Speed kills or Kentucky konnections? The Knicks, among other franchises, will have to decide two SEC point guards at the 2020 NBA Draft in Kira Lewis Jr. and Tyrese Maxey.

It is no secret that the Knicks are searching for a point guard of the future for the 100th consecutive year. It is also no secret that there are two point-guard prospects who reign supreme on the team’s draft board: LaMelo Ball and Killian Hayes.

For the purposes of this exercise we will assume the following: 

  • The Knicks really want to add a young point guard;
  • LaMelo Ball, Killian Hayes are off the board;
  • Isaac Okoro, the non-guard prospect who could be taken by the Knicks, is also off the board;
  • The Knicks are not as into Devin Vassell as we have been led to believe;
  • Trading down from eighth overall is a strong possibility

That pushes Kira Lewis Jr. and Tyrese Maxey towards the head of the class. Lewis and Maxey share many similarities; they are blurs on the floor, played their college ball in the SEC, and could call New York home.

The Knicks have reported interest in both guys. Maxey is a no-brainer with Kenny Payne and William Wesley involved. The rumblings of adding the quirky Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, possible unwillingness to include Kevin Knox in a Chris Paul package lead me to believe that Madison Square Garden will be a safe haven for Coach Cal’s guys. 

Maxey had a rough shooting season at Lexington, but there is reason to believe he can be an improved shooter, which will mix nicely with his bulldog mentality on defense. Had the NCAA tournament happened this season there is reason to believe that Maxey would have been the guy to vastly improve his stock and be an option at eight.

Speaking of rising stock, Lewis has skyrocketed up draft boards thanks to people getting around to watching Alabama basketball. The Knicks have wined and dined the speedy Lewis, and it is not crazy to assume that he could go as high as eight. He is exactly the type of player Tom Thibodeau envisions at the point of his offensive attack.

If the decision was left to Kentucky fanatic Mike Cortez would obviously go Maxey, which is why the clear-thinking Eli Cohen was here to bring some logic to the table.

So, with that said who should the Knicks hold in higher regard?

Mike Cortez: Eli, I am ready to declare Tyrese Maxey the steal of the draft and Kyle Lowry 2.0. Am I out of my mind? A visionary? Or simply a fool? I’ll hang up and listen.

Eli Cohen: I’ll admit that I haven’t heard or thought of the Kyle Lowry comparison, and honestly, I don’t hate it as much as I maybe should. Both are small but absolute grinders on defense, interesting but inconsistent shooters, and, despite Maxey’s reputation for not being a point guard, their assist numbers in college are pretty close.

But here’s the thing about that comparison: it took Lowry a looong time, including stops with two other teams, before he really figured out how to make his game translate at the highest level. I think there’s a decent chance Maxey is faced with a similar sort of soul searching if he doesn’t end up being drafted by a team that can start him out with a limited role while quietly building out the consistency of his jump shot and playmaking. 

The Knicks would probably not be offering him that role. Picking Maxey would by no means alleviate the team’s infamous point-guard shortcomings, and unless they could answer that question in free agency or trade, there’s a good chance Maxey would be thrust into a role that overextends him in unproductive ways.

It’s weird because even though Maxey seems like a well-rounded and confident player, I think there’s a good chance Kira Lewis comes in more ready to fill his role, if only because with Lewis, that role comes pretty readymade and easily defined. 

What do you think Mike, am I underselling Maxey by wondering about the role question?

MC: Not at all, and I am glad you brought this up. Before we proceed any further I will point out that you and I are fans of both players and believe they would fit in some capacity with New York. I will concede Lewis comes more readymade because his rookie year task will be pretty straightforward: attack the basket and if the defense collapses, kick it out to the open shooter. 

My thing is, I think Maxey is also equipped, albeit not as fast, to navigate his way to the rim and finish. And while Maxey played more off-ball at Kentucky thanks to sharing the court with Ashton Hagans, he will have no qualms if he is given the ball and the keys to the offense. 

He could also play off another guard, should Leon Rose add a veteran guard to the roster—and that is what I feel most confident about Maxey. He will find whatever role the team needs him to fill. If R.J. Barrett takes control of playmaking, Maxey can resort to the role he played at UK. If Thibodeau wants him to be the point of attack, he can be the player he was up until college.

I admittedly don’t know as much as I would like about Kira’s versatility. Can he play off the ball, or are you drafting him with the expectation that he is the guy who will have the ball in his hands?

EC: That’s a very good question. I actually think that in some ways, Kira is similar to Maxey in the sense that, especially early on, both will be better if they can play off a primary initiator. I’m pretty high on Kira’s passing, because I think his practical ability to get accurate passes off with either hand at full speed (and what a full speed it is!) makes up for some of his deficiencies reading the floor, but it will take time for him to hone his instincts enough to truly be tasked with organizing a team’s offense. And given the fact that Lewis is a very good shooter, I think he’ll thrive in that role.

