August 2018
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Pure Talent vs. Position of Need: How Should the Knicks Draft?

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration
New York’s at a precarious spot at no. 9: do they go with the highest talent still left on the board, or do the Knicks pick the organization’s top positional need, likely a wing player?

The New York Knicks will have the ninth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, despite a desperately hopeful (mostly desperate) fanbase willing the Knicks to jump into the top three picks at May 15th’s Draft Lottery. Storybook theories of Patrick Ewing related karma—Pat, who the Knicks landed in the lottery, wore his famous no. 33 as a Knick rookie for the first time… 33 years ago!—could not hold water and it wasn’t meant to be. Math and logic callously dashed our dreams of Luka Doncic in the end. The question for the Knicks now—who to take with the ninth pick?

There will be talent available for the Knicks; wing prospects Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges could be available, as could point guards Collin Sexton and Trae Young. These four are dominating the discussion as potential Knickerbockers next season. Other prospects could slip to New York—one-and-done guys like Michael Porter Jr. or Wendell Carter—but the Bridges wing duo and the two point guard prospects are the most likely targets.

This foursome present the Knicks with a common ideological dilemma, one faced by front offices around the NBA when compiling draft boards—should you take the best player available irrespective of position? Or should you prioritize filling a positional need on the roster? (Spoiler alert, you should take a Bridges.)

Really, this talent versus fit dilemma is a bit of a false dichotomy. Rarely is the decision franchises face so clean as to clearly prioritize one over the other, a binary decision where a team can either draft a superior talent that will overlap with pre-existing talent on the roster (think Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum), or, take a player 20 percent less talented who is the positional missing piece. This simply doesn’t happen. Predicting, let alone quantifying and comparing, the talents of 20-year-olds is a minefield. Because talent evaluation is so volatile, the whole dilemma is on fragile foundations.

Having said this, it’s clearly relevant to New York’s situation this offseason. Knicks GM Scott Perry has recently admitted that in an ideal world he’d take a wing, but he has also been on the record saying he’ll take the most talented player available, even if that player is a point guard. The Knicks roster is paper thin at the wing and a logjam at point guard—where Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke, and Emmanuel Mudiay find spare minutes. Some in the Knicks organization, Perry included, are allegedly skeptical of Ntilikina, the eighth pick in the 2017 draft, as a long-term solution at point guard.

This skepticism is in part understandable. Ntilikina was, as expected, offensively raw in his rookie year, surrendering the bulk of point guard minutes to Jarrett Jack at the start of the season, struggling to find confidence, rhythm, and consistency on offense thereafter, before being shifted to combo guard with the emergence of Burke and acquisition of Mudiay. This is not exactly the ideal ecosystem for a 19-year-old, coming from a different continent, playing the hardest position in basketball, to find his feet. Frank came into New York—arguably the toughest NBA media market in the league, by the way—in negative equity through no fault of his own because he was “Phil Jackson’s guy,” because he suited the Triangle Offense, and because he was taken ahead of Dennis Smith Jr.—who was the archetypal point guard Knicks fans have been clamoring after for decades.

It would be madness to give up on Ntilikina as a point guard, for these two primary reasons: 1) He hasn’t played anywhere near the amount of point guard minutes consistently enough needed to judge him as a point guard. The minutes sample size is too small; and 2) even if he had played more minutes, with a coach, roster, and organization which was creating the best environment for him to develop. One season is not enough to judge a teenager coming into New York in the circumstances he came into. The season sample size is too small.

To take a point guard with the ninth pick in this draft would be a hard hedge against Ntilikina, except, Perry has already hedged against Ntilikina by resurrecting Trey Burke’s career and trading for Mudiay mid-season. Both of those guys, by the way, are point guards taken in the late lottery. Burke was taken no. 9 in 2013 and Mudiay was selected no. 7 in 2015—both point guards whose careers in the NBA have been extremely disappointing—not exactly a great advert for taking another point guard in the late lottery.

The Knicks have three young, hungry point guards on the roster for new head coach David Fizdale to get his teeth into. Surely it’s worth seeing what we have here before rolling the dice again? Besides, free agency, the other means of talent acquisition in the NBA is point guard heavy in 2019 and 2020—when the Knicks project to have cap space. Ricky Rubio (unrestricted), Kemba Walker (unrestricted), and Terry Rozier (restricted) are all free agents in 2019. A year later, in 2020, Kyrie Irving will hit the market with the Boston Celtics having to make some tough salary cap decisions as the cost off their current embarrassment of riches gets a bit more difficult, as the extensions start to pile up.

This is the case for not drafting a point guard, but there is just as compelling a case for drafting a wing. Most obviously, the Knicks don’t have any, and it’s becoming increasingly clear you can’t win in the NBA without elite wing play. The surging Celtics are the most glaring current example, with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum running riot in the Eastern Conference playoffs as we speak. Danny Ainge and the Celtics front office have loaded up on versatile wings who can switch across multiple positions, shoot, pass, and attack off the dribble—and it’s going pretty well up in Boston.

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has been lauded with praise this postseason. In a coaching clinic in 2016, whilst discussing his defensive philosophy, Stevens said, “By the way … If you’re more athletic and can switch everything, throw everything else out. Switch everything and enjoy winning.” It seems he’s taking his own advice. With Marcus Smart, Brown, Tatum, Marcus Morris and Al Horford on the floor, this is exactly what Boston does, and it’s been devastating.

With Ntilikina at point guard, who is already the best pick-and-roll defender in the NBA by the numbers, and Porzingis at center, who led the league in blocks per game when he was healthy last year, the Knicks have the building blocks of a “switch everything” defensive scheme that may be carrying Boston to an improbable NBA Finals appearance this postseason. Every playoff team generates massive chunks of their offense by hunting the weakest opposition defender with a ball screen and generating a switch. Defensively, the age old adage that you’re only as strong as your weakest link, has never been more true than in today’s NBA.

All things considered, I personally, like a lot of Knicks fans, feel that a Bridges (Mikal, if you’re asking) should be the Knicks primary target in the draft. If they’re not there, another long versatile wing makes the most sense. Unless Scott Perry feels a Collin Sexton or a Trae Young is the next Chris Paul or the next Steph Curry, unless there is a gulf of a talent differential, then the best wing on the board should be the move for the Knicks.

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