Part of Scott Perry’s vision for the Knicks is rebuilding the image of the team and direction of players, so let’s see if last season’s class of reclamation projects “succeeded.”
After having their souls crushed in an embarrassing free agency and ending up with disappointing draft position, the New York Knicks have found some hope heading into the next season. Currently on track to make progress in coming months (mostly because there’s nowhere to go but up from rock bottom), the Knicks’ sour season and offseason are easily forgotten. Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett are going to be the white knights of the Knicks franchise, so why dwell on the Knickerbockers of yesterday?
Well, to avoid the league getting involved, the Knicks needed to sell an angle other than tanking for Zion Williamson and opening up cap space for the biggest free agency in NBA history. That angle was the “Last Chance U” formula. Modified from the show where the subjects in question are college football players, the Last Chance Knicks featured a slew of hapless, marginally talented veterans who were on their way out of the league.
Even though the season was an overwhelming disaster, we still grew to love (and sometimes hate) the guys on the roster. Since there’s little to no chance that ESPN will allow me to write, direct, and produce a 30 for 30 detailing the Last Chance Knicks, we’ll have to settle for this forum.
Mario Hezonja was well above LeBron for the block. LeBron wanted another Garden moment but couldn’t create separation or elevation. pic.twitter.com/F5MNyGOEk4
— Stefan Bondy (@SBondyNYDN) March 18, 2019
His big moments were sparse, but Hezonja was a basketball god for a combined total of roughly 10 minutes last season. The other 1,196 minutes he was very forgettable. Over 58 games he averaged 8.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 20.8 minutes. Signed to fill the role Michael Beasley previously played for the Knicks, the Croatian lacked the scoring prowess of The Walking Bucket.
His on-court contributions were negligible; Mario proved himself to be a good teammate, which must have been tough to do in such a negatively slanted season. His tough love demand to a disgruntled Enes Kanter was a surprising stand. He told the brooding center, “Get the fuck up, and cheer,” during a game where neither player stepped on the hardwood, but the team was in the midst of a competitive contest against the Houston Rockets.
It takes maturity and leadership to take a backseat and be happy for someone in a position you envy. Even later, with the doomed season’s end creeping closer, he told the New York Post:
“I know it’s a very sensitive situation here with a lot of free agents and a lot of young guys I’m trying to help. If I see something in practice, I try to correct them. We have to continue to show togetherness and finish on a good note. A lot of teams don’t achieve playoffs they just give up.”
Although he’d never been a true villain (more of a disappointment), the amount of poise and depth Hezonja showed in a quite frankly unfeasible situation was courageous.
Where is he now?
Hezonja signed a two-year deal with the Portland Trail Blazers during free agency. The second year is a player option, but he’ll also be earning the league minimum on a cap-strapped playoff team. From the perspective of both salary and on-court play, it’s difficult to surmise if his year in New York helped or hindered his career. But Hezonja’s still in the league, and that might just be good enough for him.
Noah Vonleh never had the buzz around him that Hezonja did, but as a lottery draft pick with no home to return to, they were very much in a similar position for the Knicks. Originally competing on a non-guaranteed contract, Vonleh officially joined the Knicks to help shore up the interior defense and give them depth in the frontcourt. In short, he was a Kyle O’Quinn replacement.
A journeyman by the time he was picked up by general manager Scott Perry, fans were as optimistic (or pessimistic) about him as the rest of the squad. However, Vonleh played the best basketball of his career in New York. Whatever folks have to say about David Fizdale, he did well giving Vonleh confidence and allowing him to play. Vonleh himself said about the situation, “I don’t see why I should be shy looking for my shot, so I looked for it a lot last year compared to other places … Being in New York, they kind of let me spread my wings and grow as a player.”
VONLEH ? ? pic.twitter.com/GxYNIwnkXk
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) March 3, 2019
He’s right on two counts: The first, being on the bum-ass Knicks, why shouldn’t he look to demonstrate all facets of his game? The second, being in New York was the first time he had a legitimate shot to grow into the multi-skilled player he can be.
Playing 25.3 minutes per game, Vonleh averaged 8.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.9 assists—all career highs. This was the first time he averaged more than 18 minutes per game and attempted two three-point field goals per game.
In free agency, Vonleh signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves, most likely replacing new Knick and Brooklyn native Taj Gibson for the same reason New York picked him up. Vonleh just turned 24, and if things work out in this new trial run, he could be a long-term, fairly lucrative asset for the young, developing Timberwolves. Minneosta’s inconsistency and altogether ineptitude may be an obstacle for the Indiana product after this season, but if he can continue being a dynamic contributor on both sides of the court, Vonleh should have a nice free agency in 2020.
Mud, the most polarizing player of the bunch, is a special case. He was acquired through a trade in early 2018 instead of free agency like most others on this list, but he quickly earned the starting point-guard spot ahead of the polarizing Frank Ntilikina.
Mudiay, a draftmate of former Knick and ultra-soft big man Kristaps Porzingis, didn’t pan out in Denver—and his first sin was playing better than Ntilikina. Fans hated him immediately.
Considered a ball hog and an awful inside finisher, people weren’t wrong to complain about the flaws in his game. He’s a ball-dominant point guard without an elite skill. Since entering the league he has had the physical tools to get to the rim but lacked the skill to get the ball into the hoop. Skill, determination, basketball I.Q., whatever you want to call it: he simply does not have it, according to anyone watching him play.
