While New York will probably sit out come April and May, the intra-squad competition will be alive all season long for the Knicks.
One of the surefire NBA certainties this season is the predictability of the state of Enes Kanter’s nipples in the spring of 2019. Deep into a rebuild, the 2018–19 New York Knicks are heading, once again, for the lottery. Kanter’s bizarre bodily imagery of postseason arousal aside, this bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Knicks roster will unfortunately be on the outside looking in as the playoffs approach, more likely to be in a battle for lottery seeding than any 2013–14 Phoenix Suns-esque surprise playoff push.
This isn’t to say the Knicks won’t be competitive. Internally, they certainly will be. The roster is stacked with a menagerie of NBA question marks of various shapes and sizes. No fewer than 10 Knickerbockers are on expiring contracts of some form and will be playing for their next contract this season—whether that next contract is in New York or elsewhere. Some of these Knick players have a lot to prove this season, which should make for a sort of cocoon of internal competition for the franchise.
The first group of free agents to be are the former lottery pick lost toys that Scott Perry and Steve Mills have been spending the last 12 months collecting. The second group are late second-round picks or undrafted guys. I’ll discuss the players in each group in order of how safe they are as NBA players, from most to prove, to least.
The former lottery picks
Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, Mario Hezonja, and Noah Vonleh are all top-10 draft picks, and have all failed to live up to expectations so far.
Probably the most endangered of this quartet is Emmanuel Mudiay, whose stock as a legitimate NBA player has never been lower. The problem—and it’s quite a big one—is that there is nothing Mudiay does particularly well on the court. There’s not even much he’s merely O.K. at. He’s a bad shooter from the perimeter and at the rim. He’s a bad defender. He has questionable decision-making that makes him alarmingly turnover-prone. This season will be crucial for his NBA longevity, which has already, before the season has even started, taken a knock with his tepid preseason play.
Hezonja and Vonleh, this summer’s free-agency acquisitions, aren’t in as precarious a position as Mudiay but still have a lot to prove. Both had multiple suitors in free agency before choosing the Knicks, meaning there’s still intrigue and appetite around the NBA for their potential. Both are looking to persuade coaches and executives that they have a place in today’s NBA.
Hezonja’s destiny is probably as a stretch four, Vonleh’s is probably as a stretch five, and both will have to prove primarily that they can fulfill the “stretch” element of these positional zeitgeists. Taking and making shots aside, both cast-offs will have to prove they are trending upwards defensively and improving on the side of the ball that young players so often struggle with, and often never do.
On a good day, both guys have the tools to become role players in the NBA. Hezonja has the skill, as a shooter and as a playmaker, but he needs to find consistency with his shot, and the happy medium in his playmaking between a potential highlight and a potential turnover. Sometimes, Mario, the killer pass can wait. Not all needles need to be threaded. He’ll get plenty of minutes this year on a Knicks roster starving for playmaking, and hopefully he can find some consistency in his production when given the foundation of consistent minutes.
Vonleh is a juggernaut of a human, equal parts Greek god and bowling ball. Partner this athleticism and strength with the basketball smarts modern day NBA bigs live and die by, and Noah could be a valuable role player. Despite now being on the fourth team of his young career, already having suited up for the Charlotte Hornets, Portland Trail Blazers, and Chicago Bulls, Vonleh has only just turned 23 years old. He’s a bruising rebounder with enough of a shooting touch to keep GM’s around the league interested in what he could become, but he’ll have to show improvement at some point if wants to stick somewhere.
Burke has already shown he belongs in the NBA after last season’s outburst. Questions remain as to how much of that outburst was an anomaly. Shooting better than Steph Curry from the midrange tends to arouse suspicions as to sustainability and sample size, but Trey will have every chance to prove he’s no fluke this season as the likely starting point guard whilst the Knicks continue to ease Frank Ntilikina along his development curve. Best case scenario for Burke is that a team like the Knicks, Orlando Magic, or Phoenix Suns invests in him as a starter next season.
The unheralded and undrafted guys
Also fighting for minutes and opportunities to audition for potential employers next season are the unheralded or undrafted guys. Ron Baker and Ron Baker’s obscene hair will always scrap their way to some court time, but outside of Mudiay, he may be the most endangered young guard of their overcrowded wing rotation. Hustle and hair can only get you so far, and without consistently knocking down his three-pointers, Baker will likely find himself at the back of the line for minutes.
Isaiah Hicks is a young, large human who is on the Knicks roster. Kadeem Allen, given his scouting report of a gritty, hard nosed defensive-minded point guard, won’t be giving an inch in practice. Both of these guys are bodies to make up the numbers rather than serious threats to crack the rotation.
Luke Kornet and his theoretical ability to space the floor with his three-point shooting will get some minutes for the lineup versatility he provides David Fizdale. Especially given how he can pretend to ever so slightly stand in as a very, very, very poor mans Kristaps Porzingis; in so far as he can stand at various spots on the perimeter and not be ignored as a center, in the way that Kanter will be.
Then there’s Alonzo Trier, who I’m sure you’re all now introduced to as the NBA isolation heir to Lou Williams. A blazing inferno of perpetual buckets, preseason demigod and surefire Hall of Famer.
The … nipple guy
And last but not least, we come back to Mr. Kanter, who will be hunting his last big payday next offseason. He and his disappointed pectoral region will be 27 years old by then, in his theoretical prime, and fighting a near league-wide consensus that he is a player with a prehistoric skill set. Kanter is a brilliantly bruising and skilled low post big, but he represents an endangered NBA archetype, one with infamous “Can’t play Kanter” limitations that may as well mean “Can’t pay Kanter” come free agency next summer.
That’s 10 Knickerbockers who will be scrapping with each other for the opportunity this season to earn another opportunity—somewhere—next season. Coach Fizdale, well publicized lover of competition and hater of boxes and limitations of any kind, will surely pour gasoline on this situation. A competitive environment is hard to keep burning in a season full of losing, but perhaps, given how many on the roster are playing for their next contract, Fizdale and the Knicks can nurture a culturally valuable internal competition among a group of players who have a lot to prove this season.
For the future NBA careers of the majority of the roster, watchability generally, and developmental purposes, internal competition will be mutually beneficial for all involved with the 2018–19 New York Knicks.