The Knicks went with no point guard in their first regular-season game, but for the team to improve Coach Fizdale needs to pick someone.
For as much roster turnover as the Knicks had over the summer (nine new faces), the starting lineup felt set in stone pretty early.
Mitchell Robinson, the 21-year-old franchise pillar, would start at the 5, flanked by free agent signings Julius Randle and Marcus Morris. Third overall pick R.J. Barrett would start unless he struggled in the preseason, which he vehemently did not.
Point guard was the only exception. The Knicks have perpetually been in search of their point guard of the future, a mantle that has not been truly held since at least Mark Jackson—realistically since Walt Frazier.
The revolving door of point guards the team has had in the last 10 years alone could stretch across Seventh Ave. Last year former and current draft busts Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay assumed the duties. Burke was unable to recapture the magic of his meteoric rise from Westchester in 2017. Mudiay performed well on paper, but he never gave the impression to be the guy for a winning team. Both were more of a hindrance to the young guys rather than legitimate answers.
Things were supposed to be different this season. Mudiay and Burke were gone, allowing either of their young guys, Frank Ntilikina or Dennis Smith Jr., to win the job. But as was the case last summer, Perry brought in a former draft pick from a previous job, signing Elfrid Payton to join the point guard mix.
Smith felt like the frontrunner most of the summer thanks to his undeniable talent and strong end to last season. The main thing preventing Smith from taking the “leap” to surefire starter is his jumper, or lack thereof. Fizdale tasked assistant coach Keith Smart with curing Smith’s shooting woes this summer. If Smith were to rid himself of that hitch, the job would be his.
Elfrid Payton became Smith’s biggest threat upon signing. Payton left a good Pelicans team to come to New York with the intent of starting, or competing for the starting job at the very least. He cited playing time as a big reason for choosing New York this summer.
Payton is a poor shooter who makes up for his offensive shortcomings with strong facilitating skills and solid defense. He averaged a meager 10.6 points per game on 43.4% shooting but did dish out 7.6 assists and average 1.0 steals.
Then there is Ntilikina, one of the last remnants of the Phil Jackson era. Frank, more than any of the other Fiz Kids, felt like a goner. He played sparingly last season and was not-so-quietly shopped on draft night. This odd treatment of a generally talented player has led him to have a cult following.
A strong performance in the FIBA World Cup made the cult a little larger, and a lot louder. Ntilikina’s play for the French national team upped his notoriety with the masses—and possibly bought himself more time in New York. The team recently picked up his option, which should have been a formality, but given Perry’s tight-lippedness on the subject during Media Day nothing was a given.
Fizdale has been similarly tight-lipped on who will be his starting point guard. He would not commit to one guy prior to opening night, and likely will not have his mind made up until a few weeks into the season. That gives Smith, Payton, Ntilikina, and some wild cards, an opportunity to snatch a starting spot in the coming games.
Before we dive into who should get the job, what exactly is Fizdale looking for? There has been a lot of talk about Julius Randle being a point forward. Same goes for Barrett, who became the initiator during the Summer League, and who Fizdale mentioned explicitly about handling lead guard duties at times.
When asked what in particular he wants out of his point guard, Fizdale offered this job description, per Newsday‘s Steve Popper.
“The biggest thing is, is he guarding his position? Is he pushing the pace? Is he getting us organized. Those are the most important areas for me. But at the same time I feel like you still have to be a threat out there from that position.”
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what each guy showed during the preseason, and what they offer to the starting unit.
Dennis Smith Jr.
Dennis Smith Jr.’s incomplete preseason is likely the reason he was not given the job coming out of camp. He missed 10 days with an achy back, only appearing in two of the four games. And when he did play, he looked quite rusty.
He finished the preseason with 13 points on an ugly 3-of-17 shooting (17.6%). On the bright side, Smith finished strong in the preseason finale, playing 31 minutes and tallying nine points, nine rebounds, six assists, two steals and one block.
Despite the ugly shooting (2-for-12), Smith did hit a three, which will be crucial not just to getting the starting gig, but holding it down.
DSJ with the 3 ball off the RJ kickout!!! pic.twitter.com/SJQ6YpW229— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 19, 2019
He also played solid defense, where his game is underrated and can really shine when he’s locked in.
Great defense by DSJ leads to an RJ bucket in transition. I love how that sounds. pic.twitter.com/5jGiHc4ODE— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 17, 2019
As said earlier, from a strictly talent perspective, Smith trumps all other contenders. His athleticism is off the charts, his scoring potential is better than Payton and Ntilikina by a considerable margin, and he is figuring out who to get others involved on a more consistent basis.
To fit in with the current starting unit, though, he has to be able to shoot and defend at a high level. He will certainly be given every opportunity to become the starter. The front office has to be heavily invested in the centerpiece of their Porzingis deal, which already took a PR hit after the team whiffed on two max free agents over the summer.
If Elfrid Payton getting the first crack at starting surprised you, you have not been paying attention. Payton reportedly looked good in camp, which led to him starting game one of the preseason. During the preseason he did not look like the best option. He finished the preseason with the lowest plus/minus on the team with a -14.
Payton is a good player, but given his limitations as a scorer, he does not mesh well with the starters as currently constructed. He averaged a measly 3.7 points in three appearances, dead last amongst players who appeared in multiple games.
