While Frank Ntilikina gets attention of late for the wrong reason, the Knicks’ 2018 picks, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, are developing at their own paces under David Fizdale.
Earlier in the season, Knicks’ head coach David Fizdale said he was hoping the have a stabilized starting lineup by Game 25. The Knicks’ loss to Washington on Monday night was this milestone game. While Fizdale seems to have settled on a veteran-heavy starting five, it’s also a good opportunity to take a look at how the Knicks’ rookies have come along in the first bit of NBA action, and whether Fizdale is putting them into position to succeed or not.
The Knicks have three rookies on the roster and ironically, the undrafted player on a two-way contract is by far the most polished. It makes sense that Allonzo Trier was more NBA ready—he’s 22 and played three seasons at Arizona. Iso Zo can get his own shot or get to the rim practically at will, and his biggest issue is his tunnel vision. He’s too focused on getting his own shot and often won’t make the correct pass. However, Trier’s game is still way more polished than the rookies the Knicks actually did draft—the 19-year-old Kevin Knox and the 20-year-old Mitchell Robinson.
The Lotto Pick
Kevin Knox’s struggles were highly publicized just a few weeks ago.
But oh my, how things have changed in just a few short days.
After setting Summer League on fire with Giannis-like dunks, an ankle injury derailed Knox’s season in just his third pro game. He missed just over two weeks and was eased back in during his first two games back, so Knox’s rookie season didn’t begin in actuality until he logged over 24 minutes in a Nov. 10 loss to the Raptors.
There were decent-to-good games sprinkled through the stretch, but by the end of November, Knox had a stretch of bad games. His minutes were cut on several occasions so that veterans could play more.
The Nov. 25 win in Memphis is most emblematic of this—Knox notched little more than seven minutes and scored zero points. Just two days later, Knox went one for seven in 15 minutes of action versus Detroit. As Knox began to struggle, Fiz went with a more veteran-heavy lineup. That’s around the time his minutes started to drop.
Marc Berman of the NY Post’s sources decided that the actual problem was that Knox was taking too many threes, not that he was a 19-year-old still fresh to the NBA. But from Nov. 18 to Nov. 28—the date of the Knicks loss to Philadelphia and the last game before Berman’s piece was published—Knox took only two threes in six out of eight games. He took three and four in the other two games.
Then Milwaukee came to the Garden, and Knox and Giannis did the Spider-Man pointing meme. The rookie became the youngest Knick to ever score 20 points in a game. He had 26 to go along with four assists, four rebounds, a steal, and a block.
— NBA (@NBA) December 2, 2018
Berman’s anonymous scout said Knox should be driving to the rim more, and he did. He also took 12 threes and made five of them. Knox’s shooting ability opens up the rest of his game. When defenders close out on him on the perimeter, he’s long enough to get a shot up around his defender and is developing his passing vision on those drives.
We saw hints of what he can be as a passer in those situations in their next game against Washington when Knox delivered a lob to Mitchell Robinson in the pick-and-roll.
Knox throws it up!
Robinson throws it DOWN! pic.twitter.com/8p81h5akOj
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) December 4, 2018
To be fair, Knox struggled from the field—he went 3-for-11 and missed all three threes he took—but contributed four assists and nine rebounds. Most importantly, he seemed to be playing with much more confidence.
It’s impossible to parse how much of a role a coach plays in the development of a young player after only 18 games played, but Fizdale has said all the right things.
“I think I’ve got a 19-year-old [Knox] and a 20-year-old [Ntilikina] trying to figure out the NBA, the league that’s full of the absolute best players in the world, the best coaches in the world, doing it in the absolute toughest market in America. Give them a break,” he said. “These guys are learning on the fly. Whoever’s criticizing them, let me know how many people can become great at 19 and 20 while they’re being punched in the face and they’re learning it all at the same time. I don’t hear those critics.” (via Newsday)
He must be saying similar things to Knox in practice, because the rookie said, “Fiz is always going to have confidence in me. He just wants me to keep playing hard.”
Fans understandably want to see their lottery-picks play—especially in a season where the Knicks have every reason to tank—so it makes sense when they lash out when Knox plays less than 10 minutes occasionally.
But take second-year guard Damyean Dotson. He received four straight DNP coach’s decision near the end of November. Dotson had just one game with double-digit points in six games before his benching, after reaching that mark in every game he played to that point. In the four games since, Dot has put up 17, 16, 21, and 17.
Hopefully the same is going on regarding Frank Ntilikina. Frank appeared to make some strides on offense earlier in the year, scoring 17 and 16 in back-to-back games towards the end of October. He was less passive when he had the ball and threes were falling.
