Three of the Knicks young core members could easily be supplanted by vets if David Fizdale sees competition lacking. Here’s what Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, and Allonzo Trier can do.
Kevin Knox began his professional career being thrown into the fire. At 19 years old he started 57 games and logged 2,158 minutes, good for seventh among rookies. Knox had a few highs—mainly December, in which he took Rookie of the Month honors and averaged 17.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and shot an impressive 38.4% from three.
The rest of Knox rookie season was marred by historically frigid shooting. He shot 36.7% from the field after December, and did not look much better on defense. Still, for a 19-year-old, it could have been worse.
Allonzo Trier had to sing for his supper to start his rookie season. An undrafted free agent despite a strong career at Arizona, Trier had to show out the minute he threw on a Knicks uniform—and he did. His first signature moment came against the Nets in the preseason, where he flashed that microwave scoring prowess in a 20-point first half.
Trier is at his best when he can operate in isolation, and David Fizdale encouraged him to do what he did best. That confidence from Fizdale translated to Trier transitioning from a two-way contract player to a main rotational player.
He finished his rookie season with a respectable 10.9 points per game, played the 15th most minutes among rookies (1,459) and shot an impressive 39.4% from three, playing his way into the team’s core.
Frank Ntilikina was not as lucky as his juniors. Ntilikina cracked the starting unit the first 14 games of the season before being relegated to the bench the rest of the way. In a virtual redux to his rookie season, he found himself stuck behind guards who were better at creating their own shot.
In that brief moment as a starter, he did manage to have his best game as a Knick versus the Warriors.
FRANK TIES HIS CAREER HIGH WITH 17 POINTS IN 20 MINUTES OHHHHHHH BABY pic.twitter.com/J0WcJXhj3n— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 27, 2018
It was a flash of the player Frank could be for the team when his confidence and playing time are both high. But that’s all Ntilikina’s sophomore season would be: yet another flash of potential and nothing more.
Heading into this season, all three will be fighting for playing time. Knox and Ntilikina have a strong shot to secure a role with the second unit, but will have to fight off veterans Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock (once healthy), Damyean Dotson (ditto), and Wayne Ellington for playing time. Things are even murkier for Trier, who logged just eight minutes in the preseason opener.
The best way for each guy to see similar minutes to what they saw last year is finding their niche. There is no big three with this team—everything will be a group effort. That means a semi-reliance on specialization: if you’re really good at one thing, you will find your way onto the court.
All three have that one thing they’re really good at. What is it, and can it help them secure a rotation spot? Let’s dive in.
Kevin Knox II
What better place to start than with the guy who will see a demotion from last season, yet has the clearest path to major minutes.
Knox’s demotion—and I use that word lightly—comes as a result of signing Marcus Morris, a veteran wing who mirrors what Knox’s future looks like: a floor spacing scorer who can play either forward position. But unlike Ntilikina and Trier, Knox doesn’t have to deal with a log jam.
For all the “Knicks signed five power forwards” jokes that have flown around, the glut on the roster is at guard. Knox can be a virtual platoon mate with Morris, and sharpen the one skill of his which thrived as a rookie: shooting from deep.
Yes, Knox had one of the worst statistical seasons as a rookie—but it would be unfair not to mention how big a factor shot selection played. Knox himself said he took a lot of long twos, the worst statistical shot basketball.
“I think I took a lot of tough twos and contested shots,” Knox told reporters at Media Day. “I’m going to try and eliminate them out of my game this year. I think I was forced to take a lot of bad shots, forced shots late in the shot clock.”
An easy way to take the next step forward is replacing those long mid-range shots with three-point shots. Knox’s deep ball percentage was his saving grace. His 34.3% put him in the middle of the pack, and his corner three percentage (38%) could be the foundation for a refined shot selection.
He’s been working on that shot all summer and wants to bump that percentage into the 40’s this season.
Kevin Knox on his three-point shooting goal this season:— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 7, 2019
“I’m trying to shoot 40 [percent] or above, I’m trying to shoot 40. I think that’s a good number for me. I think my shot has gotten a lot better.”
Being able to play off the ball will do wonders. As a rookie he was asked to create way too often, which led to those late in the shot clock attempts he mentioned. Playing with better playmakers who can get him the ball off the feed can accelerate that development, and lead to shots like these becoming the norm.
