The Knicks’ record has not gone according to plan, but what about the players and personnel? Class is in session as we hand out report cards.
Class is in session.
The Knicks’ season is halfway over, so it is time to dish out the midterm report cards based on preseason expectations. Some players, like Mitchell Robinson and Marcus Morris, will want to put their grades front-and-center on the refrigerator for all to see. Others, like Dennis Smith Jr. and Wayne Ellington, will want to wait for the mailman to arrive so they can hide their report cards before their parents can see them. On to the grades.
Elementary Schoolers – The Kids
Kevin Knox II: D
- Still reading (defenses) at a rookie level
- May require remedial lessons in Westchester
Two things about Kevin Knox can be true: 1) Knox is 20 years old and there is time for him to improve, and 2) He has shown little to nothing this year to show that progress is on its way.
The only strides that Knox has made are on defense. The eye test shows us as much. Last year, he was guilty of consistently lunging at players and excessively overplaying passing lanes. Given that Knox’s limbs are the length of about three New York City blocks, he routinely was wildly out of position. He is doing this less, which demonstrates a better understanding of defensive scheme, and he is able to properly switch and help when needed. This has coincided with a Defensive Rating that has improved to 110.4 this year from 115.1 as a rookie. This is an improvement, certainly, but he still ranks 362nd in Defensive Rating out of 471 players who have appeared in more than 20 games, so there is not cause to get too excited. He still frequently loses focus and can get blown by rather easily. Strides have been made, yes, but he still leaves much to be desired.
Offensively, Knox has been stagnant, if not regressing. He has only had three good offensive games since David Fizdale’s departure in early December. The flashes he has shown this year were also on display last year. It is difficult to identify any areas he has improved in his offensive game since last season. When he puts the ball on the deck in the halfcourt, he pretty much only can drive to his right and hoist a contested floater. At times, he has looked lost and his confidence has mostly disappeared.
I have not written Kevin Knox off, nor do I think the Knicks should. Perhaps he would benefit from a brief stint in the G League? Until he can improve his shooting, playmaking, or defense, it is difficult to see him positively impacting the team consistently. I am not sold on him being a promising prospect until he can shoot or defend at league average.
Again, he is 20. There is plenty of time, but his 2019–20 season has largely underwhelmed.
R.J. Barrett: B
- Shows aptitude in most desired fields
- Inaccuracy is preventing true potential from being reached
If Kevin Knox II can be criticized as a 20-year-old, it would be unfair to grant Barrett a free pass for being 19.
Advanced stats don’t differentiate Barrett a ton from Knox, but Barrett has demonstrated he can add value to the Knicks in a variety of ways. Fizdale used Barrett as a point guard, where he proved capable of moving the ball and orchestrating the offense. He rebounds well, averaging 5.2 rebounds in 31.2 minutes per game. His defense is nothing to write home about, but he is sturdy and rarely looks lost.
It is no secret that Barrett’s shooting has left a lot to be desired. He hit a pretty heavy rookie wall in the middle of December, likely a result from adjusting to the NBA and being overtaxed under Fizdale. Anyone who expected Barrett to be a better-than-average jump shooter did not watch him at Duke.
His free throw shooting had largely been abysmal, but he has improved each month. In the nine January games, he is shooting 74.0% from the line. Again, this doesn’t blow anyone away, but it is a delight compared to the 40.7% he shot from the line in five October games. Free throw shooting is not set in stone when a player enters the league. Brandon Ingram, for example, had not shot higher than 68% from the line until this year, now shooting 86.5% on free throws, which has coincided with a healthy points per game increase and an All-Star candidacy to boot. Barrett shot 30.8% on threes at Duke and has shot 32.9% on NBA threes with the Knicks. He is proficient from the corner, shooting 34.7% on corner threes, consistent with league-average from three but struggles more above the break. His jump shot mechanics are not the best, but he has shown that he is committed to improving his game. One may be underwhelmed by Barrett’s performance so far, but there are several facets of his game that one should get excited about.
Mitchell Robinson: A
- Pleasure to have in class
- Shows mastery of course material
- Blocks opposing points with ease
Robinson has done everything that’s been asked of him this season. He continues to be a dominant force in the pick-and-roll, ranking in the 98th percentile in the NBA in points per possession as a roll man. He ranks extremely well in blocks per game given the fact that he is only playing 22.6 minutes a game. The Knicks are +2.7 points per 100 possessions better when Mitch is on the floor, compared to -1.5 points worse when Bobby Portis is on the floor and -9.2 points worse when Taj Gibson is on the floor. Yes, he has entered a bumpy stretch of the season, but on the whole, he is by far the most exciting and impactful Knick. The next step for Mitchell Robinson is inserting him into the starting lineup and increasing his minutes.