Of course, being an effective off-ball player requires more than just the ability to shoot. Moving without the ball, probing for weak spots, relocating after passes, these are all skills as much as dribbling or shooting floaters are, and though Lewis played with some ball-dominant guys in Herb Jones and John Petty, I wouldn’t say he flashed a ton of those instincts—but was that due to his own lack of initiative or the fact that Jones and Petty weren’t the best decision makers and odds are, he knew that once he gave up the ball to them, he likely wasn’t getting it back?

But that, in addition to Maxey’s far, far superior finishing at the rim does beg the question: if both are off-ball players early in their career, who fares better? If we’re just going by shooting splits, Lewis is the clear winner, but I’m not so sure. Maxey’s more used to the role, and is truly a terror in the halfcourt with a head of steam. 

So then we get to the question of ceiling. Maxey is one of the draft’s toughest evaluations, in my opinion, because he looks better than the player his numbers paint him as, and of course, there’s the Kentucky guard bump, which has been gaining more steam as guys like Devin Booker, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Tyler Herro continue to excel at the highest stages. 

But are we projecting too much of that onto him, or is he really the next Kentucky guard to come out and show how much more he has to show now that he’s been freed of the Kentucky restrictions? And for Kira, the skill set is hard to deny, but do we think he could ever be more than a league-average point guard?

And the biggest question of all: if we’re drafting at the eighth pick, is “League Average Starting Point Guard” about as good as you could realistically hope for?

Where do you fall on the two players’ respective ceilings?

Individual Ceiling

MC: The Kentucky guard bump is real, and a tried and true system. Over the last 10 drafts John Calipari has seen nine of his guards go in the lottery with a high success rate, with a few misses: Brandon Knight and Malik Monk. Maxey falls somewhere in the middle, and it sucks that we never got a tournament this year because Maxey’s showing would have helped answer that question.

I could see him surprising everyone similar to what Tyler Herro did for Miami this year, just a bit more balance in the effectiveness. Maxey is a better shooter than his ugly 29.2% from three; over his last 20 games he shot 32.3%, a range I feel he can replicate in his rookie season. 

His jumper is definitely the swing skill—that low release is begging to get Gronk spiked by defenders—and likely a big reason Maxey shot an arctic 12.9% on contested jumpers. The thought of him staying at those numbers and haphazardly falling victim to shot reconstruction is never out of the realm of reality unfortunately. Having said all that, call me an optimist, I’m bullish on Maxey being a passable jump shooter. Enough for him to compensate with his area of expertise, finishing.

The ability to finish at the rim is where I think Maxey adds immense value. Maxey ranked in the 93rd percentile in pick-and-roll drives last season, producing 1.0 points per possessions. Being effective in the pick-and-roll is a required skill for anyone who wishes to see consistent minutes. Maxey was effective and added some flair to his finishes with a floater that gives off heavy Iso Joe vibes.

Simply put, his finishing is a joy to watch.

He is confident in either hand, manipulates angles to finish over the trees clogging the paint, and could contort his body to find an opening. Essentially he is everything we need R.J. to be as a finisher.

Playing off the ball at Kentucky also gave him crucial reps at getting himself open without the ball in his hands. It is very rare for a rookie to dominate the ball so Maxey (and Kira for that matter) will not be burdened with controlling the offense immediately.

At Kentucky Hagans took the lead guard responsibilities, freeing Maxey up to the lead the defensive effort. Maxey is a disruptor in the truest sense. Kenny Payne should show Tom Thibodeau this clip on loop as his pitch. 

Cal had Maxey routinely guard the opposing team’s best player, including Anthony Edwards on a few occasions. Edwards had his moments but had modest scoring nights in the two games he faced Kentucky.

I feel confident Kira can offer an even better offense, but how are you feeling about his defensive potential?

EC: I think it’s pretty safe to say that Maxey offers a much higher ceiling defensively than Lewis. I’m actually relatively optimistic about Kira on the defensive end, because he fights hard and uses his speed to navigate screens and blow up actions. The concerns about his skinniness are totally justified, as it limits his ability to switch and not get bullied, as opposed to Maxey, who should be able to guard ones, twos, and as we saw in the clip you linked to, even strong threes like Isaac Okoro for stretches.

I don’t see Kira ever being able to guard more than ones and smaller twos effectively, making his defensive ceiling inherently lower than Maxey’s, but I think there is still plenty of value to be had from his combination of speed, hustle, and grit.