What Fizdale loves about Payton is his ability to run the offense.
“He set the tone for the game on the ball and with his pace. He got a lot of people involved, kept us organized,” Fizdale said after the preseason opener against the Wizards. “Steady and tough.” Payton finished that game with five points, five assists, and tied for last in plus/minus with a -11.
Fizdale promised he would make his decision without front office influence, but his actions speak something different. Smith was thrown into the starting lineup immediately and when he’s not, Payton appears to be his second preference despite not being able to outplay Frank Ntilikina.
There is a role for Payton on this team. Paired up with a second unit of shooters such as Wayne Ellington, Kevin Knox, and Bobby Portis, Payton can have a strong impact. As a starter however, he doesn’t score at a more efficient rate, nor defend better than his competition.
Ntilikina is the only person not currently in contention for the starting job, which is ironic since he has looked the best.
The thing with Frank is you truly have to look beyond the point totals to see the impact he is having on the court. For instance, his 5.3 points per game during the preseason is mundane. But when you watched the three games he appeared in, the growth was undeniable.
In the opener at Washington, he was part of the surge in the third quarter to snatch the lead back after the starters fumbled it away. He finished that game +16, tied with Taj Gibson for best on the team.
He did not hesitate with his shot, a positive sign from his FIBA stint.
Frank drills a 3! pic.twitter.com/MivMYCc7Wq— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 8, 2019
The shots will start falling; the problem with Frank in the past is that he would shut down if he started missing. He continued this aggressiveness in the final two games in which he appeared.
WE STAN AGGRESSIVE FRANK pic.twitter.com/g49SdmwFSd— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 12, 2019
During his first two years, getting Ntilikina to drive with conviction was like getting your dog to go outside in the pouring rain. That no longer appears to be the issue. A confident Frank is an above-average player, and certainly one deserving of serious minutes.
Frank will never be the scorer Smith is, but he and Payton are comparable players. The Hawks game was a great last impression. With Fizdale going with him and Smith the whole night, Ntilikina proved to be every bit as ready to play crucial minutes.
FRANK MAKING BIG PLAYS pic.twitter.com/zkwNA0OqNh— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 17, 2019
His best run of the preseason came with about five minutes left in the game. Trae Young was having his way with the Knicks for most of the night. Frank came in and put the clamps on the Rookie of the Year runner-up.
FRANK CLAMPIKINA pic.twitter.com/hVOIKMIszW— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 17, 2019
This is what Frank can do—yet he remains on the outside looking in. Could Fizdale simply plan to have Ntilikina close games instead of start them? Possibly. But still, to give the job to an older player who brings a similar skill set, and who he outplayed, sends the wrong message.
When Fizdale was hired he said guys would play what they earned. Frank has certainly earned more; it’s up to Fizdale to acknowledge it.
In a shocking development, Fizdale went with the rookie to start at point guard. If that move perplexes you, don’t worry—you’re not alone. If it confuses you even more that he paired Barrett with Allonzo Trier, and not one of the defensive-minded guards, trust me: you are definitely not alone.
Is this the Knicks trying to do a bad Houston Rockets impression, talking themselves into R.J. being James Harden? Let’s hope not. He may get there eventually if he reaches his ceiling.
Barrett was impressive in the preseason. He finished third among rookies in points per game with 15.8, proved his strong rebounding in college wasn’t a fluke (6.8 per game in the preseason), and had some moments where he was the best facilitator on the floor.
What Fizdale was thinking is not that crazy if implemented well. Barrett was the key initiator in Vegas, and as myself and Quentin Haynes have already detailed, he is capable of being the lead guard—in spurts.
Fizdale said Barrett played himself into that role during the preseason. Barrett did form a solid rapport with Mitchell Robinson …
POINT GUARD RJ HAS ARRIVED— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 17, 2019
What doesn’t Mitch catch?!? pic.twitter.com/NjPCbkvIZn
Waiter… this for the next 10-15 years please and thank you pic.twitter.com/Ebh5nNaUB8— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 19, 2019
… in addition to a couple of nice outlet passes of rebounds, showing his ability to push the pace:
RJ to Knox or Darnold to Anderson? pic.twitter.com/HKt3xMjuUA— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 19, 2019
At Duke he was forced to do the same thing once Zion Williamson went down and Tre Jones proved ineffective. In a pinch he is a smart enough player to make the requisite reads and should have the size advantage on offense more times than not.
The problem is the defensive end. During his first Summer League game the quick Jared Harper was able to drive by R.J. with relative ease. Barrett may survive against the mid-tier point guards, such as Dejounte Murray or Derrick White, but against the cream of the crop he is liable to get lit up.
Fizdale’s wild gamble on opening night blew up in his face. Dejounte Murray scored whenever he wished. The offense was stagnant, with a ton of forced perimeter shots. Barrett’s passing should be looked at as a luxury to pair with a point guard, not make him the point guard. As a rookie he should be eased into a large role.
It is imperative that Fizdale comes to a decision sooner rather than later. If it is Smith’s job, let him have it. If he’s not yet up to speed, Ntilikina and Payton are more than capable. Just make a decision and don’t try some outside the box lineup when you don’t have to. There are three point guards on this team; there is no reason to try to create a fourth.