While Luke Kornet graduated from his two-way deal, Isaiah Hicks will continue to shuttle between Westchester and Manhattan. Arizona shooting guard Allonzo Trier joins Hicks as a two-way player. What can the three do to prove their mettle?
Free agency is off to an exciting start for plenty of the teams in the NBA racing to dominate the league in the 2018–19 season, but the New York Knicks are still playing the tortoise’s game. While success is certainly not a given and any indicators of such is far and away, Perry’s consistency to his slow and steady approach is at the very least encouraging.
One of his most notable stratagems has been trying out young players. Whether they’re being given a second shot as contributors to an NBA team like Emmanuel Mudiay or Trey Burke, or earning their first go round, Perry’s fair shake at an NBA career is attractive. Mario Hezonja’s one-year deal proves this, and with Luke Kornet, Isaiah Hicks, and the Knicks ready to hand out one-year deals, Perry seems like a player-friendly showrunner.
But what comes next? One, or even two, seasons does not make an NBA career, and it’s obvious the Knicks are gearing up for a big free agency signing in 2019. So, what can Westchester standouts Kornet and Isaiah Hicks do to live past being summer flings? And how can new two-way contract signee Allonzo Trier prove he belongs in the league?
With a deal on the table, Kornet is ready for his legitimate NBA rookie season. Emerging in the aftermath of Kristaps Porzingis’ tragic injury, Kornet averaged 6.7 points and 3.2 rebounds per game over 16.3 minutes. At 7-foot-1, his ability to make a three-pointer or two earned him those late-season minutes—but if he wants more than 15 minutes of fame, he’ll need to live up to his nickname: The UniKornet.
Not tremendously athletic but uber tall, he’s better suited as a center on the roster. If Joakim Noah still has the on-court impact of a spry traffic cone, Kornet may have the opportunity to prove himself as a floor-stretching center. Jack Huntley already covered how he can serve as a stand-in during Porzingis absence on offense, but if he wants a successful NBA career, whether it’s in NY or elsewhere, he’ll have to do a bit more than simply be tall and willing to shoot.
Kornet acting as a KP stand-in serves the offense of the Knicks future but puts him near the end of a long line of centers in next year’s free agency. His two-point field goal percentage was well below its expected value this past season at 45.7 percent (per Basketball-Reference). That indicates at least one of two things: poor shot selection outside of the paint or a lack of finishing ability inside of it. With efficiency being the crux of the NBA today, a center missing close shots and picking bad ones is not ideal. Kornet needs an identity—and one as a floor-stretching center might just be that.
Kornet averaged 1.4 makes on 4.0 three-point attempts last season, giving him an average of 35.4 percent three-point percentage. It’s not terrible, but it points below what is necessary to justify his spot on an NBA roster. He’ll never be a seven-foot sharpshooter, but that ability to stretch the floor can be appealing to a frontcourt heavy with Clint Capela types. However, a way to strengthen his case as a backup would be improving his rebounding, particularly on the offensive glass. The pedestrian 3.2 total rebounds per game he tallied last season won’t cut it, and the 0.6 on the offensive glass won’t either (7.1 total rebounds per 36 minutes, too). His senior year of Vanderbilt he managed to pull down 1.5 per game. The numbers weren’t spectacular back then either, but with the NBA moving toward small-ball lineups cleaning the glass is where he can shine by using his height, a natural gift, whereas his shooting stroke still needs work to be considered a net positive. It’s doubtful he’ll ever have the ball in his hands as much as he did last season, but if he can capitalize on the Knicks’ young core’s immature offense by pulling down boards on both sides of the court Luke can carve a niche for himself in the NBA.
Honestly, Isaiah Hicks’ run last season was pretty sad. He gave 100 percent and still never managed to stack up. In fact, his fatal flaw may have been trying to do too much. Hicks was the second worst player on an NCAA championship-winning team and the top talent juxtaposed with polish in the NBA proved he was out of the league from the first moment he stepped onto the court. His mediocre 4.4 points per game and 2.3 rebounds per game is so poor that the closest player comparison for him is Anthony Bennett.
As bad as he can be criticized, Isaiah has been putting in work this offseason using the Tar Heels’ facility. His jump shots gave me the same amount of discomfort as someone falling asleep on my shoulder on the train, but the majority of tape showing him in the paint means he’s learning what his game is, and I think it’s imperative. What can an undersized power forward with limited shooting ability do to keep the pink slip out of his locker? Be the best Taj Gibson he can be, essentially.
Gibson’s niche is under the rim or damn near close to it. Since his rookie year, Gibson has known the paint is where he can excel by using his strength and a couple of post moves. Seriously, there’s not much else he does on offense besides be a large human with a good basketball I.Q. Gibson is a one-trick pony in the same realm of Kyle Korver. In this new NBA where versatility is essential, they’ve found their value by excelling at a few key spots on the floor.
Hicks and Gibson have nearly identical physical stats, play the same position, and have very similar shot frequency profiles. Hicks doesn’t need to take a page from The Book of Gibson, it should be his entire manual. Taj has a very rigid, specific role on the court: play hard on defense and throwdown around the basket. Mediocre or worse at everything, if Hicks can copy Gibson’s style of play, he may be able to find himself a deal after his 2nd two-way contract.
Deandre Ayton may have been the star at the University of Arizona, but his teammate, third-year guard Allonzo Trier was a highlight machine in his own rite. A consummate scorer, Trier was a show stealer in the NCAA. Already 22 years old and a victim of a suspension due to a NCAA drug policy violation, it’s understandable why teams would be scared enough to drop him from their draft board. At 6’5” and 205 pounds, Trier considerably average, which makes his physical makeup a net negative since being freakishly longer in an already freakishly long sport is the new premium. However, these doubts are what make him a steal among the undrafted.
When it comes to what he can do on offense, you have to ask yourself what can’t he do. He can shoot threes, run pick-and-roll sets, he can get into the paint, he’ll run a fast break that can make you cry, and he’ll posterize anyone crazy enough to get in his way. Scoring 18 points per game, Allonzo shot an impressive 50 percent from the field with a 38 percent three-point field goal percentage during the 2017–18 season. What makes him such a dangerous scorer is the pure fearlessness he has with the ball in his hands. If his stats are any indication, he’s daring, but not stupid, especially since he averaged 4.8 free-throw makes on 5.6 free-throw attempts per game last season (via RealGM).
If Trier can hit the three ball and get to the rim half as easily as he did in college, he may even make a solid enough impression to play a respectable amount of NBA minutes. In essence, all Trier has to do to be successful is be the best version of himself. The former Wildcat needs to be aggressive but also be a team player. As exciting as he is on offense, he is a bit of a black hole with the ball in his hands. His usage rate dipped only 1.6 percent from the previous year when Deandre Ayton joined the team at Arizona. It accumulated a 25.6 percent usage rate his sophomore year. If one of head coach David Fizdale’s offensive disciplines requires spacing and ball movement, Trier will have to work on the latter more than the former. Of all three, Trier has the highest probability of becoming a full-fledged NBA player for a long time due to his offensive upside, but he’ll need to do more than be a flashback of J.R. Smith during his years as a Knickerbocker. Trier will have to be a humble teammate whether the ball is in his hands or not.
Kornet, Hicks, and Trier will all have inked deals by the end of the moratorium, but with the length of each being a year long, they’ll need to prove themselves through strong play throughout the season whether they be in Westchester or playing in Madison Square Garden. If they can each find a niche and accentuate their strongest skills, they might have a shot of staying in the good graces of the front office.