Frank Ntilikina: B
- Needs to participate more actively
- Listens and follows directions well, almost too well
Stop me if you have heard this before: consistency has been an issue for Frank Ntilikina. Despite the Knicks being +5.9 points per 100 possessions better when Frank is on the floor, no one would argue that he has lived up to his true potential yet. He was the best player on the team when the Knicks travelled to Salt Lake City to take on the Jazz last week. Performances like that, however, can almost be frustrating as they highlight the infrequency of Frank’s great play. The hope for Ntilikina this season was that it would finally be one where he would show consistency. That he has not, and is instead switching between confident and fearful play, creates a confusing mix for evaluation. Play more assertively, Frank! When he does, good things tend to happen.
His slow start to the season has kept his per game averages consistent with those of his career, but his shooting percentages have risen significantly. He has all but patented the 11-foot jumper coming off a screen. He is proving to be more comfortable getting deep into the paint to draw defenders and toss lobs to classmate Robinson. He is more capable of setting up and controlling the offense.
There are no clear-cut reasons why his recent developments cannot carry into the rest of the seasons. Frank’s strides, however, have been anything but linear, so it is difficult to project how he will finish the season.
Damyean Dotson: B-
- Works well in group settings
- Always looks for ways to help out
Dotson’s minutes per game have decreased by more than 10 since last year. Despite his three-point shooting slipping significantly in November (26.8% on three-point field goals that month), he has largely done everything the coaching staff has asked of him. He has defended well. His ball-handling has improved, and he is attacking downhill of screen and rolls. Miller seems to have Dot on a tighter leash when he is bricky, but I’d like to see him take all of Wayne Ellington’s minutes. With a larger role, I think Dotson will prove his worth on the Knicks.
Dennis Smith Jr.: F
His jump shot broke, he had one foot out the door in November, and he seems like he has two out now. Heavy regression, mysterious injuries, and trade rumors are not what you want from a large part of the return for trading your best player, but this is the way of the New York Knicks.
High Schoolers – The Vets
Marcus Morris: A
- Consistently produces exceptional work
Marcus Morris is having by far the best season of his career. He is playing incredibly well. He has not bashed anyone on the head with the ball since the preseason. The only question surrounding Morris is whether or not he will be on the Knicks by the end of the season.
Morris has been great, but he is not a viable number-one option for the organization long-term if the goal is to make the playoffs. His fit next to Randle is clunky. He should be traded so that the Knicks can gain some of the assets necessary to acquire a viable number one option for the organization.
Bobby Portis: C-
- Exhibits over-enthusiasm
- Demonstrates erratic behavior
Bobby Portis smacked Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the head. It was not great. It led to the following tweet, which was great:
Live look at Bobby Portis pic.twitter.com/HWnsm4ZVR9— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 8, 2020
Portis flips from wild, out-of-control play to checked out in the blink of an eye, going from WHACK! to hands glued to his rear-end as someone shoots a four-footer in front of him. He has been truly putrid on defense at times. Still, contending teams might be willing to give something up to acquire a big man who can shoot above league average (36.8% this year) from three. Hopefully he is moved before the trade deadline, and his effort level as of late (and his enormous eyes) makes you think he might see a potential trade coming.
Taj Gibson: C
- Great role model for his peers
In his 11th NBA season, Gibson has entered into a smaller role, averaging less than 20 minutes a game for the first time in his career. The 34-year-old has swung a few games in the Knicks favor, with two great performances coming last week versus the Pelicans and the Heat, however on the whole he has been quite average. You can tell he positively impacts his teammates, and they all have a shared respect for Gibson. His role as a leader has been impactful, but it is time for Mitch to take Gibson’s place in the starting lineup.
Elfrid Payton: C+
- Distributes work amongst teammates effectively
- Effort fluctuates regularly
Lost in Elfrid Payton’s last few poor performances is the fact that he impacted the Knicks so much in December that New Yorkers were actually using Payton’s November absence to defend David Fizdale. His defensive effort has been extremely lacking the last few weeks. He let Emmanuel Mudiay toast him and Lonzo Ball rained down threes in his face. He seemed completely checked out against the Bucks on Tuesday. Juxtaposed with Ntilikina’s increasingly better play and stout defense, Payton’s recent struggles have been problematic.
There are, however, essential elements absent from the New York Knicks when Payton is not playing. In early December, Dennis Smith Jr. had Payton’s minutes. When Payton started playing more, the team pushed the pace, Julius Randle held the ball less, and offensive sets were run. Having a stable presence at point guard can really help a team. Still, as the playoffs approach and the Knicks remain far out of the picture, Payton’s recent seeming loss of interest could prove rather troubling down the stretch.