To be fair, the picture painted isn’t exactly accurate. Sure, he had a usage rate of 24.8% last season, but among point guard that puts him between Jrue Holiday and C.J. McCollum—two starting guards. It’s a guard-dominant era, and splitting the ball with Hardaway Jr. was the Knicks’ best bet at the time. His 25.8 assist percentage ranks low among starting guards and, truthfully, he misses an infuriating amount of passes—but assists are also a function of team cohesion and ability. The Knicks didn’t have any reliable shooters this past season; as much progress as he made through his first season, a drive-and-dish pass to Kevin Knox is an inexplicable brick.
His season was not without its high points. Mudiay took over a handful of games. His 15-point fourth quarter against an Anthony Davis–led New Orleans team was lauded as the game that, for the first time in his career, spawned the idea that he was “good.”
The final field goal of his 27-point game was a sweet end to an encouraging performance.
Mudiay trying to put the final nail in the coffin! pic.twitter.com/2Ktwg7HiQ7
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) November 24, 2018
Mudiay’s glory was short-lived, as he middled for the rest of the season, especially with Dennis Smith Jr. entering the ranks. He shot 53.8% at the rim and averaged 14.8 points, 3.9 assists, and 3.3 rebounds.
Fizdale gave Mudiay a long enough leash for him to showcase the positive aspects of his game and he, for the most part, took advantage of it as best he could. Mudiay was in a serendipitous position: no other team in the league would be bad enough to allow him that amount of control.
Mudiay had four seasons to become a marginally elite finisher, and in those four seasons he’s shown that he never will be. He shot a career-high 32.9% from three on 3.6 attempts last season. That’s objectively awful. The man’s been shooting like Carlton Banks for most of his career, and the high point is a red-hot Corey Brewer.
The Utah Jazz picking him up is as good as it gets. Right now, Mudiay appears to be backing up Mike Conley in the depth chart, giving him the ideal game-manager role next to Dante Exum. A lot can change from now until the first tip of the season, but fortunately that’s out of the Knicks’ hands. There was nothing else the team could do to develop Mudiay. He was given an opportunity to show he belonged in the NBA and he did (kinda). Hopefully, with a successful roster around him, he’ll be able to be a net-positive player for a full season.
Luke Kornet, a G Leaguer, was in a unique position as well. Called up to be a stand-in for an injured Porzingis, his career has taken a life of its own.
Although G League call-ups are getting more opportunities than in previous years, the Knicks were among the first to use them as rotation players and pinpoint their NBA potential. Langston Galloway was among the first cohort, and Kornet among the second wave. His two-way contract grind led to his first official NBA contract with New York for the 2018–19 season.
Things get murky when analyzing his final season with the Knicks. Kornet only played 46 games and averaged only 17 minutes in that span. A lanky power forward, he made the most of the experience. He averaged 7.0 points while shooting 36.3% from three.
Luke Kornet was a sniper in another life pic.twitter.com/GDsYWdTOl2
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) April 10, 2019
Shooting the three efficiently is Kornet’s most polished skill, but he’s always lacked the physicality to compete around the rim. He averaged only 2.9 rebounds and shot 56.4% at the rim. There’s not much scheming the team can do for you if you can’t perform the basic role of your position. Kornet is 7’1″, but beyond being a natural barrier to the rim, his defense can be pitiful. In a way he embodies the complaints old timers have about today’s brand of basketball: he’s a big man with no big-man skills but loves to shoot it.
It’s almost a surprise the Chicago Bulls signed him to a multi-year deal. A big man who can shoot threes is highly valuable in today’s league, so being Extra Tall Doug McDermott isn’t a completely bad thing. Kornet’s rise is less a reaction to his play last season and more of a consequence of the G League’s growth and the NBA front offices utilizing them. Sure, he demonstrated what he needed to, but his story goes back farther than last season’s clown show. New York’s G League to NBA strategy during these lost seasons has produced legitimate NBA-level talent, and Kornet is the latest to shine.
Of all the guards the Knicks called up from the G League in the past season, Trey Burke has had the most success. Billy Garrett, John Jenkins, and Kadeem Allen are all irrelevant compared to what Burke brings to the table.
A standout in college, it was tragic that he never quite panned out. After tearing up the G League, he joined the Knicks full-time around the same time Mudiay came to the team. What was supposed to be a competitive point-guard battle was more of a competition to see who could disappoint less.
Undersized and altogether under-talented, the former lottery pick was a liability on defense and only productive when hot on offense. The success Trey had in the late stages of the 2017–18 season couldn’t be replicated in the next, and he was an throw-in to complete the Dallas trade. Altogether, he appeared in 69 games for New York, averaging around 20 minutes per game.
His 11.8 points and 2.8 assists in his final season for the Knicks aren’t exactly elite numbers, but they were enough for the Philadelphia 76ers to try him out for another year. For a playoff team in desperate need of a legitimate point guard, Burke could potentially come into a substantially more meaningful role than Mudiay’s situation on the Jazz. For a time, he was the most high-profile reclamation project for the Knicks, and now he’s fighting for playing time among Zhaire Smith, Raul Neto, and Shake Milton. He’s the most experienced of the bunch, but it’s bound to be a bit of a dogfight. The progress he’s made as a shooter may be the saving grace that keeps him from going the way of Tony Wroten. Almost as controversial as Mudiay, the darkest part of his career might be over thanks to New York.
Overall, the Last Chance Knicks benefited from being on the dreadful 2018–19 roster. The team was awful, but somehow, the sum of its parts was greater than the whole. New York’s bottom of the barrel days should be over, but the impact it had on these players may have revitalized their careers.