Four games remain for the rookie campaigns of Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier, and Mitchell Robinson. How did the Knicks rookies do in their first NBA foray?
The regular season is all but over, and the New York Knicks are predictably terrible, but all hope is not lost. Not even close.
In fact, most fans would probably tell you they’re looking forward to watching the Knicks’ next season, a perspective rarely held over the past 20 years of New York basketball.
Why? Because this season has been all about duality. There’s a yin and a yang at the heart of this drought. Every loss today is a win for the future. We suffer now so that we may one day reach Zion, the kingdom of hoops heaven, via Williamson, 280-pound prince of such grand prophesies.
Zion has not yet arrived. But there are light-bringers on the roster already, crown jewels of the youth movement that has nudged the Knicks ever so slightly in the right direction.
I’m talkin’ ’bout our rookies.
Let’s grade them out.
There is no vacuum with which to evaluate young players—by which I mean: Kevin Knox being 19 and an awful NBA player are inextricable from one another.
You can’t really say he’s awful without also copping to the fact that Google was born a year before Knox was. To observe athletic performance fairly, age and performance must exist in tandem, and that’s especially true with Knox.
By the way, this applies for the Knicks’ other rookies, Allonzo Trier and Mitchell Robinson.
For Robinson, 21, age is a beacon of unbridled optimism; He’s this good already? Imagine what he’ll be in three years. For Trier, 23, it means that who he is now is probably, for better or worse, who he’ll be in the future. He’s stable.
For Knox, age brings only mystery. Because he’s 19, we split everything he does on the court into schism.
There are those that think, a few years down the line, we will look back and view his rookie season as nothing more than an aberration, a shocking but necessary introduction to a grown man’s league.
And there are those that see Knox’s rookie season as NBA infanticide—a cautionary tale in the making, of a basketball baby so vastly underprepared that he developed bad, irreversible basketball habits.
Every brick, clueless foray into the paint, and flat-footed defensive sequence is met by Knox-optimists who say, “Yeah, but he’s 19 freaking years old. This is a good thing, to get this stuff out of the way as early as possible.” To which Knox-pessimists retort, “I don’t care how young he is. He’s vomiting up 20-footers early in the shot-clock, has zero feel for the game, and is a space cadet on D.”
Both camps are probably wrong, or at least missing the whole picture. Knox will fall short of the future superstar expectations set for him after a ridiculous Summer League, but I’m confident he will be a good NBA wing, capable of starting on a championship-level team. He’s long, athletic, fluid, has credible shooting mechanics, and is pretty big for his position.
But he has a long way to go.
Knox’s first season has been horrible statistically, in terms of both traditional and advanced stats. He’s currently shooting around 37% from the field, 35% from three, and 73% from the line. That gives him an effective field-goal percentage of 44, which is 313th among all NBA starters, right above Kenrich Williams of the New Orleans Pelicans.
To make matters worse, Knox actually ranks on the higher end in terms of usage rate at his position, a byproduct of playing for arguably the worst team in the league—meaning he’s historically inefficient while having free reign to play his game night to night.
His long-range shooting, billed as his most translatable skill coming into the NBA, has been about league average, not good enough to compensate for the other holes in his game which are, to list a few:
- Total zero as a playmaker.
- The game doesn’t look like it’s slowed down on the defensive end, where he doesn’t generate turnovers or block shots.
- Only 3.6 trips to the free throw line per 36 minutes, unbelievably poor for someone of that size and physical ability.
- Takes a lot of terrible midrange shots.
It’s kind of astonishing that after an entire season we have no answers as to what kind of identity Knox will take on in the future, only more questions. The only thing we know is that he looks the part of a modern 3-and-D wing, with his body type and athleticism. Everything else has been false advertisement, fueled by Summer League hype.
And yet, I am buying stock.
Knox has improved just enough over the past few weeks—at reading the game, decision-making, cleaning up his shot selection—for me to believe that he’ll be a damn good ball player someday.
Knox transition pic.twitter.com/7jTMVG1Enm— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) April 4, 2019
This was his first shot attempt of this game in Orlando Wednesday night—in transition, playing downhill, using his athletic advantage to attack the rim. It’s been a theme for Knox lately: setting up his outside game by hunting for stuff inside first, a veteran trick to use the ebbs and flows of basketball in your favor, like an old surfer reading the raging ocean water.
Even when he’s made mistakes, they’ve been more encouraging than before. From that same game:
Knox steal + turnover. pic.twitter.com/xn93Q0wMjl— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) April 4, 2019
Knox jumps a passing lane (a basic read, but one that we haven’t seen much from Knox, who averages 0.6 steals per game), and then turns it over on the break. Chalk this one up to inexperience and a lack of elite basketball I.Q.
That’s fine. Every rookie can’t be Luka Doncic or Trae Young in terms of vision and preternatural understanding. Precocious, cerebral, NBA geniuses are rare, that’s what makes them special. Some rookies are “just” 6-foot-8 behemoths with long arms that can dunk, shoot threes, and play good defense across multiple positions. They are often equally as valuable to a contender as the former.
I still subscribe to the latter vision of Kevin Knox, without hesitation. But this season has given us zero assurance as to who Knox will be. We have only guesswork to rely on.
Trier’s rookie season has been the complete opposite experience.