I think the guy for Kira to look to in this regard is Mike Conley. Conley is a couple inches shorter than Lewis, with a similar wingspan (around 6’5″), but Conley is a small, skinny guard who has never been considered a defensive liability. Granted, it’s not a perfect comparison. Conley had 87 steals in his 39 games as a collegiate player, while Kira had 84 steals in 65 total games spanning his freshman and sophomore years. Steals aren’t the end-all-be-all of measuring defensive impact, but that drastic of a difference indicates that Conley was a good deal ahead of Lewis as a defender, even as a freshman in college.

So while I’m pretty confident that Lewis eventually becomes around an average defender, maybe even above average, I don’t think even the most optimistic projections would have Lewis as a high-end defender, and so in that regard, Maxey has the clear edge. Maxey seems a safe bet to at least be an above-average defender, and if he hits his ceiling, I think he could probably be one of the better guard defenders in the league, given his strength, instincts, and determination on that end. 

Correct me I’m wrong, but it seems we’ve given Kira the edge on offense and Maxey the edge on defense, with questions about who could be the better off-ball player—and for the record, I tend to agree that Maxey having experience in that role and being so good around the rim seems to indicate he’d be the better cutter/off-guard early on.

So the next logical question would be: which fits with the current young core of this team, and with where they want to be moving forward?

I think you can make a pretty good case for either players’ fit under Thibodeau, as Kira is like the supercharged version of the small, scoring point guards Thibodeau has historically been able to use to great effect (Nate Robinson, Kirk Hinrich, John Lucas III, Aaron Brooks, DJ Augustin; the list goes on), while Maxey has a defensive and strength-based game Thibs loves, with enough flashes of high-end skill to make him a truly compelling prospect

If we’re just talking about the fit with the core players (who, for the sake of this conversation, we’ll define as Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and, to a much lesser extent, Frankie Smokes), I think Kira is pretty clearly the guy.

Fit with Current Roster

MC: I think so, too. This is where Kira gains the advantage in the argument. Maxey is the superior defensive option, but the largest problem plaguing the Knicks isn’t their defense, it’s their offense. Scoring felt like cruel and unusual punishment for stretches last season. There were far too many times the ball stuck, far too many long jumpers and too little easy buckets. Marcus Morris having the best shooting stretch of his life helped mask one of the worst offenses I have ever seen.

I rehash those horror stories for a reason–Kira is the better option to shift that dynamic quickly. As I said with Maxey, the eye test does not match the numbers, while Kira’s sync up nicely, giving him the higher floor. Maxey’s scoring brings more variables as he has to rely more on craftiness while Kira can simply shift gears and already have the defense on its heels, and a consistently solid three-point shooter over two seasons.

The best argument for Maxey is the cliche intangibles argument. In addition to general talent, the team still needs a to accumulate leaders. Maxey’s charisma pops off the screen when you watched Kentucky last season, so much so that you forget that he was shooting 2-for-11 when he hit a “no, no, no, YES” shot in the closing minutes. 

Having said that, I still feel a little squeamish about the prospect of adding another poor shooter to the mix. What if Maxey falls somewhere in the middle of his eye test and actual numbers as an offensive player? If he cannot be a semi-reliable jumper I do not believe he is a good enough passer to cancel out the spacing nightmare if may cause.

R.J.’s jumper remains suspect. Ditto for Ntilikina, who will hopefully relocate to the corners and do a lot more of this. The story is no different for Mitch, who is not going anywhere either. And Kevin Knox is Kevin Knox. 

The better fit might just be the guy who can help pump out points from day one, and Kira is comfortably the easier plug and play option.

I’ll end on this, though. Prior to our chat I used the TKW Offseason App to run four simulations, each with LaMelo, Killian, Lewis, and Maxey. I tried my best to keep the supporting cast consistent. The results were a bit of a shocker to me with Maxey generating the best outcome and Kira the lowest.

Even as a staunch Maxey supporter I can’t really explain that. Do you think that is something or nothing?

EC: That’s very interesting. I think if taken with a grain of salt, we can assume that the Offseason App valued Maxey’s two-way contributions right away, since it’s probably easier and in a way more valuable to be a low-usage, two-way player than a higher-usage rookie point guard, especially since point guard is a position that takes time to become good at at the NBA level, unless you’re Ja Morant or Trae Young. 

But as you mentioned, and as weird as it is to say for a team as terrible as the Knicks, I’m not super worried about the defense. What this team needs is an offensive re-balancing, and the best way to do that is with a point guard. It’s possible Kira Lewis ends up being Dennis Schröder 2.0, which I know isn’t an outcome that probably fills Knicks fans with jubilation, but I believe his intersection of speed and skills make him worth the risk, as there’s a chance that he reaches a higher ceiling than that if his off-the-dribble shooting can develop in a major way. 