KNOX JAB pic.twitter.com/WVhJAtXM1G— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 7, 2019
Knox is doing everything we wanted him to do last season. I’m in love. pic.twitter.com/e0Wco2E0uS— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 7, 2019
Defense is the final frontier he will have to conquer, and one that will be put on hold. It relies more on hope than anything: the hope that his chiseled frame will allow him to bang with 4s. The hope that Marcus Morris’ bully mentality can rub off.
Last season Knox ranked dead last in Defensive Rating (115.1), and other than rebounding, was an abject disaster. As a rebounder he was shockingly good on the offensive glass, ranking in the 70th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass.
He will share the floor with the likes of Mitchell Robinson and Taj Gibson more times than not, so he doesn’t have to become Anthony Mason. He just can’t be a human turnstile.
The key difference between Frank Ntilikina of the New York Knicks and Frank Ntilikina of the French national team is confidence. Whether it’s familiarity or a coincidence, Frank looked infinitely more comfortable in his own skin playing for France during the World Cup. It was a sight to see.
Ntilikina remains the best perimeter defender on the team—he just needs to justify his playing time to Fizdale. His timidness led to him become an offensive blackhole last season. For France, he played with a purpose, and wouldn’t you know it, he looked good doing it.
That confidence carried over into the first preseason game with the Knicks. Frank attempted 10 shots in 23 minutes. He only hit three of them, but the lack of hesitation in pulling the trigger is extremely encouraging.
I will always have hope for Frank pic.twitter.com/tX9tpu4UHF— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 7, 2019
The good thing about Frank is that he is more than capable of playing either guard position. The presence of Dennis Smith Jr. and Elfrid Payton make that versatility even more prevalent. It could open up starter minutes alongside Smith, or second unit minutes alongside Payton, as well as closing time minutes as the defensive ace.
If he can somehow add a reliable three-point shot, something he is working diligently on, Fizdale will have no choice but to play him. The point guard of the future could be Ntilikina, but Smith Jr. is the safer bet. That doesn’t mean Frank is a bust, nor screwed on playing time; he is far and away the best defender on the team.
A good marker for Frank is becoming the defensive ace who can knock down an open three. He doesn’t need the ball to be effective, and if he can sure up his corner three (he shot 39% from the corners as a rookie), he can be a variation of what Thabo Sefolosha used to be.
It’s not sexy, but it’s a cog every successful team needs. That’s what is vital to remember with Frank: he may not be the star of the team some of his supporters want him to be, but he is damn sure the type of player good teams have.
Allonzo Trier’s quest for minutes is the most hazy. He is not big enough to play up at the 3 and could be squeezed between the sides. The talent is undeniable; unfortunately, so is the redundancy.
One thing Scott Perry made sure to get over the summer was shooters. When fully healthy, the team has a litany of guys who can hit reliably from deep. Trier is among that group.
As a rookie he ranked in the 80th percentile in three-point percentage (40%), per Cleaning The Glass, and even more impressive was his 90th percentile ranking on above the break threes, hitting at a 41% clip.
The bad news for Trier is he is not an off-the-ball kind of guy (he’s called Iso Zo for a reason). That’s not to suggest he can’t contribute to winning games—quite the contrary. He just has to take the toughest job on the team as the microwave scorer whose minutes will fluctuate given the situation.
Trier has that rare ability to pour in 20 points in the blink of an eye, and create his own shot with ease. Sure, he can mold that scoring prowess into his game to be a good soldier, but you want your guys to be their best selves, right?
That is how Fizdale viewed things, as he encouraged Trier to do what he does best. Trier’s best self in the immediate future is as Fizdale’s mercenary, a guy who can come in to break a scoring drought or step in for a spot start.
There is a Sixth Man of the Year vibes to him, for obvious reasons. Until the dust settles, Iso Zo will have to be the team’s Winter Soldier.
This season will be all about group efforts. The veterans added over the summer are a big part of that group, as are the young guys. Unlike the vets, the young guys are the ones the team is invested in long term. It’s important for guys like Knox and Trier to remember that, and hopefully Frank too, once the team picks up his team option—which they better do.
In the meantime each guy can hone in and find ways to help the team. The rest will work itself out.