Why doesn’t Frank Ntilikina shoot more? Can Mario Hezonja develop consistency? That and more as we look at the trends following the Knicks’ first week of hoops.
The beginning of the NBA season is always an interesting time for team evaluations. After three months deprived of meaningful games, the hot takes fly like Sideshow Bob shot out of a cannon, the sample sizes are out of control, and anything can mean whatever you want it to. Sometimes, how a team starts can be indicative of things to come, like in 2015, when the Warriors won their first five games by more than 100 points and went on to have the greatest regular season in NBA history. Other times, they’re a funhouse mirror, all shifting shadows and distorted dimensions, like last season when the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies were the two hottest teams in the league from deep and looked like they actually might spend the season winning games and generally being competent (they didn’t, and they weren’t).
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some trends from the first week of Knicks basketball with an eye to what will be sustainable over the course of the next 78 games, and what will likely end up being a mirage in the desert of losing the Knicks will inevitably be wandering through on their way to the promised land of the summer of 2019.
Tim Hardaway Jr., Playing Up To His Contract: Real
While I don’t expect Timmy to keep up the scorching 24.4 points per game he’s put in through five games, David Fizdale seems to understand what Hardaway needs to succeed in a way no man has since Budenholzer. Timmy is still shooting a massive amount of 10-16 foot mid-range shots, but he’s currently taking the lowest percentage of shots between 16 feet and the three-point line of his career. Fizdale has him flying off screens and attacking with a head of steam, and at least so far, he’s really competing on the defensive end. He’s still shooting too many contested shots, but as the focal point of the offense, that doesn’t seem like something that’s going to change anytime soon. If he can keep this same energy, he has a chance to legitimately be in the running for an All-Star spot come February.
New York Knicks, Protecting the Rock: Fake
The Knicks currently rank fourth in the league in turnovers per game, behind the first place Spurs (duh), the Pistons, and the Wizards. Now, there’s a pretty good explanation for why that might be the case: the Knicks are also currently dead last in the league in assists per game and 20th in passes per game. It’s easy to not turn the ball over when your main sources of offense (Kanter and Hardaway) generally get their points in isolation. The relatively contained roles of youngsters like Frank, Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier, and Mario Hezonja also contributes to the lack of turnovers. As they start to assert themselves more and more on offense, expect this number to skyrocket.
Return of the Run and Gun Knicks: Real
As has been discussed many times on this site, bad young teams need to do everything possible to get out and run if they want any chance at staying competitive. Through five games this season, the Knicks are 13th in pace, third in points off turnovers, and are killing it in most hustle stats:
These are the traits of a hungry team playing as if their individual careers depend on it. Because for most of them, they do.
“He’s a tough S.O.B.,’’ Fizdale said. “He’s a team guy. He’s smart as heck. He’s smart in chaos. A lot of guys can’t hit, grab, scratch, claw and be halfway in a fight and still be very clear in the mind and being able to execute. He’s really been doing a great job for us. I won’t hesitate to throw him in a game, to change up some things. The way he defends, the way he can take people out, I think he’s a luxury to have” (per NY Post‘s Marc Berman)
Frank Ntilikina, Still Afraid to Shoot: Real, For Now
Frank is averaging 7.2 field goal attempts in his 29.8 minutes per night, compared to 6.8 FGA in 21 minutes per game last season. He has yet to have a game with more than four made shots during this young season. Though he’s looked more comfortable in pretty much every aspect of his game, he’s still far too tentative putting the ball up. As the season progresses and he reconditions himself from the fear of being pulled if he misses a shot (thanks, Jeff!), I expect him to start shooting more, but this lack of aggression isn’t something that’s going to change overnight. It will likely take a year or two under the new regime before he’s able to feel comfortable letting it fly.
Noah Vonleh, Eating: Gloriously Real
It’s easy to forget that, with 113 NBA starts to his name, Vonleh is one of the few proven commodities on this roster. While he has never been spectacular, he has improved in basically every category each year and under Fizdale seems to be putting all his various gifts to good use. He’s a monster on the glass, an above average ball handler, and is a more comfortable passer than I think anyone expected, both off the dribble and on the short roll.