By the way, this is also why it’s a bummer that the draft comes before free agency—if the Knicks knew they were getting, say, Fred VanVleet on a long-term deal, Maxey would probably make more sense. But without that knowledge, and without a single surefire starting-level point guard on the roster, I’d say take the swing on Kira and hope that Thibs actually uses him.

And there’s one more interesting factor. If the Knicks should decide (or if, given the limited free agent market, it’s decided for them) that they’re going to be patient (read: tank) for one more year, it’s worth noting that while Cade Cunningham is the undisputed number-one prospect in the country, a lot of the appeal of the loaded 2021 draft class comes in the form of scoring wings. 

Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, BJ Boston, Zaire Williams, Moses Moody, and Keon Johnson all fit this bill. Then there are the freakishly skilled bigs like Evan Mobley, Jalen Johnson, and Scottie Barnes. There aren’t actually that many super high-level point guard prospects in the class after Cade, and Cade is big and versatile enough that he could easily play alongside another point guard such as Kira in a similar way to how Luka Doncic could. 

Maybe that’s putting the cart waaay before the horse, but it’s something to consider. If we’re banking on 2021 being the year the Knicks draft their next franchise-shaping talent, the odds are that won’t be at the point guard spot, which could make a lightning fast point guard who can play on or off ball all the more appealing. 

Long Term Fit

MC: Oh, Scottie Barnes is listed as a 6’9” point guard my friend. I have never been more eager to watch college and G League than I am this year. And I am so happy you mentioned 2021 because I think it should be towards the front of everyone’s minds, more than some might like to admit.

Barnes, Cunningham, Kuminga, Green, Boston, the names are endless. For once it feels like the Knicks are well positioned in what appears to be one of the more loaded draft classes. They will go in with at least two picks, and Kristaps Porzingis missing the early portion of the season could bump that Dallas pick towards the backend of the teens. Mix that in with an abbreviated season that could see the Knicks play more games against their division foes, which coincidentally is also the elite of the east, and it is easy to preach patience.

Now, where do both Kira and Maxey fit in with a potential addition? Maxey appears to be the easy answer for all the reasons we have outlined, namely his two-way effectiveness, but I think it might hurt him. If you’ve seen one Knicks lottery, you’ve seen them all and in all likelihood the Knicks will draft fourth and miss out on the sure bets. They could still add for one (or two) of those wings you mentioned; this is a big reason I would be still a bit sheepish on taking Okoro this season. 

Realistically Kira and Maxey can gel with just about anyone, but I do see Kira being affected the least if another wing was added to the mix. It is going to be really hard to find someone that matches Kira’s speed. Regardless of who joins the fray in 2021, Thibodeau will have a heavy need for a lightning bolt guard who can collapse a defense or blow by his matchup with ease; it is simply something the Knicks have not had at their disposal for as long as I can remember.

Barring a historic lottery showing, I feel Kira remains entrenched in his position, while Maxey would have to at least see how the cards fall.

EC: I couldn’t agree more. And 2021 notwithstanding, it’s time to start putting pieces around R.J. that will help him. Maxey could take some of the scoring load off and help form a physical wing unit with the 6’7″ Barrett, but to me, Kira would make life easier for him in the short term. Having someone who can collapse defense and kick out would make it a lot easier for R.J.’s rim attacks, as he could get a head of steam against shifting defenses, which helps cover up some of his ball handling and first-step deficiencies. And having a shooter above the break opens up lanes for him to get to the rim with his patent bully-ball technique. 

Kira also has experience playing alongside a bouncy, block-everything rim runner from his time playing with Daniel Gafford during his freshman year, and between Kira’s speed and Gafford’s vertical explosion, the two made a very fun one-two punch. It’s no guarantee, but that should help him quickly develop chemistry with Mitchell Robinson, who’s basically the gigantic, even more mobile version of the second-year Bulls center.

I know that this whole time, I’ve been arguing for Kira Lewis, but it’s worth mentioning that I really like Maxey as a prospect! I think he’ll be a good player and would love to see him on a team that can utilize him well and give him the role he’ll be successful in. I’m just not convinced the Knicks are that place, or at least, that the Knicks are in a place to make that commitment with the eighth pick. If they could trade up into the late teens and take him, I would be thrilled! But there’s a chance to address more pressing needs, whether that means Kira Lewis or Devin Vassell, with their top-10 pick. After maybe missing on Knox and … well, who knows what happens with Frank, but the point is, they need to make this pick count.

MC: It is safe to say we are on the same page here. Taking Maxey at no. 8 seems like a missed trade down opportunity, while Kira going that high feels more “normal” (if we even know what normal is anymore) if only because the likelihood of Kira falling past the top 10 is much less likely than Maxey slipping even as far as the late teens.

So, I guess for the purposes of this, Kira is the prospect we should be looking for. But who are we really kidding, they are 100% trading up for LaMelo anyway.


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