When that all dried up, Frank camped out in the corner on most possessions as Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, and Trier handled the ball. Rumors that the Knicks were over him and looking to trade began to swirl, and in the last two games before he was placed on the pine Ntilikina had no points, no rebounds, and two assists in about 31 total minutes.
If Frank returns to the floor for in the next few games and looks more like the guy Steph Curry was (trying to) praise earlier in the season, Fizdale’s strategy of using the young guys’ places in the rotation as motivation is working.
How much of Knox’s ups and downs is standard rookie struggles, and how much is Fizdale helping to prop up the second-youngest player in the league? Hard to tell, but more clues may lie with another one of the Knick’s raw rookie talents.
The Second-Round Pick
When the Knicks grabbed center Mitchell Robinson in the second round, the biggest question was how long he would play in the G League. 20-years-old, 7’1” tall with a 7’4” wingspan, physically Mitchell Robinson has everything teams look for in a young big man. Why did he slip into the second round of the draft?
After initially committing to Texas A&M, Robinson withdrew his decision to go to Western Kentucky. He spent two weeks practicing with the team during the summer of 2017, but ultimately was granted a release to transfer to another school. However, Robinson never joined another school and he became the first recruited draft pick to not play any organized basketball the year before declaring for the draft. He also withdrew from the draft combine on the day of the event.
Robinson was the 11th prospect on ESPN’s top 100 before this happened—Knox was number 10—but he slipped all the way down to the 36th pick because no one had seen him on the court in over a year.
It’s often painfully obvious to see that Robinson was out of organized basketball last season. A panicked feeling emanates from the rookie almost every time he’s forced into defending a pick-and-roll, and he regularly finds himself in foul trouble because he tries to block shots from anywhere on the court.
The thing is, he’s not exactly wrong. Look no further than when he set the Knicks rookie record for blocks against the Magic on Nov. 11. Two of his nine blocks that night came on three-point shots, including one on former-Knick Jerian Grant where after falling down beneath the rim, he was still able to close out and send Grant’s shot from the corner backwards.
When Robinson is at his best, he actually can block any shot taken from anywhere, and impressively he has a knack for keeping the ball inbounds, which often leads to transition opportunities for the team.
But when he’s at his worst—like against New Orleans on Nov. 23—he can foul out of the game in under 10 minutes. Big men like Anthony Davis lick their lips when they see Robinson bite on fakes, and even when the Robinson manages to stay in the game, these mistakes put the Knicks into the bonus early on.
Even so, it’s wildly impressive that Robinson has gone from playing against high school students to NBA players with nothing in between. No one expected him to be able to contribute at all this early.
Offensively, Robinson is limited to rolling to the rim and put backs, but this summer Fizdale compared him to Clint Capela. The comparison isn’t unfounded. Both athletic centers have the skills to switch onto smaller defenders, collapse the defense in the pick-and-roll, and entered the league at age 20—only Capela made multiple stops in the then-D-League and averaged 7.5 minutes per NBA game.
Robinson is playing more than Capela, but part of that is out of necessity. Enes Kanter is the only other pure center on the roster, and after complaining on Twitter, Kanter got the starting job back. To this point, Robinson has started 12 games.
Starting Kanter—who is still young at 26—over Robinson feels like the team is prioritizing the present over the future in what should be a development year. Robinson hasn’t topped 20 minutes in a game since being taken out of the starting lineup, which isn’t all Fizdale. Part is, of course, due to his propensity for fouling.
Kanter will grab more rebounds and score more points, but he’ll be a free agent after this season. It makes sense that he wants to build his value. What makes less sense is playing a defensive turnstile over a 20-year-old shot-blocking machine. Yes, Robinson struggles on the perimeter with smaller players, but Kanter often looks just as lost on that end of the floor despite this being his ninth season. Teams attack him in the PnR even more than they do Robinson because Kanter doesn’t have the ability to recover and challenge their shot the way that Robinson can.
The Knicks are expected to move Kanter and his expiring deal before the deadline. Hopefully, Fizdale is challenging Robinson to defend better without fouling and his minutes will increase again as he improves. If the Knicks trade Kanter and suddenly Luke Kornet is playing more than Robinson, well, then we have a problem.
The Knicks have talked about building a winning culture, but to do so at the expense of the development of their young draft picks would be a mistake. Winning 30 games this season by leaning on guys like Hezonja and Kanter would be disastrous for this team’s future.
Knox and Robinson both have a ways to go but deserve every opportunity to better themselves on the court. Ideally, both players are regular starters by the end of the season, but by holding them accountable, Fizdale’s helped them see where they struggle.
It’s totally reasonable to object to their drop in minutes, however—the season’s as young as the rookies. But put the pitchforks away, for now, and see which trends continue as Fiz raises two of his youngest kids.