On the eve of a predicted wild draft night, The Knicks Wall’s Jonathan Macri chronicles his infatuations with the most widely discussed prospects in the New York Knicks’ range.
Do you know what’s the worst part of the team you root for repeatedly losing 50 games year after year, other than the fact that they, you know, suck? It’s the resulting torment that is the buildup to the NBA Draft.
Other fan bases have several weeks, maybe a month or so, to pore over draft prospects. Not Knicks fans. For us, the middle of February isn’t just reserved for picking up Walgreens chocolates, buying a card, and hoping your wife thinks you put more than 3.5 seconds of thought into that pajama-gram. No, for supporters of New York’s orange and blue, Valentine’s Day is right around when we start falling in—and out of—love with a bevy of college prospects:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
I love thy max vertical and low weight and height.
Thy standing reach, ’tis nearly out of sight.
For your wingspan is wider than the sun’s face,
and your defensive stance is never out of place.
I love thy silky jumper, with a release point so high,
That like KP’s frosty tips, it touches the sky.
I love thy handle, like the ball is on a string
How you can cover guards, bigs, and wings.
With all my love, I profess, until my last breath,
I shall defend your basketball I.Q. from now until the death.
You know the drill. Watch just enough college basketball to pick a prospect you like. Plant your flag on his hill. Engage in spirited Twitter debates with people who know just about as much as you do. Try not to show weakness, even in the face of adversity. Stay strong. By June, you’ve heard your guy picked apart in more ways than you can count. It can unsteady nerves of even the toughest steel. It’s where yours truly now finds himself on the eve of the 2018 NBA Draft.
Like most NBA observers, I’ve seen the way the league is goink.
Excuse me—going. I’ve seen the way the league is going for a while now. Teams that win have guys who can a) shoot from deep and b) defend multiple positions. Thus, my torrid love affair with Mikal Bridges was born many moons ago. He became the girl at the bar you spot the minute you walk through the door. From that first moment, as much as I became a fan of his game and the certainty of what he could bring at the next level, part of the allure was that I knew we had a chance. What could be easier than drafting a guy who does both of the things that translate to any game, any time? Whether he ended up being Klay Thompson, Robert Covington, Trevor Ariza, or somewhere in between, what could be a better move for a franchise looking to re-establish its ’90s identity than to draft a great team defender with a high basketball I.Q.? Mikal was safe and secure, like Linus’ blanket, only with longer arms.
And then, slowly but surely, doubt started to creep in.
Low upside. Not a shut-down defender. Lack of separation ability. Slow first step. Not a secondary ball-handler.
The dreaded wandering eye had befallen me, and I began to wonder: was this really the best I could do? The negatives started to haunt my dreams, like evil sheep shouting numbers back in my face. Was this a case of the grass being greener or was I settling for the frumpy girl with the cankles, yet again? I was conflicted.
The first short skirt to catch my eye was Collin Sexton. This guy was born to play in New York. Three on five? Are you kidding me? This dude would make the Jets and the Sharks go running for cover. In the NBA, if you don’t have a guard who can penetrate the defense, you don’t have a playoff team—plain and simple. Throw in the gnarly, in-your-shorts-defense, combined with the kid’s borderline psychopathic drive to win, and it was easy to see him coming in and having a Donovan Mitchell–like effect on the Knicks next year.
And then I sat down to watch the playoffs and started counting all the guards who were able to stay on the floor, despite not being a threat from long range. There was Dejounte Murray, who was gone in the blink of an eye; Rajon Rondo, one of the best playmakers in the league; Marcus Smart, built like Lawrence Taylor (and whose shooting killed the Celtics at the worst possible time); and… that was it. With a shooting form that might need to be rebuilt, this was a less than inspiring realization. Sexton’s also not a natural passer, taking away half of the drive and kick equation, which seems like a lot. Now, throw in the turnover rate in college, the fact that he’s only 6’2″, a first step that isn’t that quick, and the fact that he needs the ball in his hands to be successful.
Collin, we’ll always have Paris. But the wandering eye wouldn’t cease.
Next up was Zhaire Smith. All I could think of at first was a defensive combo of Zhaire and Frank building a Wakandan-like force field around the perimeter with opposing ball handlers exploding on contact.
“Oh, I’m sorry, was this your ball? I didn’t see your name on it, so I took it. It would now seem to be my ball. Perhaps you should find another one.”
The fact that he was a 45 percent shooter from deep in college gave me hope—but that was on only 40 total attempts. He had other issues too. In terms of traditional guard skills, Smith made Sexton look like Steve Nash. Hell, Wendell Carter Jr. had more aptitude for playmaking than Zhaire. Then the combine measurements came in. Could a 6’2” guard, who plays like your typical true four, work in the modern game? Or was the hype train moving a little too fast and started to go off the rails? I was starting to feel very uncomfortable. Mamma always said if you can’t feel your cheeks, it means you’ve had too much.
I took a deep breath. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a group down at the other end of the bar who I previously thought was out of my league.
Oh. Em. Gee. They were looking my way.
First I started thinking long and hard about Carter, who’s a very large human, and Young, who’s a very small human. If the playoffs were any indication, neither are an ideal fit for the modern game. The NBA is well on its way to turning into the factory from the “Real Slim Shady” video, except instead of Eminem lookalikes, it’ll just be spitting out 6-7, 225-pound Jaylen Brown clones.
Then I dug a little deeper, starting with Carter. In a league where intelligence is the new crypto-currency, the dude who got into Harvard might have some use. The fact that he does everything that matters on a basketball court well doesn’t hurt either. Al Horford was the fulcrum for a conference finalist and Carter is built in the same mold on offense.
