Why the Knicks should focus on developing this group of point guards for years to come.
That’s one word that can sum up the way die-hard New York Knicks fans feel this year. With multiple Eastern Conference playoff spots up for grabs (due to multiple all-stars shifting West), and a 7’3’’ Latvian unicorn pouring in 22+ points per game, this season was looking bright for the Knicks. To go along with a 16-14 record through the first 30 games, Knicks fans were hoping for their first winning season since 2012.
Then suddenly everything went downhill. The Knicks posted a 8-24 losing record since the 30-game mark, and when you thought things couldn’t get much worse, their ‘unicorn’ Kristaps Porzingis suffered a torn ACL against the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 6.
The most recent disappointment was Feb. 14 when the Knicks blew a 27-point lead against the Washington Wizards. That loss was also the Knicks’ fourth 20+ point lead blown this season and the team’s fifth straight loss since the Porzingis injury. Yet again Knicks fans found themselves acquainted with their longtime companion: rock bottom.
So, what areas can the Knicks focus on improving as they are succumb to another season without the playoffs and without their Latvian All-Star?
One major change the Knicks need to make is to find consistent stability at the point guard position. Since the end of the 2013-14 season, the Knicks’ backcourt has been anything but solid.
Numerous attempts to find dependable ball handling guards have failed miserably. Whether they used the veteran approach (Derrick Rose, Jose Calerdon, Sasha Vujacic, Aaron Afflalo, Brandon Jennings), draft picks (Jerian Grant), or tried to find diamonds in the rough (Langston Galloway, Shane Larkin), not a single one of those players panned out for the Knicks and none of the players are on the team anymore, or even lasted more than two seasons. If the Knicks want any sort of chemistry within their team going into the offseason and next season, it starts with finding quality point guard depth.
The Knicks’ coaching staff needs to find a way to capture the potential shown by the young guards on the roster right now, so they can build chemistry with the wings and bigs that have produced efficiently this season (Porzingis, Lee, Hardaway, Kanter, and O’Quinn).
The Knickerbockers are currently riding with a mismatched squad consisting of first-round pick Frank Ntilikina, veteran Jarrett Jack, newly-signed Trey Burke, and newcomer from Denver Emmanuel Mudiay.
Aside from Jack (who is seeing a reduced role post All-Star break), these point-guards don’t really appear to be NBA caliber, yet. In fact, most people will likely look at the list above and immediately think ‘bust’ in terms of Mudiay and Burke. But on a positive note, perhaps Mudiay and Burke have been gifted with a much needed change of scenery, and so far haven’t disappointed.
New York is equipped with a unique group of young point guards right now. Between Burke, Mudiay and Ntilikina they have a great mix of scoring, passing, and defense that the Knicks’ coaching staff should at least attempt to develop as the backcourt of the future.
Although he has played relatively few games, Burke has surprisingly given the Knicks a much needed scoring threat at the ball handler position. Burke is averaging 23.9 points per game per 36 minutes, shooting 37.5% from three-point range, and a very positive 53.8% from the field overall.
The green in this shot chart shows just how effective Burke has been offensively.
Burke has also put his playmaking on display, averaging 8.1 assists per 36 minutes. The assists numbers are great to go along with only averaging 1.6 turnovers per 36 minutes, better than any other point guard on the Knicks roster.
Burke has shown to be much more effective in Jeff Hornacek’s offense, and he is displaying quality decision making, and passing vision that the Knicks have lacked all year. Burke put a lot of his skills on display when he dropped 18 points and 11 assists against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 25 which can be seen in the video below.
Burke’s production may be best generated from Hornacek’s offensive philosophy. Focus on the similarities between the video above and Eric Bledsoe’s role on Hornacek’s previous Phoenix Suns team in the BasketballBreakdown video below. Burke is doing a lot of good things in the role of a penetrating guard in Hornacek’s offense.
Defensively, he still has plenty to work on. Burke currently holds the worst defensive rating per 100 possessions of any Knick on the current roster at 113.4 (minimum 10 games played). In order to play big minutes night-in and night-out in the future, he will have to improve defensively.
