All castaway lottery picks are welcomed in Manhattan as Scott Perry and the Knicks front office construct a roster built around flawed players looking for redemption.
The addition of former fifth-overall draft pick Mario Hezonja—selected one pick after Kristaps Porzingis—signifies creating a role on the New York Knicks for Hezonja to definitively figure out who he is on a basketball team, but it also allows New York to play with another former lottery toy.
Essentially, the Knicks are creating a roster of castaway basketball play-things, providing each the space to carve a new role, and one New York hopes will benefit them down the road as tangible role players on a decent squad.
Hezonja was not good on the Magic—don’t get it twisted. But the introduction of Hezonja on this Knicks roster brings about an interesting question: how well can general manager Scott Perry, head coach David Fizdale, and the development team and coaching staff groom the talented yet flawed players? Some of these players include seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft, Emmanuel Mudiay (picked up at last February’s trade deadline), Trey Burke (ninth overall pick in 2013), and the aforementioned Croatian Kobe.
OK, we had muuultiple winners on that one, too easy.
Also, it's 9 if you include now-UFA Beasley, 8 in total without the Walking Bucket. https://t.co/R0NGQSevqP
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) July 2, 2018
It’s not an easy obstacle to hurdle over, but the Knicks will be tasked with constructing bona fide role players amid Kristaps Porzingis’ rehabilitation sabbatical. Honestly, the best way to do this may be rolling with how Coach Fizdale wants to play. Over the course of the short summer so far, Fizdale has reportedly worked with last year’s lotto pick, Frank Ntilikina, second-round pick Damyean Dotson, and of course Mudiay, who Fizdale humorously quipped he’ll “get [him] better.”
Burke, on the other hand, seems to be on his own, and he won’t participate on the Knicks’ Las Vegas Summer League team. For what it’s worth, Burke is pretty much a finished product—not that players can’t change their games and re-adjust to teams and coaches—but, like his Michigan teammate Tim Hardaway Jr. (both from the 2013 draft), the Knicks must find the best ways to deploy Burke among the other young pieces. Is it possible to play Burke and Ntilikina together? We pontificated that if New York selected Oklahoma guard Trae Young at no. 9 in the most recent draft, pairing him and Frank could be successful as the Frenchman would cover tougher defensive assignments while Young would share ball-handling duties and set up a spaced-out offense.
Similarly, Burke and Ntilikina could (and sorta did at the tail-end of the 2017–18 season) work; the big difference in the upcoming season will be the variable of David Fizdale and his coaching staff. A bench unit comprised of Ntilikina, Burke, and other pieces like Hezonja, Kevin Knox, and one big (Luke Kornet or Joakim Noah, for example) could see a stretched offense with four-to-five respectable, not lethal, three-point shooting options. And as for drive-and-kick creators, we know Knox has the raw athleticism to two-step his way into the paint and put his shoulder down (maybe even off an above-the-break pick-and-roll), and Hezonja was heralded as a playmaker before finding himself between a rock and a hard place in the NBA’s glue factory that is the Orlando Magic.
As for Mudiay, he troubles me the worst, for total candidness. It’s not often you call an athlete vague, promising adjectives like “body built for the NBA” and “athletic” with hollow meaning (maybe the NFL comparison is calling Brock Osweiler “tall” and, well, “white”). I don’t believe Mudiay can be a legitimate lead guard in this league; and transitively, his ability at the 2 leaves the Knicks vulnerable for outside shooting.
What can the ‘Bockers do with Emmanuel then? Assuming the front office truly believes in the potential of the 22-year-old, Mudiay must develop as a pure distributor. His shot is…suspect, and he often finds himself forcing shots and fumbling the ball because he puts himself in bad positions on the floor. So, in other words, the Knicks have to minimize the time Mudiay has the ball in his hands while maximizing the guard mismatches the former Nugget creates, thus finding favorable opportunities to score for his Knickerbocker teammates.
Maybe a comparison for Mudiay can be last year’s second-overall pick Lonzo Ball. Obviously, Ball and Mudiay are not equals—Spider-Men pointing at each other, if you will—but I like the idea of Mudiay playing without the ball in his hands, like Los Angeles’ budding sophomore, and generally making quick decisions while re-vamping his shooting motion.
Finally, to circle back to Mario Hezonja, let’s speak about what the 6-foot-8 Croatian can bring to the down-and-out ‘Bockers. One, ungodly confidence; Hezonja may be even too supremely confident with the ball. Nevertheless, the Knicks will benefit from the shot-in-the-arm transition game from Super Mario that they hoped they could capture with the Hardaway Jr. signing last summer.
Two, there’s a 23-year-old on his second NBA contract and team in his fourth season. For all the hype and hoopla the Croatian had coming into the league as the fifth overall pick, Hezonja must tap into his potential that went undeveloped in Orlando. One-half of that equation will come from Fizdale to put him in a position to succeed—and more of that we’ll talk about later. The second-half of the equation will come from Hezonja; can the young man scrap together a role on the Knicks and potentially any other team at the conclusion of his one-year deal?
This is the larger theme here. Each of Burke, Mudiay, and Hezonja—the Knicks-fit toys—have the tough task of digging deep and finding unearthed talent that allows them to become good role players on a bad team, thus picking themselves up by the bootstraps and giving the former high-lotto picks a chance at NBA longevity. And hopefully if these players do reveal their hidden decencies, the Knicks can reap the benefits of the low-risk moves (acquiring Mudiay at the deadline, signing Burke originally to a G League deal, and agreeing to a one-year, $6.5 million deal with Hezonja). Again, seeing possible success at the end of the rainbow with these three will be a testament to both New York’s emerging development team and the players’ will to re-identify their respective games.
Scott Perry worked as Orlando’s assistant general manager at the time of the Hezonja selection in 2015—clearly he saw something in Mario. Now, it’s up to the Knicks to mold Hezonja and the Knicksfits into mobilized role players.