And then there was Young, who will immediately become one of the top ten “we have to figure out a way to stop that guy” guys the moment he gets drafted. Shooting + vision + handle? Doesn’t need the ball to bend a defense? Sign me up. I don’t even need the free water bottle.
Sure, each had warts—anyone available at nine ought to have a few. They’d each get targeted on defense in different ways and for different reasons, and neither would be a perfect complement to the two building blocks already in place (Young for negating Frank’s positional advantage on defense; Carter for making it that much harder to avoid exposing KP to perimeter responsibilities, to say nothing of the uncertainty about Wendell’s own switchability). Still, these are good problems to have. I was starting to come around.
The two of them seemed to turn their heads in the opposite direction sooner than I could wiggle that wedding ring off my finger. In all likelihood, Young and Carter would be gone by nine, but I couldn’t be sure. Meanwhile, the third one was still giving me the eyes. I’d have to keep my antennas up, even though something didn’t feel quite right.
Just then my drink was bumped out of my hand by a group that clearly had one too many. Miles Bridges, Kevin Knox, and Lonnie Walker are way more in the Knicks league than those highfalutin’ prospects anyway. They all held a unique allure—the promise of what could be, if not what already was. It’s not hard to envision each of them playing the type of position-less basketball Scott, Steve, and David envision for this team. The buzzwords all light up when you go down the list. Athletic? Check. Versatile? Check? Good character? Check. Smooth jumper? Check. Shot creation? Check.
Suddenly, my vision got cloudy and things didn’t appear as clearly as they once did. Is that Lonnie Walker or Donovan Mitchell? Kevin Knox or Jayson Tatum? Miles Bridges or…actually, Bridges is kind of his own animal (I was never lazy enough to make the Draymond comps, which are outlandish).
It was easy to talk myself into any one of them. DraftExpress workout videos made Knox and Walker look like the guys who would have the teams that passed on them kicking themselves by mid-December, and Miles seemed to split the difference between the upside of a Porter, and the safety of a Mikal.
The air started to get hazy with the smell of perfume, lust, and bacon. I started to wonder: why would all of these guys, in all likelihood, be there at no. 9 to begin with? Then I remembered: we have a full season’s worth of evidence (two in Bridges’ case) to prove that these three might not be everything that Kool-Aide drinking fans like myself were imagining. Lonnie Walker never displayed the passing vision that Mitchell did, and it wasn’t particularly close. He had a lot of forgettable moments in college, albeit, for a Miami team with its own issues. As for Knox, for all the excitement over his athleticism, he never looked to be anything but a straight four at the next level. Just like Walker, his feel for the game was not what you’d consider encouraging, and he disappeared from games often.
Still, these kids were freshmen. Was I drawing too many conclusions about a season where they were playing with a bunch of other inexperienced teens, and how would they mature in an NBA ecosystem—the type that Mikal Bridges has been in for years now? Kevin Knox isn’t even 19 yet. Was it fair to draw any conclusions based off of one year at a glorified AAU extension program—one that consistently churns out guys who look better in the pros than they did in college?
Even more than Knox, Miles Bridges was the one I truly couldn’t quit on. Like a delicate snowflake in the form of 6’7” armored tank, Bridges was a beautiful and unique creature. He played out of position all year on a team with zero spacing, and made it work. His shot creation potential was clearly there, albeit still raw. On the other hand, I also couldn’t identify a single thing about Miles that stood out to me. What was particularly exciting about him, other than the fact that he looked the part of a player you want on your team in 2018 and beyond? His athleticism was fine. His shooting was fine. His defense was fine. It was all fine, and nothing more. Was there really the type of potential here that couldn’t be passed up?
I pondered this for a moment as the third one from the end of the bar made unmistakeable, direct eye contact.
Michael Porter Jr. always seemed too good to be true. The top recruit in his class was still expected to be among the first few players taken, despite the back and whispers about his character. Did his Missouri teammates even want him to come back? What did they think of his hijacking the offense when he did? Then, with a few weeks to go until the draft, predictions of his fall from grace increased. The Knicks, who have professed from the outset that they would take the best player available, were intrigued, to the point that teams were calling to gauge their interest in trading up (apparently with the plethora of extra assets New York has just lying around).
It made me think of the front office’s words about building a culture—the ones David Fizdale echoed when he was hired. This wasn’t just about floor versus ceiling. This was about deciding whether the culture you’re instilling is already sturdy enough to change someone or if it’s still in a place where the right addition is needed to make the foundation sturdy. It’s true that one man doesn’t build a culture—even Pop and Duncan needed each other—but the wrong one can destroy it.
Porter. Miles. Knox. Walker. Carter. Young. Smith. Sexton. My head was spinning, and it wasn’t just because the Henny was going down a bit too easy.
I turned around, just about ready to give up hope of figuring it all out, and there in front of me was Mikal. I wanted to say “No, you’re not perfect, and yes, that dress probably looked a lot better on the mannequin, but I’ll be damned if you’re not the gal for me.” It’s been a long four months of analyzing, overanalyzing, and questioning myself and what I value in the game of basketball. However, at the end of the day, I wondered if all the potential in the world could replicate a player who had to bite, scratch and claw his way to this point—one who made up for his lack of natural physical ability by outworking everyone else around him, and then some. No challenge has been too great for him so far. How hard could playing a role in resurrecting the Knicks possibly be?
It’s been four long months, but forever awaited. Time to make a decision.
“Hey, you want to get out of here? I think there’s a Denny’s open down the block.”
Bartender, check, please.