With a long, agile body and a penchant for isolation scoring, what if new ‘Bocker Kevin Knox could adapt his game to fit the mold of a point forward?
Whether you cheered or jeered on June 21st, the New York Knicks drafted Kevin Knox, one of the four University of Kentucky players selected in the NBA draft. A 6-9 forward with a penchant for scoring—and not much else. Initial reactions ranged from the curious “What can he do?” to the indignant “What can he even do?”
So far, the Knicks have met one of their major needs—at least on paper. After losing Carmelo Anthony prior to the start of last season, they’ve finally acquired another combo forward. While Scott Perry has been lauded for the franchise’s new direction, the Knickerbockers’ front office still haven’t fixed the point guard problem. Decisions loom: will they roll the dice and try to find a point guard with next summer’s projected lottery pick? Or will Perry and Co. entice Kyrie Irving to return home and play with a contingent of lanky 25-and-unders?
Maybe the answer is neither. Perhaps, since they don’t have a point guard, they should make one—and Knox is the perfect candidate.
The Rise of the Point Forward
Everyone has seen it. Now, everyone is talking about it, but why isn’t anyone actually doing it? The NBA has only seen a handful, if that, of point forwards in the modern era. Ball handlers, in any shape or form, are at a premium right now. The Knicks know this best since they’ve been getting torn apart by them for the last decade. Thankfully, second-year guard Frank Ntilikina can handle them on defense, but he’s not especially deadly with the ball in his hands. Knox could be.
Essentially, Knox is a blank slate. Besides a bit of scoring, there isn’t much that Knox has shown, or anyone can predict, about him as a player. This gives new head coach David Fizdale the perfect opportunity to mold him into the point forward the Knicks need him to be. Physically, he fits the criteria. For a dual forward, he’s fleet of foot with the same wingspan as Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and is a notably decent shooter, requiring much more attention than the newly-crowned ROY.
During the Knicks’ most recent press conference, Knox himself cited the skills he was developing prior to his first NBA season. He said:
This whole summer I’ve been working on ball handling. Being more consistent … pick-and-roll situations … making plays out of it. Make the right reads, make the right passes.
It sounds like he has the right idea. Fizdale has thrown around the idea of position-less basketball and trying Knox at point forward is an ambitious venture that is, at the very least, a thought-provoking challenge to convention.
The point forward position hasn’t been examined at length, since the only players meeting the criteria are, essentially, the aforementioned Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and LeBron James. However, the smattering of data and film available offer examples of how Knox could look in that specific role.
There’s only one Greek Freak. Everything he does cannot be duplicated, but Antetokounmpo’s reads when three or four defenders collapse into the paint are essential to the Bucks’ offense. Entire defenses hope to stop young Giannis by linking up like Voltron when he decides to drive, effectively leaving his teammates wide open. Antetokounmpo reclassified as a point guard in his third season of the NBA and saw nearly a two-point jump in assists, along with a 7-percent leap in assist percentage (per Basketball-Reference). Officially, his stint as a guard only lasted one season, but Giannis has been running the offense, even with the addition of Eric Bledsoe, who shares ball-handling duties with him.
Whether Kristaps Porzingis is the long-term beneficiary, or even a traditional big like Enes Kanter, passes like this could very well be in the future for Knox (via YouTube):
Giannis with the dish for two! pic.twitter.com/eXpCoOF0zY
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) June 26, 2018
Everyone has been raving about the Rookie of the Year. Rookie hype can be overblown, but Simmons has had no problem living up to it. His move from a collegiate forward to a point guard in the NBA was nearly seamless, impressive considering he was essentially redshirted the year after his draft. Simmons doesn’t pose a particularly dangerous threat from outside of the paint, but his ability to dish to the open man and clobber undersized defenders overshadows his limitations. Any highlight tape starring Simmons displays how instrumental it is for him to have the ball in his hands.
The NBA is evolving, and the rise of the point forward, credit to LeBron, is one way the Knicks can get ahead of the curve. Who would better serve as the experiment’s subject than Kevin Knox? Besides a knack for shooting, Knox has demonstrated little more than pure athleticism. In a game of highly-specialized contractors, that may seem like a negative, but if Knox can live up to the positive approach to this by being a sponge, things could pan out well for New York.
Plus, Knox already has experience as a decision maker. Before committing to basketball, Knox was a varsity high school quarterback who threw for roughly 1,000 yards his sophomore year (per Max Preps). His subsequent progress into a top-10 NBA draft pick cements the notion that he has a natural basketball aptitude. In fact, his football prowess gives the indication that he may be best used as a ball handler.
Even in high school, quarterbacks are tasked with understanding complex formations, tendencies, and their personnels’ roles. If Knox can memorize a playbook, he can run an offensive set. The pressure of a five-second play involving 21 players, compared to a 24-second shot clock with nine other bodies, is fairly comparable. The change in space is something to get used to, but his natural passing ability should still be there, especially since basketball has been his focus for years. With the exception of dribbling struggles, there are few reasons why he couldn’t learn to play as a point forward. If Fizdale were to take the idea seriously, Knox could hurt a lot of teams in a lot of different ways in forthcoming years.
