Devoid of expectations, the New York Knicks’ rebuild finally looks to be on the right track.
For the New York Knicks, 2018-19 will be a year focused on developing young talent and building for the future, which will come as a familiar refrain for Knicks fans. This time feels different, however; after the ousting of president Phil Jackson and franchise star Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks have abandoned their wildly optimistic and misguided “win now” mentality. Since arriving in July 2017, GM Scott Perry has focused on development of young talent and maximizing draft picks, while building around franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis.
New York played about .500 ball last season, until Porzingis’ Feb. 6 ACL tear ended his (and the Knicks’) season. The Latvian forward had been a legitimate MVP candidate in the first few weeks of the 2017-18 campaign, though the sustained workload of carrying the Knicks brought down his stats leading up to his season-ending injury. Without their star (despite a few noteworthy scoring outbursts from the enigmatic Michael Beasley), the Knicks limped to a 29-53 record and the ninth pick in the 2018 Draft.
In the offseason, the front office decided to shake up the organization and finally go all-in on a rebuild in New York. Jeff Hornacek was the first domino to fall, when Perry replaced the offensive-minded Jackson hire with former Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale. Popular with players and having served on the coaching staff of the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra, Fizdale was brought in to help create a culture based on player development and accountability. Though he hasn’t coached a game for the Knicks yet, early returns on the hiring seem favorable.
Based on the time they spent together in Latvia, Kristaps Porzingis believes that David Fizdale is the type of coach that can help him improve and reach his potential on both ends of the floor. He seems genuinely excited to play for the first-year coach.— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) September 24, 2018
This shift toward the future is reflected in the Knicks’ personnel changes between last season and 2018-19. Veterans like Beasley and Jarrett Jack, who played major, impactful minutes for New York last year, have departed to the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, respectively. Joakim Noah is not expected to be on the roster by the start of training camp. In their places, New York has picked up reclamation projects like Mario Hezonja and Noah Vonleh, while drafting well by selecting exciting prospects Kevin Knox and potential steal Mitchell Robinson. These youngsters join a roster already including Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Trey Burke.
To be completely blunt, barring a leap to superstardom from any of the Knicks’ youth, the losses will likely pile up quickly. In a weakened Eastern Conference, perhaps the Knicks could have an outside shot at an eighth seed, but this team is projected as a likely sub-.500 finisher. While this seems like a bleak outlook, 2018-19 could prove to be a very positive year for the club; while Porzingis recovers for the majority of (if not the entirety of) the season, Fizdale and Perry can experiment with lineups and decide which players can become meaningful contributors on a championship-caliber roster. In this experimental atmosphere, anyone could step up, though there are four names to keep your eye on specifically: Trey Burke, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, and Frank Ntilikina.
Perhaps one of the most surprising storylines of last season was the rise of Burke, seeking a career reset in New York. After a shaky four years in Utah and Washington, the former lottery pick found himself in the G-League. Following a successful three-month stint for the Westchester Knicks, Burke joined the NBA club and made an impact, posting 12.8 points per game (matching career highs) to go along with 4.7 assists and a career-high 50.3% field goal percentage. Having signed a multi-year deal in New York with a likely starting job, Burke has a legitimate shot at career numbers if he can build on last year’s successes.
Although he might not have been the popular pick at No. 9, University of Kentucky’s Kevin Knox enters the season as a dark horse pick for Rookie of the Year. Amid some concerns about how his game would translate to the pros, Knox put up monster numbers in the Las Vegas Summer League. In four games, he tallied 21.3 points per, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and chipped in a steal per contest. His relatively low shooting percentage (35%) is slightly concerning, but he looks the part of an up-and-comer thus far. He will have some growing pains adjusting to the more physical NBA, but Knicks fans should be excited to see what this kid can do as he develops.
Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Mo Bamba had a COMBINED total of:— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) July 20, 2018
12 blocks in eight summer league games.
Mitchell Robinson had:
20 blocks in five summer league games.https://t.co/L7uQp6u0PD
The biggest surprise of the Knicks’ offseason came in the person of Mitchell Robinson, taken with the 36th pick overall in the draft. Unheralded due to his leaving college and declining to participate in the draft combine, Robinson might have even outperformed teammate Kevin Knox in Summer League; in five games, Robinson averaged 13 points on 67% shooting, 10.2 rebounds, four blocks, and a steal in 24.8 minutes. Popular opinions state that Robinson might have been a lottery selection if he had played NCAA ball, and that looks like a fair statement. While Trey Burke has compared him to a young Shaquille O’Neal, if Robinson can reproduce a fraction of his summer numbers, the Knicks would be ecstatic. Enes Kanter will still start, but Robinson could quickly become a high-minute backup, as Knicks fans dream of a Porzingis-Robinson defensive frontcourt.
#1 in the @NBA at defending the pick-and-roll this season? 👉 @FrankLikina, allowing only .65 points per possession. Jrue Holiday of the Pelicans finished second at .71 PPP. (@SynergySST) pic.twitter.com/f6JPUwbb32— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 24, 2018
Another player to keep tabs on is sophomore guard Frank Ntilikina. Following a solid rookie year (in which he was plagued with Donovan Mitchell comparisons), Ntilikina could find himself in the starting lineup, or as the first guard off the bench. Last season, the rookie led the league in defending the pick-and-roll (likely due to his 7’1” wingspan), allowing .65 points per possession. Right now, Frank looks the part of a defensive specialist, though he has worked on his offense over the offseason. With more development and a more aggressive temperament, the Knicks hope Ntilikina takes the next step under Fizdale.
Barring any splashy deals or James Dolan meddling, the Knicks should expect a rather quiet year, though not an unexciting one. After years of resisting a rebuild, New York is promoting young, internally developed prospects rather than looking for quick fixes. 2018-19 is not the Knicks’ year, but maybe contention is closer than it appears if the team can pick up another lottery selection and a solid free agent acquisition next offseason.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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