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) October 24, 2018
The most interesting wrinkle to his development is how willing Fizdale is to let him grab the rebound and push the ball, which has led to some exciting opportunities for himself and his teammates.
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) October 24, 2018
While most Knicks fans came into the season expecting Mario Hezonja to be the steal of free agency, it’s actually Vonleh who may have a shot to become a mainstay on this young team.
And speaking of which…
Mario Hezonja, Master of Inconsistency: Maddeningly Real
If there’s one thing that Hezonja has consistently shown in his four years in the NBA, it’s an elite level of inconsistency. Here are Mario’s stat lines through five games:
- 15 points (6-14), three rebounds, one assist, three steals, 3-7 from three in 19 minutes;
- 2 points (1-3), one rebound, one assist, 0 steals, 0-1 from three in 13 minutes;
- 2 points (1-5), two rebounds, 0 assists, 0 steals, 0-2 from three in just under 10 minutes;
- 18 points (8-16), four rebounds, three assists, two steals, 2-5 from three in 30 minutes;
- 13 points (4-15), one rebound, one assist, 0 steals, 2-8 from three in 22 minutes
His shot selection at times would make Tim Hardaway Jr. blush, and when he’s not scoring, he seems to get too deep inside his own head to contribute in any other aspect of the game. He’ll get opportunities aplenty on a team desperate for scoring and playmaking, but expect these up and down performances to continue throughout his time at MSG.
Knicks Being a Bottom-Half Three-Point Shooting Team: Fake
This might be the most controversial claim in this article, and for good reason. The Knicks currently rank 18th in the league in three-point attempts per game (31.6) and 19th in three-point percentage (34.8 percent). They’re seventh in the league in the percentage of points that come from the midrange (14.4 percent), largely thanks to Burke, Timmy, and Frank being most comfortable doing their damage from around the elbows.
Now, do I think they’re magically going to turn into the Rockets, putting up 40+ threes on a nightly basis? No. But here’s what I expect: Trey Burke and Lance Thomas to eventually go to the bench in favor of something like a Frank/THJ/Dotson/Knox/Kanter lineup. Adding Knox and Dotson will bring more shooting to the starting lineup and clear a path for more Trier/Burke minutes in the second unit. Additionally, as the season progresses, I expect Fizdale to work with the young guards at initiating the offense further out, which will open up more looks from behind the arc, as he tries to steer guys like Knox and Burke away from the contested midrange shots they love so much in favor of more efficient looks from three. If the Knicks can get to 33-34 threes a game, which is not a huge jump, that will put them squarely in the top half of the league and give them a better chance at staying in games they have no business being in.
Which brings us to our last one…
New York Knicks, Staying Competitive: Real-ish
In three of their losses, against two teams with genuine title aspirations and one Brooklyn Nets (last night’s Miami blowout notwithstanding), the Knicks have lost by an average of five points, and if the breaks go just slightly differently for three different former Michigan Wolverines, two of those games could easily have gone to overtime, where it would be anyone’s game (probably still the Celtics, though). While the Knicks won’t be in every game this season, I fully expect them to compete their butts off in every game. That’s what happens when you have a coach that players genuinely want to make proud, young guys on make-or-break contracts, and a budding culture of internal competition between players who seem to genuinely care about each other. Just look at how the team rallied around Trey Burke after his missed free throws lost the game against the Celtics:
All of the Knicks are there Trey Burke when he's upset after missing the first free throw.
Teammates stick together. pic.twitter.com/onkK9WhaWH
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 21, 2018
So far, we’ve seen that what this team lacks in talent, it more than makes up for in heart and fire. And if there are two things Knicks fans respond to (other than winning), it’s that. For the first time in a long time, the Knicks are setting out to prove that a losing season can still be a positive season. And that’s as real as it gets.