The Knicks will more than likely have fewer choices at the presumed ninth pick in this year’s draft. However, the key decision making tasked with finding a diamond in the rough—or simply a more-than-competent player—could change how we stomach the development of the team as a whole.
Right now, the New York Knicks are playing out the string in another season that has made us all question our life choices. Fans have been armchair analyzing prospects for months (the telltale sign of a lottery-bound season), and at this point, no fewer than half a dozen names have emerged as realistic choices. One name, however, has emerged as a favorite to plug into the lineup upon departing Villanova University: junior Mikal Bridges.
If Michael Beasley is your favorite player’s favorite player, then Mikal Bridges is your grandmother’s hairdresser’s favorite player. He doesn’t have much in the way of an isolation game, he can’t create his own shot, and his handle and penetration are both “meh,” to put it lightly. He’s also close to grandma in age—at least in draft prospect years, 21. If you’re playing the “upside” drinking game on draft night, Mikal will give you a chance to refill the salsa. Bridges is all steak and no sizzle; in other words, he has a game that’ll appear to translate at the pro level—elite shooting and commendable perimeter defense—but he’s missing a sizzle that entices spectators and beef consumers.
There, of course, are other, more tantalizing prospects out there, too. Mo Bamba is an interesting look (Rudy Gobert with a three-point shot, anyone?). Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr. may have been overshadowed by Marvin Bagley III, but Carter Jr. certainly remains an throwback center of sorts. Collin Sexton has a motor on a point guard like no other, while Oklahoma’s Trae Young, the NCAA’s leader in points and assists per game remains a pipe dream (along with fantasies of how his size and game will translate to the pros). Other possible picks include Kentucky’s Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plus Texas Tech’s spry Zhaire Smith. All are freshman, and all offer the one thing that Mikal Bridges can’t: the allure of true, undeniable, unadulterated greatness. They also bring something Bridges doesn’t: uncertainty. All have question marks that a full season of college ball wasn’t able to fully solve, unlike the consistency and pedigree of Bridges.
But, that’s the thing with a steak—there’s a lot of ways it could end up being a wholly unsatisfying meal. Do you remember that friend who’s house you’d never want to stay over for dinner because their mom would just throw a pack of sirloins in the oven and leave them in until they resembled perfectly fine hockey pucks? When you try to grab a steak, like Mikal, in the late lottery, there’s always a possibility of a broiled hockey puck.
Upside versus predictability is a classic conflict in the prospect watch sphere. History has proven…both sides to make valid points.
Arizona’s Derrick Williams was a scoring machine. As a forward who led the nation in effective field-goal percentage, it was assumed that he would be too big for threes and too quick for fours at the next level. After Kyrie, he might have been the best isolation scorer in the country. He also did a little bit of everything, finishing fourth in the NCAA in PER. Between his unbridled athleticism and 56 percent shooting from deep, he figured to be unguardable in the pros.
However, you may know what had happened next. Instead of taking advantage of threes and fours in the NBA, threes and fours took advantage of Williams. Derrick’s three-point shot never progressed, and the initial tough sledding soon made it apparent that he didn’t have much of a burning desire to be great at basketball.
Derrick Williams was a particularly egregious bust, but one that happens more often than you’d think, and almost every time, the team drafting thinks they’re getting the sure thing. Minnesota whiffed on another, lower selected pick, Klay Thompson, but that’s the nature of the beast.
Take a gander at the list of players who were taken with one of the top two picks in the draft during the 14-year stretch going backwards from 2013 to 2000: Anthony Bennett, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Williams, Evan Turner, Hasheem Thabeet, the Beas, Greg Oden, Andrea Bargnani, Marvin Williams, Emeka Okafor, Darko Milicic, Jay Williams, Kwame Brown, and Stromile Swift.
Early returns on D’Angelo Russell and Jabari Parker are mixed, and while Brandon Ingram looks promising so far, the jury is still out. Markelle Fultz just made it back to the court—so that’s something.
Before these four, you have to go back to 1999 to find a year where you could at least argue neither of the top two selections—Elton Brand and Steve Francis—wasn’t a massive disappointment (although Brand’s two All-Star births leave a bit to be desired for a top pick).
Did injuries play a role? Of course. But even so, it’s stunning to consider that so many sure things were anything but. Barring some lottery luck, of course, the Knicks won’t be drafting in the top two. This only makes the probability of getting a prime cut all the less likely.
After losing a year to injury at the start to his career and experiencing some bumps along the way, Julius Randle has settled into a place that many lottery picks never arrive at: putting up solid numbers while getting consistent minutes on a nightly basis. There are nine guys in the league who combine a usage rate of 25 with a 60 true shooting percentage while playing over 25 minutes a night: eight All-Stars…and Randle, surprisingly.
Although it was shaky for a while, it’s fair to say at this point that the Kentucky product was worth the seventh pick in the 2011 draft.
Except here’s the thing with Julius: for as much as he’s a tall glass of Karl Malone with a shot of LeBron James tossed in, he’s kind of a quirky fit in the modern NBA. For all that Randle does, the things he is incapable of doing—protecting the rim and shooting threes, to name two—leave his ultimate value as a bit of a question mark. Put him at the five and you’re rolling out a red carpet to the hoop for the opposing team (units with Randle in the middle are allowing nearly 40 percent of opponent looks to happen at the rim, which is in the seventh percentile league-wide according to Cleaning the Glass); put him at the four and you’re sacrificing precious, precious shooting (he’s made just nine three-pointers all year).