There’s even a precedent for high school quarterbacks becoming successful NBA guards. Among the most notable are Jason Williams, Rajon Rondo, and Allen Iverson. If passing instincts translate from sport to sport, Knox is in good company.
As Knox takes the ball up court he can “read” the defense like a quarterback. He can spot weaknesses in position (in the case he wants to make a sudden entry pass), shift to a side to exploit a bad knee or gassed defender, or decide he wants to take the ball all the way to the hole. All of this can happen before he even reaches the key. Timing is an essential concept in any sport, which requires precision passing. Football’s “play action” (showing a run, but actually passing) is the closest comparison to a screen—and Knox should have the instincts to make the good pass to his “receiver” on the court. The pick-and-roll is a perfect example of timing making or breaking a play.
In his point-forward infancy, Knox would need to run a lot of pick-and-rolls. He doesn’t have, nor may ever have the ability to create space alone, but he’s already shown in college that a well-placed pick can do wonders. He ranked in the 85th percentile in points per possession among pick-and-roll ball handlers, according to Synergy Sports. Knox doesn’t have a lightning-quick first step, but with a pick and an uncanny ability to change direction, he can gain the extra space necessary to beat his defender on the right. From there, he can find his spot on the elbow, or continue to the basket for a drive and dish.
On the other hand, he could just do this since it’s right in his bag (via YouTube):
Kevin Knox off of a screen pic.twitter.com/Jxcsj0cARS
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) June 26, 2018
Pick and pop
A screen becomes even more problematic for the defense when Knox runs it with a center who can stretch the floor. This pick and fade by Courtney Lee and Porzingis is a perfect example:
Early in the shot clock, Lee, a proven shooter, takes advantage of a lazy, unready defense and attacks off of a light screen by KP. Both defenders scramble to deny him the easy look but end up leaving Porzingis, who has faded to the three-point line, wide open. Knox may even find luck with this if Enes Kanter opts into his contract. The center has posted videos on his Instagram that showcase him extending his shot to the three-point line. However, Kanter only shot two three-pointers last season, both of which he missed. As former Knick Carmelo Anthony has unfortunately shown the world, translating that shot into 48 minutes of action isn’t necessarily a given. Still, sticking to the roll doesn’t seem like a terrible idea.
Knox isn’t exceptionally quick, but his long stride after using a pick could also cause mismatches, leaving him with a smaller defender or a non-mobile big, depending on who sets the pick. As a QB, part of his job was to identify and exploit mismatches. If Knox can parlay that skill from the football field into a basketball court, his passing could deliver plenty of fruitful results.
Also, Knox serving as a point forward causes an inherent problem for defenses. If Knox, Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, and Tim Hardaway Jr. are on the floor at the same time, who do you send to guard them? The positional ambiguity of the Knicks’ young prospects could expose opposing teams’ wing depth for stretches. If Fizdale wants to run position-less basketball, that particular lineup would be an interesting way to start. Should he be defended by a guard, he’ll be able to back them down and hit the smooth floater he brandished at Kentucky. Alternatively, if help defense arrives, Knox will have a clear pass to an open man on the perimeter, whether it’s the shooter or not. No one is suggesting Knox will be able to go from rim to rim like the Greek Freak, but if he’s conditioned appropriately, a screen and aggressive, physical slashing into the paint could be integral to his success.
Again, imagine running HORNS or a HORNS flare set with Kevin Knox at the point and Ntilikina, Dotson, and Hardaway Jr. on the court? Big-bodied guards moving quickly with a ton of off-ball screens would fluster any defense. Frank curling to the basket after a screen from Knox and finishing with his lanky arms is the exact kind of high percentage shot he needs to score. The contingency of Hardaway camping in the corner ready to nail a three is just as enticing as Ntilikina’s easy two points. Also, HORNS sets could see Knox setting screens for smaller wing players to get open, effectively disorienting a defense whether they’re switch-heavy or not.
Knox own shooting can’t be ignored either. If he can create enough space between him and a hedging defender, he’ll be able to drive to the basket or simply shoot from the perimeter after one dribble. A simple give-and-go shouldn’t be out of the question either. By using a screen to put him on the wing, Knox can then pass to the top of the key, and receive an entry pass as he makes one of his quick cuts to the basket or to one of his select spots. If he ends up on the wing, the give-and-go could end up like this at the elbow (via YouTube):
Skrt! skrt! pic.twitter.com/ezoTMdx75y
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) June 26, 2018
If he can turn the corner that sharp off of an off-ball screen, there’s no reason Fizdale shouldn’t incorporate that into a give-and-go or HORNS scenario when Knox needs to score.
Trey Burke is a serviceable floor general and has earned his spot into the Knicks depth chart. However, there aren’t too many believers that he can lead the Knicks to long-term success. With his physical and shooting capabilities, Knox could make a case for a point forward in the making. Right now, his game is pretty raw, but that’s the beauty of it. Knox has the natural affinity to shoot the ball, and that danger to defenses makes him the natural choice to be the Knicks shot creator and facilitator. Summer League begins in early July. Here’s to hoping Knox gets more than a couple touches.