If Knox is a random collection of raw but exciting culinary ingredients, Trier is a dish ready-made: comfortable, satisfying, largely agreeable food, accessible by people from many walks of life.
Allonzo Trier is Chipotle.
You know exactly what you’re getting with him. He’s not going to blow you away with some mind-boggling reinterpretation of Mexican food. He’s not even really Mexican food.
But that’s not what you go to Trier-potle for. You go for the reliability: for the exact same amount of protein, rice, beans if that’s your thing (no thanks), and other burrito accoutrements.
In the same way, Trier is going to be a 15-point scorer night in and night out for the next eight years, if all goes according to plan. He’s not a good playmaker, but he’s also not an unwilling passer. He’s a decent outside shooter (better off the catch than you might think), and his crafty handle is beyond his years.
Trier’s best trait, though? He fears absolutely no one.
Oh, you’re a top-5 defense? Very cool, hold this 20-piece for me.
Better yet, here’s a free sample of my entire bag: step-backs, pull-ups, hesi’s, euro’s. Anything else you need to see, let me know, boss, I got it right here.
And if there’s one word to describe Trier, it would be that one: boss. Trier is not a plus athlete (although he has great size for a guard). He’s not the most talented. But he is here to spend your lunch money on whatever he wants, and eat it right in your face.
Moving forward, that will not change. He will continue to think he’s the best player on the floor. That’s just the way Trier is wired. He is, as Bill Simmons’ coined, an “irrational confidence guy,” which can be a blessing or a curse depending on context.
So, what’s the downside? Inconsistency.
Since early February, Trier has had 10 absolute duds, single-digit scoring games in which he couldn’t hit the basket if it came up and poked him in the eye. He’s also had, over that same stretch, 10 good games, including the minor explosion against Toronto above. (He’s also missed seven consecutive contests now with a calf injury.)
In fact, the only consistent thing about Trier is his sloppiness with the ball. He is a freestyler, slicing his way into the lane with no concrete plan other than to get to his spot, at all costs. This can get him tangled up in the trees, and it often ends with an ugly turnover.
Trier turnover pic.twitter.com/BZ4X9SXjHV— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) April 5, 2019
Still, Trier has given the Knicks so much more than anyone could have expected. Hell, no one even knew who this guy was at the start of the season, and now he’s played his way from a 10-day contract in November to what looks like a real NBA career in the making.
He won’t be buried on the bench anytime soon, either. Trier is a legit rotation player. He has the physical profile to guard either position, is a tolerable off-ball threat, and an underrated rebounder.
At this point, it would be a massive disappointment if Robinson didn’t win Defensive Player of the Year at least twice in his career, right? It’s become apparent to me that he has more potential on that end of the floor than any current NBA center, by far.
That’s not an exaggeration.
Robinson is faster, more explosive, and more mobile than behemoths like Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, or even peak Tyson Chandler, but he’s also just as big. So, not only can he protect the rim like them, but can also jump passing lanes and defend the perimeter in ways those other dudes can’t. They just don’t have the same foot speed.
Go down the list, and Robinson seemingly has an edge on every other elite defensive defensive big man of the past 10 years.
Draymond Green? Too small. Ditto for Gasol, but swap a lack of size for a lack of speed. Joakim Noah doesn’t have the leaping ability.
You really have to go back to apex Dwight Howard to find a player that has the potential to terrorize an offense the way Robinson can, and even then I don’t think Howard was quite as fluid as Big Mitch.
Robinson block pic.twitter.com/wHDQQNzWtC— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) April 5, 2019
That’s a play literally designed to get Kyle Lowry enough space to launch a pull-up long two, the most inefficient shot in basketball, just so he can avoid meeting Robinson at the rim! How does a play that sacrifices efficiency in order to avoid a particular outcome still reach that outcome?
7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and lightning quickness, that’s how.
Howard, one of the most destructive interior defensive forces to ever walk planet earth, couldn’t close that gap at the peak of his powers. That’s how much of an anomaly Robinson is athletically.
The only trouble with him is that he can’t stay on the floor. He fouls at an astronomical rate, which hasn’t improved all that much throughout the year. His projected numbers are hilarious—4.4 blocks and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes—but it’s hard for him to survive past the 20-minute mark. He’s so hungry for the ball that it leaves him in vulnerable situations.
Robinson foul pic.twitter.com/N3foxOoWeU— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) April 5, 2019
That is just a ridiculous foul to give against Brandon Sampson, an undrafted rookie on a two-way contract. Just sag off and move with the ball handler! Dare him to shoot over you. There is no reason to cut his angle by haphazardly slapping at the ball. Better scorers will punish that every time.
It’s been Robinson’s Achille’s heel. His foul rate, 7%, is more than double Gobert’s, 3.3%. That needs to change for him to become the monster defender he can be.
On the other end, he needs to improve his free-throw shooting, currently at 59%. It’s unreasonable to expect Robinson to ever be league-average form the stripe, but his inability to hit free throws is a serious liability right now. Imagine how bad it will look in a playoff series.
But that’s the point; out of the Knicks’ rookie trio, it’s easiest to envision Robinson thriving in late-May basketball. He is an impossible athlete, physically capable of anchoring a defense all by himself, no small task in today’s switch-everything era.
The Knicks’ front office deserves props here. With the 36th pick in the draft, a throwaway flyer for most teams, they landed a 21-year-old that I think will be a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.