Though the Knicks’ season is essentially over, they are hoping that they have the beginnings of a young core in their promising PGs
Over the last several weeks, the languishing New York Knicks have become a bastion of former lottery picks, as exemplified by their post All Star break guard rotation. As veterans Jarrett Jack and Courtney Lee have become better acquainted with the bench, Frank Ntilikina (8th pick, 2017), Emmanuel Mudiay (7th, 2015) and Trey Burke (9th, 2013) have taken the lion’s share of the minutes for Jeff Hornacek’s club. While the Knicks are looking at their roster with an eye for the future, Scott Perry’s front office will need to evaluate which of these highly touted prospects will become legitimate pieces of a championship contending team.
Frank Ntilikina was drafted out of France to bring stability to the PG spot, which has seen dozens step into the role since Charlie Ward held the position in the late ‘90s. Yet halfway through his rookie year, the adjustment to the NBA has been difficult to say the least. Part of the problem with Ntilikina is the fact that his contributions don’t really make it to the stat sheet.
In his 59 games (zero starts), the Frenchman is averaging 5.4 points (36% from the field), 3.1 assists, 1.7 rebounds, and 1.8 turnovers in 20.5 minutes per game. These stats do not jump off the page, and his minutes will certainly increase as Hornacek turns the reins over to the youngsters to finish out the season. However, stats do not tell the whole story on Ntilikina; where he really excels is on the defensive end, which often goes overlooked.
On the overlooked end of the court, Ntilikina has already begun to forge an identity as a tenacious defender. On defense, Frank holds his opponents to just 41.8% from the field, below the league average of 46.0%. Unlike some of the flashier rookies making highlight plays, Frank’s contributions can often go unheralded, but they can show up in the advanced stats. When Frank is on the court, the Knicks’ opponents post a 106.8 offensive rating, compared to a 112.1 rating when he’s on the bench. Though it is necessary to remark that these minutes are often against backups, rather than starting units.
In a surprising move at the deadline, the Knicks shipped out solid bench sharpshooter Doug McDermott in exchange for Denver’s former lottery selection Emmanuel Mudiay. This move was perplexing, as the Knicks already had Ntilikina, Trey Burke, and Jarrett Jack on the roster, in addition to Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr. at the SG. Taking a shot on a reclamation project, Mudiay has had some encouraging early returns; in his six games including three starts, Mudiay is averaging 11.7 points on 40.9% shooting, 5.3 assists, and 3.3 rebounds. The Knicks are hoping that a change of scenery can unlock some of his potential.
The biggest surprise thus far for the Knicks has been the resurgence of former Michigan project Trey Burke, by way of the G League. After turning down a camp invite with the Thunder, Burke signed with the Westchester Knicks as a way of working on his game before returning to the NBA. So far, Burke has played in 16 games and has averaged 10.4 points on 53.8% from the field and 3.5 assists per game. Of the Knicks’ three young ball handlers, Burke has proven the most adept off the dribble, with the most reliable penetration (Pace of 100.17) and elbow jumper (Burke is the best guard on the team at 2-point attempts, shooting 59.2%).
Like Ntilikina, this difference can be observed on/off stats: the Knicks’ offense is markedly better when Burke is on the floor. With Burke, New York’s offensive rating is 115.5 (which would be the best in the league, incidentally) with a 54.6% effective field goal percentage, and it drops to 106.5 and 50.6% when Trey is on the bench. Turnover percentage is down when Burke is in, as is assist percentage. These numbers can be explained by Burke’s career-high usage rate of 26.2%, but when he is also posting career-highs in PER (25.4) and true shooting percentage (59.8%), the Knicks aren’t complaining if he can get a little ball dominant. Of course, these numbers are inflated by the sample size, but he has been consistent in his limited minutes.
Trey Burke through 14 games with the Knicks:— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) February 23, 2018
22 points per 36
43 assists, 9 turnovers
Though the stats are underdeveloped on Mudiay’s combination with the other guards, there are more stats for the Burke-Ntilikina tandem, which has proven successful in the early test runs. In fact, Burke-Ntilikina has the best net rating (minimum 100 minutes played) of any Knick duo at +10.3. Additionally, they post a solid 2.15 assist to turnover ratio. In the Knicks’ most successful season this century in 2012-13, they employed a similar dual-PG lineup with Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni to great effect. It seems that the Knicks have started to come around to the prospect of having multiple playmakers side-by-side. Ntilikina will develop better handles as he continues in the league, but at the moment, he plays better off the ball.
The sample size with these three side-by-side is small, but the Knicks have nothing to lose in experimentation for the rest of the season. Though Ntilikina is unlikely to be moved in the near future, Burke and Mudiay’s futures are unsure, and New York should use the remaining games this season to determine how these players will fit together on a championship-caliber roster, if they do at all. With Jarrett Jack out of the picture, it seems that Burke has earned a shot at the starting role, and more minutes alongside Ntilikina. Though these Knicks are certainly not a playoff team, perhaps giving meaningful minutes to these promising youngsters is the start of the full, ground-up rebuild that New York has been desperate for, and the start of the road back to relevancy.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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