If Burke can polish defensively, continue to be positive offensively, and keep making smart decisions with the basketball for the Knicks, he can solidify himself as a key piece of the puzzle for New York going forward.
As for Ntilikina, it’s simply a tale of two sides. He has shown flashes of the elite defensive skill set many hoped he would bring to New York, but he has been extremely timid and unproductive on the offensive end.
Offensively, Ntilikina is only shooting 36% from the field and averaging just 5.4 points per game. On top of that, as a point guard he’s only averaging 3.1 assists per game and 1.8 turnovers to make it even worse, ranking 71st in AST/TO ratio among qualified NBA players.
In a league ruled by the pick and roll (especially under Hornacek), Ntilikina just hasn’t got it figured out yet. He currently has the highest Turnover Frequency out of the pick and roll among all point guards on the Knicks roster at 21.2%. He also has a lackluster 33.7% scoring frequency out of the pick and roll as well.
Despite the offensive struggles, the Knicks should continue to feed and put trust into Ntilikina based off what he has shown on the defensive end. Plenty of point guards struggled out of the gates, but eventually found their stride to become solid starting NBA point guards.
Ntilikina’s first year stats are quite similar to Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder’s first year stats (who has proven to be a very capable NBA starting point guard).
(table provided by basketballreference.com)
Defensively, Ntilikina hasn’t been shy no matter the opponent. Night in and night out he finds a way to get steals and deflections, does not get caught up in screens, and consistently finds ways to step in front of drives and contest lay-ups even against one of the league’s best point guards Kyrie Irving.
Watching Ntilikina play, it’s a headache for Knicks fans. Of players who have logged over 30 games for the Knicks, when Ntilikina is on the court the Knicks have posted their best defensive rating (104.1), but also their worst offensive rating (102.2).
Looking ahead the best thing the Knicks can do to spark Ntilikina’s growth is to give him as much game time as possible to figure it out on the offensive end. He has only logged two games this year with over 30 minutes played.
With New York five games back from the NBA’s worst record, it’s safe to say that playoff hopes are out the window. So it makes the most sense to give their most promising rookie as much playing time as possible to develop for next year. The remainder of this NBA season needs to be all about Ntilikina finding his offensive stride now.
Like Burke, we have seen very little play out of Mudiay so far as a Knick, but he has shown some positives in a small span. Mudiay, seen as a project player with a sky high ceiling after playing a year in China right out of high school, was wrongly developed in Denver. He was thrown right into the fire, being asking to lead a lottery team to playoff contention, which led to a very disappointing first two seasons in the league.
In a low-risk, high-reward move by the Knicks, they traded for Mudiay (still on his rookie deal, and only 21 years old) in a three-team deal giving up just Doug McDermott, and a swap of second round picks with Denver.
Now Mudiay is getting a second chance to showcase why he was taken seventh overall in the 2015 NBA draft. He opened up his Knicks debut with a double-double of 14 points and 10 assists at Indiana.
Mudiay is coming into New York with not only motivation to prove many people wrong, but also with current annual improvements in win shares, value over replacement, and true-shooting percentage since his dreadful rookie season.
Like Burke, Mudiay can fit into this Knicks team as a much needed distributor from the point guard spot. Mudiay is averaging 6.1 assists per game per 36 minutes this season. And, can likely lock up a spot on the Knicks roster after his contract is up in 2019 by maintaining improvement from the three-point line, which has always been his Achilles’ heel. Mudiay is currently shooting 34.2% this year, a slight improvement from the 31% he’s shot the previous two years.
Steady improvement from long range will help Mudiay make defenders start to go over screens when defending him in the pick and roll, which will make his life a whole lot easier. It will open a many more opportunities to showcase his playmaking as it will allow him to penetrate defensives much easier, and will make it easier for him to get into the paint and finish for easy scores.
If the Knicks’ coaching staff wants to make life easier for Porzingis when he gets back and bring the franchise back to respectability, they have to find stability at the position that initiates the offense every time down the court. The potential shown by the young group of point guards they now have should be enticing enough for the New York coaching staff to stick with this group (at least) past this year.
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