With impressive displays in Summer League and the Knicks’ first preseason match, Kevin Knox still has expected challenges in front of a long rookie campaign.
Last season, the Knicks won just six of their final 27 games following Kristaps Porzingis’ ACL injury, but thanks to a crowded lot of tanking teams and a lack of lucky ping pong balls, the Knicks stayed at nine in the lottery.
Now just weeks before the season begins not a soul in New York is complaining. The Knicks grabbed Kevin Knox, a 6-9 19-year-old forward from Kentucky with a 6-11 wingspan. Ignoring that rich kid who can’t stop crying and those six guys who apparently hadn’t seen Michael Porter Jr. hobbling around at the draft, the general reaction from fans seemed to be cautious optimism. They filled a need on the wing with a physical specimen that Fizdale can mold into a versatile defender, he has a naturally soft touch around the rim and a smooth shot from three.
Then Summer League happened. Knox averaged over 21 points per game, which gave everyone Giannis Antetokounmpo flashbacks. Expectations skyrocketed. Vegas has Knox at +750 to win rookie of the year, tied with Collin Sexton for the third-best odds, only behind Doncic and Ayton at +350 and +375 respectively.
How fair is this? Adjusting to the NBA is hard enough for a teenager—add the spotlight of New York City, and there’s a recipe for disappointment fans have tasted before. Not to suggest that Knicks fans could ever be irrationally optimistic, but where should expectations for Knox be as the season approaches?
Knox’s Tangible Offensive Game
Knox grabbed NBA Twitter’s attention during Summer League with dunks that would make Elastigirl proud. He could traverse the length of the court in what seemed like three strides during transition opportunities, and it seemed like his long arms reached the rim three seconds before the rest of his body. Plus, he showed off some range going 5-for-7 from deep in a loss to the Lakers in which he scored 29 points.
During the midst of a 16-point third quarter during that game versus Los Angeles, the Knox hype train reached its top speed. Knicks fans are right to be excited—there is a young core forming around Porzingis (which will likely get better with the addition of another lottery pick this year) and some of their bad contracts are expiring just in time for a fresh crop of free agent superstars.
Knox has the tools and the skills to be the exact sort of player who will thrive in modern offenses, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. As a wing player with almost comically long arms, soft touch around the rim, and some ridiculous dunks on his highlight reel, there have been people jumping at the chance to compare him to Giannis.
It’s easy to see the comparison as you watch Knox bound down the court, but this sets fans up for disappointment when the 19-year-old rookie plays like a 19-year-old rookie.
First, let’s get this out of the way—Summer League is still Summer League. We haven’t seen how Knox looks against the real thing.
Yes, looking great there is a step in the right direction, however, Knox still has some holes in his offensive game. Leading off with the Giannis comparison, Knox is not the ball-handler that Giannis was when he first entered the league. His dribble is higher than it should be, or likely will be in a few seasons, and he’s at his best when he’s driving straight to the rim. He did show off a few dribble moves during the Knicks’ open practice, most of which led to straight drives right at the rim. Kevin likely won’t be asked to create out of the pick-and-roll, nor should he. At least not yet.
We’ll see how this develops, but even in a best-case scenario, remember Giannis averaged 6.8 points and 1.9 assists at 19 years old in his rookie year, while Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year. Early success isn’t always the best indicator of how a career will go, and while I don’t think Knox’s ceiling is as high as Giannis’, playing at Kentucky has definitely made him less of a raw prospect, and his three-point shot is way ahead of where Antetokounmpo’s was.
Knox with the triple oooooweeee they’re firing on all cylinders right now. pic.twitter.com/wQiaIBX7Kh
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 2, 2018
Coming out of Kentucky, the knocks against Knox also included his shot selection and propensity for turnovers. Those flaws were still present in Las Vegas, where he shot 35 percent from the floor and averaged 4.0 turnovers per game, but his highlights helped obscure these facts. If he looks the same by the time the season comes around, there will still be a honeymoon phase, but with the tabloids breathing down his neck, that could fade quickly.
Seeing him play in person at the team’s open practice did raise my expectations. He looked stronger, was able to absorb more contact when he drove to the rim, and made some solid moves off the dribble to get there. I don’t want my caution to be construed as doubt—Knox will likely be good this year. However, it’s also fair to wonder what our expectations for rookies, particularly wing players, should be, following the ascendance of Jayson Tatum.
Expect a Tatum-esque emergence from Knox at your own peril. That’s not to say coddle him, but brace for an adjustment period. Set the bar at solid, and then I’ll throw us all a party after he posts his first triple-double.
You should be excited. The Knicks got the third youngest player in the 2018 draft, and his offensive skills appear to be a perfect match for where basketball is heading. However, expecting too much from Knox right away is a surefire way to send hype train hurtling towards a derailment.
Growth on Defense
Here’s where I have to actively talk myself down from time to time. Knox is skinny, weighing in at just 206 pounds before the draft, but like Frank “10 to 15 pounds of muscle” Ntilikina, he’ll fill out. Before the draft Knox measured 6-9 with a wingspan of 6’11”, but a photo he posted on Instagram next to the 6’10” Michael Porter Jr. may indicate that Knox isn’t finished growing.
Even if he had maxed out at his pre-draft height, Knox has the potential to morph into the exact type of defender the Knicks need, especially with Fizdale bringing some grit and grind to the franchise. With Kristaps, or in a few years Robinson, protecting the rim, and Fizdale talking about the possibility of Ntilikina guarding one through four, Knox has the tools and the support system around him to match up with the best wings in the league.
The best offenses in the league thrive on creating mismatches, and Knox’s length means he can engulf most guards and forwards. As he adds muscle, he’ll be able to check some smaller fives. Knox’s offensive game needs a little polish, but he already has the tools to be helpful on defense.
INCREDIBLE defense here from Knox pic.twitter.com/h3m4q09Y4p
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 1, 2018
He’ll miss rotations and probably gamble on steals and blocks too often, but Fizdale will help teach Knox the right habits. His 2016–17 Memphis Grizzlies, the only team he coached for a full season, had the league’s seventh-best Defensive Rating, and before that Fiz assisted Erik Spoelstra in Miami and Mike Woodson in Atlanta, both who are known as good, defensive-minded coaches.
Importantly, Fizdale has said that he wants to employ a defensive scheme that will highlight Knox’s strengths. Using lineups featuring long switchable players, like Knox, Frank, Hezonja (who has a 6’10” wingspan), Dotson (6’9”) and eventually Robinson, the Knicks will be able to stay in front of ball handlers, clog the passing lanes, create havoc, and get easy buckets in transition.
I want to urge patience on the defensive front, but I just don’t think as much will be required on this end of the floor. New York got a gem in Knox. He’s a critical part of this new young core, and he’s primed to contribute for years to come. Even if his trophy shelf ends up missing the Rookie of the Year trophy.