The Knicks have three players with varying levels of expectations going into the season. How are they responding to those expectations, and are any of our feelings overreactions?
I remember during my first Friday night as a freshman at Fordham University, everyone from my dorm decided to go out and christen our ascension to the ranks of the highly educated with a night on the town. The evening went about as you’d expect for a bunch of kids who didn’t know the meaning of lightweight. Thankfully for our collective stomachs, across the street from our bar of choice was a pizza place that stayed open until sun-up.
To this day, I can still recall my first official bite of drunk food. I turned to my roommate and said, with all the sincerity I could muster, “duuuude, this is greatest pizza place in the world.” I wanted it to remain inside of me forever and ever, so that I could keep that little slice of perfection close to my soul for the rest of eternity.
Apparently some perfection can’t be contained, as it came up about 15 minutes later.
Regardless, my initial reaction was genuine. In my mind, I had experienced gastronomic ecstasy. I was so excited to go back a few days later and enjoy this impeccable high of edible achievements again, but much to my chagrin, the second time around was nothing like the first. It was heavy on the dough, there wasn’t nearly enough sauce, and I’m pretty sure they used Polly-O cheese. I had been the victim of a culinary cocktease.
For fans of the Knicks and the NBA’s other 29 teams alike, seeing players excel in Vegas (or Utah, or California) is like taking that first glorious bite of drunk food. You go into these games already high off of the unknown, the most potent drug available to sports fans. Then, we get to see some of the most talented young players in the world go up against guys who will either be bagging groceries or shopping for them in another country in a few weeks. It’s a dangerous combination, and often times, July greatness never translates to the regular season.
Need proof? Every Knicks fan remembers Anthony Randolph as the tantalizing throw-in to the David Lee sign-and-trade with the Warriors. Randolph had clashed with head coach Don Nelson, but came into his sophomore campaign with as much excitement as any young player in the NBA after lighting up summer league to the tune of 26.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, and three blocks per game, including a 42-point outing that is now the stuff of legend:
Randolph wasn’t without pedigree either, having been drafted 14th overall and averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds during his eight April starts for the Warriors his rookie year. He was supposed to be the next big thing.
He lasted 17 games for the Knicks and was out of the league by 25.
On the other hand, on this very date last year, we all saw Donovan Mitchell light up the Summer Grizzlies to the tune of 37 points. It seemed clear to anyone who watched him that a dozen teams were going to be doing some serious second guessing for passing on a guy who had “it” in spades. Five years earlier, Damian Lillard gave five teams similar agita after he led all scorers in Vegas, averaging 26.5 points per contest. Sometimes, these things do matter.
With that, I present the New York Knicks Summer League Overreaction Scale. We take a look at three young players and the exaggerations that are being tossed around thanks to a few days worth of ultimately meaningless basketball. The players are graded on a scale of 1-10, with a 10 being the feeling I had about the pizza on that fateful Friday night, and a 1 meaning that every word of praise is entirely warranted. Without further adieu, our first summer standout is…
I’ve been on a running group text with two buddies of mine for the last few years. 90 percent of the discussion is about our lot in life as Knicks fans and the resulting misery that comes with it. Following Robinson’s first summer league game, one of them commented on how good he looked, which prompted me to say that I’m not going to pretend to know what Robinson’s ceiling is. The third guy then chimed in with “Somewhere between Bill Russell and Hasheem Thabeet.”
He’s not wrong.
Guys who can run fast, jump high, and generally do things that normal human beings aren’t supposed to do without the aid of amphetamines or a jet pack generally stand out in summer league. When a seven footer with approximately a 7-foot-4 wingspan does them, people start wetting their pants a little.
Playing in his first competitive game in a year, Mitchell Robinson’s timing was a bit off.
But we still saw glimpses of his potential through his rim protection, transition defense, and ability to use his length to defend the pick and roll.
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) July 8, 2018
With Robinson, none of the abilities he’s showing on the court were ever in doubt, as saliva-inducing as his exploits have been. It’s all the other stuff that caused him to drop to the 36th pick, below several players that could never dream of having his talent. Despite three summer league games filled with mesmerizing moments (especially his blocks on the perimeter, which remind you of a horror movie where the character you thought was dead comes out of nowhere to save the day), those concerns still exist.
Let’s start with the reason we have to throw in the word “approximately” next to his wingspan. It’s because Robinson somewhat inexplicably pulled out of the NBA Draft combine. On the heels of a year spent training in Dallas following his withdrawal from Western Kentucky, it wasn’t a great look.
So far, he’s apparently showed up everywhere he’s supposed to be on time (which is more than at least one other fellow draftee can say), and according to his new head coach, Robinson is a good-hearted kid who has worked hard in practice. It’s a start.
