be a bit … ambitious. Here is some of what the Orlando Sentinel wrote last year from former teammate Shelvin Mack:

He’s always trying to make spectacular plays instead of just making the simple play…. He’s a very confident player,” Mack added. “He thinks he’s hot as soon as he steps on the court, like everyone should do. But there’s a time and place [for that]. Trying to figure out the way to get the right shot and the best shot kind of sets the tone.

He has not been shy since his arrival in The Big Apple:

(Who does that remind you of? Maybe another former high lottery stretch-four “walking bucket” who recently heard a few tongue-in-cheek “MVBease” chants last year on 7th ave?)

But the much bigger challenge for Dr. Wario is the defense.

Above is a three play sequence where Dr. Wario draws Coach David Fizdale’s ire.

On the first, there are five Knicks back to guard four Celtics, and whether Terry Rozier was his man or not, he needed to read this situation better. Wide open 3.

In the second play above, a pick and roll is defended poorly. It’s also Vonleh’s fault for taking a ridiculous angle on Jayson Tatum’s drive and then jumping harmlessly, but you can see Fizdale signal the hook towards his bench for the both of them right there.

The third play is just gas on the fire. With subs already at the scorer’s table set to check in because of defensive lapses, Mario sneaks in one more brick and then one more space cadet play leaving Rozier to walk into another open three. Boom 41-31 Celts. A quick 8 points in a game they only lost by two! Watch all three plays again and this time keep your eye on the coach’s reaction to each.

Imagine a parent scolding a child for taking a cookie from the jar. The kid looks bashful but pushes the boundary and takes another! Then dad yells “that’s it Mr. you’re going to timeout right this minute!” And the kid slinks off bashfully towards the timeout… then pivots and bolts back to the jar and scarfs down a third cookie! DAD BLOWS HIS STACK!

Enes replaces Mario and Burke replaces Vonleh, and with 5:52 to go in the second, Dr. Wario was done playing for the rest of the night. Yeesh.

Our own resident Irish Knicks fan, Mr. Alex Collins, spotted another instance where Wario may be at fault again in a similar circumstance days later:

In a reply I defended that maybe his man here was Andre Iguodala, who isn’t even in the picture yet. But I concede it feels like when the Knicks give up a head-scratching wide open three, it’s often when Dr. Wario is out there. Keep your eyes out for that.

Mr. Hezonja (our fierce hero)

A total credit to Mr. Hezonja’s character, just one game after being put on blast by Fiz, our hero responds with his best game of the young season in a tough road battle against the scorching hot Milwaukee Bucks. Here he drills the crunch time contested three:

Below he makes a crafty defensive play on future MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mr. Hezonja “pulls the chair” and pokes it away to ignite the break. If you make plays like this on guys like Freak into a drinking game you only get one shot a night so enjoy:

Four plays in a row in the clip below. First: how do you attack a lethal Turkish charge-drawing machine like Ersan Ilyasova? Make him move his feet but don’t go into his chest for contact. Stopping on a dime for a baby-pull up is the way to go on this guy. Nice awareness and touch Mr. Hezonja! Let the clip play for a few more nice stop and pops, screen action, and another pull up. Great touch by the stretch four.

So does he have a favorite spot on the court?

God I wish I were that confident.

So after the Bucks game, below, Coach Fiz acknowledges that he was mad after the Boston game. Credit to both player and coach here. Coach was tough but fair. Player took it on the chin and came back stronger.

Knicks Twitter has begun to notice the chemistry developing among the second unit as well.

Like Mr. Hezonja’s hockey assists:

Funny, the reason Kevin Knox surged up draft boards late was reportedly how he looked as a ball-handler in pick and rolls during pre-draft workouts. Well not to be out done, subbing for Mr. Knox, Mr. Hezonja, below, threads the needle on a gorgeous pass for another hockey dime:

Beasley could score but he didn’t make tons of passes like that. Sparks flying off the bench in New York. And now some more defense!

Putting it all Together

From all the film I’ve been watching, my overall impression is that the defensive end needs work and there are some lateral limitations, but at least awareness has been the biggest flaw and that is probably coachable to a degree. He may not be a good isolation player now, but when he makes a quick shot or pass, plays the pick and roll or pick and pop game, or gets to run and be creative in transition, he’s at his best. And of course he can stroke it when he is disciplined enough to take good shots.

Oh, and in case you doubted the impact of these splash plays from our film review, here are some more interesting statistical trends to keep an eye on. Per Basketball-Reference Lineup Finder, apparently, Hezonja comes up in quite a few of the Knicks best performing lineups in terms of  “points minus opponents points,” like netRTG. His name is included in the Knicks 1st, 3rd, 6th, 9th and 10th best performing lineups per that metric to date. Not bad!

In four player lineups, he shows out pretty well too. He’s in 3 of the top 6 four player lineups. 

You can see the top lineups in this tweet below or in the links I attached above.

Obviously +/- lineups data is noisy this early on in the season and will fluctuate. And it’s very possible the Knicks second units are simply less outmatched than the starters because second units play against opposing second units. It’s a mouthful all to say these stats may not last. But the noise so far is music to Mario fan’s ears. Something to keep an eye on.

Overall, his netRTG is negative, but the Knicks are not a good team and that’s going to be a running theme for many of them this year. I’m excited to keep an eye on how he and his coach work to defeat his inner Wario and keep up the fierce, unselfish, and creative Super Mario play.

Hezonja has the tools to become one of the team’s most talented players if he can bring it all together. Of course, Scott Perry has heard that before, and if it had already happened, Perry and Mario may both still be resisting temptation down in Orlando.

Let’s check back in later to see how our redemption story goes.

Happy Halloween everyone, and let’s see some of yours, your kids’, and your pets’ best Knicks costumes. Make sure to follow @behindcurve on Twitter.