Does he make up for those deficits in other areas? Of course. But that doesn’t make his fit in the modern game any less precarious. Compare that with the dude picked 19th in the same draft as Randle, Denver’s Gary Harris.
Harris is another guy who has a limited skill set. Gary isn’t necessarily the main shot creator on the floor, but surrounded with competent playmakers, his utility will shoot up.
Like Klay Thompson, what Harris does, he does very well: defend the other team’s best wing, and hit a high volume of threes at an efficient rate (40 percent on six attempts per game). Unsurprisingly, having someone on the court who does these two things translates to winning basketball in 2018. According to Cleaning the Glass’ efficiency differential statistic, which measures a team’s expected wins with and without a certain player, the Nuggets play like a 51-win team when Harris is on the court and a 27-win team when he’s off. His four-year, $84 million extension certainly looks like it’s worth the price tag.
There have been plenty of players over the last several years who, on paper at least, have more than justified their draft selection, and yet haven’t had the desired impact for their teams thanks to one glaring weakness or another, Randle notwithstanding. Using that same expected wins statistic, we see that Devin Booker (three wins added), Dennis Schröder (four wins), Andre Drummond (minus one win), Ricky Rubio (minus one win), Derrick Favors (minus eight wins), and old friend Enes Kanter (minus eight wins) have either failed to help their teams, or worse, have been actively detrimental.
There plenty of high-risk, high-reward prospects picked in the late lottery that fill out their game once they get to the pros, subsequently delivering very much in the way of positive on-court impact for their team.
On one hand, the ninth pick (which seems to be where the Knicks will end up) is littered with future Hall of Famers taken by teams swinging for the fences. Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki, Amar’e Stoudemire, DeMar DeRozan, and Kemba Walker were all surrounded by question marks of some kind coming out of college. They clearly answered them in the affirmative, although the list of high risk, high reward players taken around the same spot is too long to go through, as mentioned earlier.
On the other hand, Shawn Marion, Andre Iguodala, and Gordon Hayward were seen as lower ceiling types that would be nothing if not solid. They turned out to be far better than simply “above average rotation players.” They don’t have many comps because until now, teams with a top-ten pick haven’t liked to settle. But maybe it isn’t settling at all.
There’s no definitive right answer, but in a league where the best teams exploit your weak spots now more than ever, if the Knicks do sit down and break out the silverware, they better make sure they do their homework.
Can Trae Young defend enough at the next level, and will his floater translate to the pros? Will Collin Sexton hone his questionable jumper enough to make defenses respect his first step? Are Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. dynamic enough to live on the three-point line when opposing teams attempt to pick-and-roll them to death, and is their shooting real? Has Kevin Knox done anything that would lead us to believe he has a single definitive NBA skill?
The Knicks may answer one or more of these questions in the affirmative. If they do, it’ll make their lives a lot harder. One thing they can’t deny, though, is that we currently exist in a world where the Houston Rockets are about to win 65+ games with a collection of players who specialize in exactly two things: bombing threes on offense and switching everything on defense.
Looking at our friend Mikal again, it’s fair to look at one of those Rockets and see Bridges’ floor. Former Knick Trevor Ariza is currently one of three players in the NBA shooting 38 percent from deep on seven attempts per game while also swiping a steal and a half per night. The other two are Paul George and Steph Curry.
One possible Rockets playoff opponent is the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Ariza would probably begin the series guarding former number-one overall pick Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins can do things on the court that Ariza can only dream of, and if Houston had a chance to swap one for another for the playoff run, they wouldn’t think twice before hanging up the phone. That may sound jarring, but Wiggins’ three-point struggles and inability to consistently defend a lamp post make him an easy target on both ends.
Mikal is such a smart defender. pic.twitter.com/7H0B8WHvje
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) March 3, 2018
Sure, that’s oversimplifying things. Wiggins will probably progress as a player at some point, as all talented athletes do, but he might not. One of the high-ceiling guards the Knicks have a chance to draft might very well turn out to be the next Chris Paul or James Harden, while one of the bigs could actualize their unicorn potential on both ends and make the teams who passed on them look foolish.
The New York Knicks are miles away from being anything close to a contender. They have one sure thing in the middle with Kristaps Porzingis, one sorta, kinda, maybe-if-you-take-a-small-leap-of-faith sure thing at guard in Frank Ntilikina, and a diamond in the rough with their recent pickup of Trey Burke.
Go ahead and quibble over KP’s ideal spot, but he’s going to play a decent amount of center—the same spot as both Bamba and Carter. By the same token, regardless of which nominal guard position Frankie Smokes eventually occupies or whether Burke tops out as a sixth man or full-time starter, both have shown the ability to be a lead ball handler in some capacity. Young and Sexton will demand the rock, and as we’ve seen over the last month and a half, three’s a crowd.
The 1 spot, however, that the Knicks most certainly have zero sure things to occupy is the wing. The best teams in the league are collecting such players like me and my loser friends used to collect Pogs. Something tells me this fad will last a bit longer.
Perhaps they see some untapped upside in Knox or Smith that they feel is too lucrative to pass up. They may even look at Mikal’s brother from anther mother, Miles Bridges, and feel that his size will translate better to this particular roster. Neither is anywhere close to as sure a thing as the 21-year-old playing for the National Championship tonight.
There’s no surefire right answer. What is certain is that the decision Scott Perry, Steve Mills, and New York’s front office make in late June will play a huge role in shaping this organization for the foreseeable future. It won’t be an easy decision, but hopefully the organization can order up a mean steak that satisfies its role on the team.