Hahahahaha Mitchell Robinson's reach is ridiculous pic.twitter.com/IeoJ2wF0kN
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) July 11, 2018
If he keeps it up for the rest of this season…and then the season after that…and the season after that, there likely won’t be much debate about whether the Knicks got the steal of the draft.
Until then though, it’s probably best to settle down a little.
Overreaction Meter: 7/10
In the category of “you don’t know what you got ’till it’s gone,” Frank Ntilikina’s summer league experience has to take the cake.
Before the first game, fans expected to see a transformed player—someone who was unrecognizable from the rookie that often seemed timid in his approach to the game last year. They thought that a month and a half of strength training and ball handling drills would be the equivalent of injecting Logan with that funky green serum, and that Frank would come charging out of the gate ready to decapitate anyone who dared stand in his way.
After a five-point debut, the haters felt like they finally had the ammunition to prove once and for all that Frankie Smokes was a dud.
Apparently he was listening. 24 hours later, following a 17-point, six assist outing that included a few pinpoint passes and a baseline fadeaway that would make Kobe jealous, the ridiculous chatter about a player still more than a year away from his 21st birthday began to die down. Then, with Frank sidelined for game three with a groin injury, the Knicks looked like a bunch of strangers trying to run an offense against a pro team that had played together for years. Aside from some spirited play in the third quarter, they also couldn’t stop anyone.
Frank Ntilikina looked like a whole new player vs Utah. He was aggressive, worked the post, made several turn-around jumpers, and I was most impressed with his handle
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) July 9, 2018
At this point, it’s tough to argue that Ntilikina is a fully-formed NBA player. Even his most ardent supporters (I can send an official badge and bumper sticker for the Frank Fan Club to anyone who needs) would have to admit that there are still questions about whether the young Frenchman is capable of running an NBA offense on his own. Nothing over the last week has changed that.
Still, we’ve seen enough of his influence to know that the Knicks would be wise to invest another year in his development as at least a co-primary ball handler moving forward. In the meantime, it’s more than ok to be excited, as long as it comes with a heathy dose of patience.
Overreaction Meter: 3/10
Well that didn’t take long.
For Kevin Knox, the last month has resembled something akin to a 4th of July party that your uncle from South Carolina shows up to with a trunk-load of goodies from South of the Border. His rise has been nothing short of meteoric.
After falling into the mid-teens in some mock drafts midway through June, John Calapari came out and compared him to Jayson Tatum. Following what was apparently a Penny Hardaway/Orlando Magic level workout, Knox flew up New York’s draft board, and they ultimately selected him 9th overall. Then, his new coach doubled down on the Tatum comp, all before Summer League even started.
This is when the ears of Knicks fans across the metropolitan area really started to perk up. It’s one thing when the human hype machine sings your praises; it’s another when a new coach who should be working hard to temper expectations puts your name in the same sentence as one of the five most untouchable assets in the league.
The buzz reached a fever pitch after a Vegas debut that started with a coast to coast, one-man fast break and ended with a team-high 22 points. Despite some poor shooting from the outside, there was no doubt that the Knicks had themselves a player.
The next night began innocently enough, and then all of the sudden, the roof at the Cox Pavilion came off:
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) July 9, 2018
In that moment, expectations officially lost any semblance of reason. Yours truly went to Twitter after the game and proclaimed that the Knicks taking Knox was something which could rival the Jazz drafting Donovan Mitchell or the Bucks landing Giannis Antetokounmpo. As a final exclamation point, his back to back to back threes during the Knicks 3rd quarter comeback attempt against LA provided as much excitement as any moment in MSG this calendar year. Rookie of the Year officially became a thing on the radar, if not MVP and first-ballot HOF’er.
KEVIN KNOX IS ON ??? pic.twitter.com/dUvqDryTGx
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) July 11, 2018
So just how crazy are such proclamations? The knock on Knox (see what I did there?) heading into the draft was that, outside of his ability to create offense for himself, none of the other facets of his game were a known quality. Yet three games into summer league, we’ve seen a player eminently comfortable with the ball in his hands and adept at being both a pick-and-roll ball handler and finisher. His three-point barrage against the Lakers showed that early concerns over his shot were overrated, and his ability to hang in the air on drives (and draw contact seemingly at will) all bode well for his future as a someone who will be able to get a bucket when you desperately need one. On defense, he’s been rangy as hell, and looks like he’ll be able to survive playing either forward position at the next level.
Does he have the feel for the game to make the right plays when the stakes are at their highest? Who knows. But for a franchise that hasn’t experienced postseason basketball in half a decade, it’s a question they’ll be thrilled to find out the answer to if and when the time comes.
Still, given just how fast the hype train is chugging along, to say all of the praise is 100 percent warranted would be foolish. It’s gotten a little too loud a little too fast, which might be a bit unfair to a kid who’s still a month away from his 19th birthday.
Just don’t tell Knicks fans. We have so little. Let us have this.
Overreaction Meter: 5/10