Wayne Ellington: F
- Needs to work more accurately
- Produces poor and inaccurate work
Erik Spoelstra and the fine staff with the Miami Heat turned Wayne Ellington into an incredibly effective high-volume three-point shooter. During his time in Miami since 2016, he shot over 37% in each year on more than six attempts per game, per Basketball-Reference.
This season, comparatively, has gone poorly. Every time I see Wayne Ellington, I cannot help but sing the 2014 Migos/Carnage classic track “Bricks.” He is now shooting 30.9% on 3.5 attempts per game from three. I understand the merit in letting a player shoot himself out of a slump, but Ellington should not be a focus of the season. If he is not making shots, he is providing next to no value to the team.
Reggie Bullock: Incomplete
- Shows great promise
Bullock has played in less than a quarter of the team’s games thus far. He is not shooting as well as he has in the past (one can only conclude that is because the front of his jersey now says “New York” so the Basketball Gods prevent him from playing up to his potential), but opposing defenses will still respect him enough that he provides valuable spacing. Bullock’s impact is noticeable, as his 3-and-D skillset is one of the most widely coveted in the league, and hopefully he continues to prove that he was one of the few sneaky good signings this front office has ever had.
Julius Randle: B-
- Too reliant on independent work
- Quality of work has not always met expectations
Randle’s standing on the Knicks is complicated. His ability to shift the tide of the game is matched by no other Knick, as he demonstrated in the first quarter against the Bucks this week. Still, his start to the season was haunting. When he is hitting shots, all is forgiven. When he is not, Randle’s predisposition to bowl over opposing defenders and turn the ball over stands out. He largely has not hit shots this year. The only player with a higher usage rate and a lower assist-to-turnover ratio to appear in at least 15 games is Joel Embiid, per NBA Stats. His efficiency leaves a lot to be desired.
It has become clear that he is overtaxed as a team’s first option. The front office also clearly demonstrated they view him in higher standing than any other free agency signing. This complicates things: will the front office continue to build the team with Randle as the centerpiece, or (ideally) will he fall victim to a youth movement in New York?
Will this dude ever graduate? – The Front Office
Steve Mills and Scott Perry: D
- Does not use role constructively
- Works at inappropriate pace
Despite all the malfeasance (and boy, has there been malfeasance), the season for the front office is still somewhat salvageable. Yes, they did a ton wrong: they held the infamous 10-game presser, they kept David Fizdale for too long, and they put all of us in cardiac arrest with the Andre Drummond rumors. But they don’t fail outright because this summer they gave themselves the flexibility to succeed at this point in the season. The recipe is simple: move the valuable veterans (Mook, Portis if someone will bite, Bullock if the deal is right) to acquire picks, cut our losses with DSJ (hello, Timberwolves!), hang onto all current picks, and don’t reach for a big name.
Unfortunately, we have been systematically conditioned over the last 20 years to believe none of this will happen. Still, hope abounds for the New York Knicks!
The Teacher – Mr. Miller
Mike Miller: B+
- Has exceeded expectations set by predecessor
- Generates neat and careful work
- Could improve by executing new concepts/ideas
Compared to David Fizdale, Mike Miller deserves all the free passes in the world. Fizdale went 4-18. Miller is 7-13. Fizdale was on pace for a 15-67 season. Miller’s record extrapolated to an 82-game season would be about 28-29 wins. Miller had no training camp with the roster but has gotten more out of this roster than Fizdale ever could have. The offensive sets Miller has installed are more effective than his predecessor’s because, well, they exist, and they are schematically designed to benefit the Knicks’ personnel.
There is some room, however, for Miller to improve. He shares the same proclivity for veterans in his rotation that Fizdale did. It took several games of Elfrid Payton not caring for Miller to finally cut his minutes in Tuesday’s game against the Bucks. When Ntilikina returns from his sore groin, it would be best if Frank started taking a bigger share of Payton’s minutes. More fluidity in the rotations would be beneficial, as Miller almost always finishes games with the starting lineup despite the fact that bench players are often outplaying starters. The same can be said about blowout games. In fact, since Miller took over the Knicks have lost by 20 or more five times. In those games, Portis has played more than 25 minutes three times, while Robinson has played more than 25 minutes in one of those games. Those are the perfect games to get younger players time on the floor to try things they might not have the chance to in closer games.
Miller still has unquestionably been a huge upgrade over Fizdale. Miller is the reason the Knicks will not end up in jeopardy of setting the franchise low in wins in a season. Hopefully his prowess as a coach continues to be on display as the season’s purpose of developing the young players solidifies.