Kevin Knox flatlined while Frank Ntilikina rose to the occasion. Where do the roster’s youngest players stand headed into the regular season?

For the New York Knicks, the preseason has been a highly varied tale leading to an adjustment of expectations. The players on the roster who have been given a second chance to renew their careers still have a story to tell, but the Knicks’ new, young core stole the show. Every year, rookies and rising stars undergo growing pains, and, for the first time in a long time, the Knicks have a band of immature bucket-getters who, due to the ferocity of their Summer League and preseason play, are poised to make an impact in the NBA someday.

Finally, we’ve seen them play NBA-level basketball and now it’s time to grade their performance and anticipate how they’ll need to grow in order to be successful.

Frank Ntilikina

Preseason Grade: B

Over the course of the preseason, Frank Ntilikina has shown us some encouraging development, but is it enough? Through four games, he averaged 7.0 points on 45 percent shooting, a tick up from his averages for his first NBA seasonAlong with the statistics, he’s shown improvement with the eye test. He’s looked far more comfortable handling the ball, and he’s even taken advantage of lax defense that still thinks he’s as bashful as he was last October. His growth culminated in the final preseason game, where Ntilikina played a complete game leading on both the offensive and defensive end. He tallied nine points, five assists, four rebounds, and one steal. Nothing in double digits, but anyone watching could tell the effect he has on the game. It was the difference that turned his C into a B, like acing the final in class. Furthermore, over the course of the preseason, he only turned the ball over four times. Lead guard or not, that’s fairly impressive for a player who doesn’t have particularly excellent handles.

Although he’s shown improvement in several categories, it doesn’t change the fact that he still has a long way to go. Ntilikina’s learning curve is expected to be steeper than the average prospect and it seems as though the Knicks have accepted that, but in a competitive game that’s a weakness. Potential doesn’t earn wins; hell, it doesn’t even get the ball in the hoop. He’s a stalwart defender, but if he can make himself a threat on both sides of the court by improving his play in fast-break situations or spot-up shooting he’ll be a lot more valuable to his team. Supplementing his signature skill with others should be the focus of his development going forward. Ntilikina is still only 20 years old, so, there’s a lot of time left for him to develop into the best version of himself. Whether that player is a point guard or not becomes more irrelevant with every passing day. The next step in his career is sustained improvement—not just from his rookie numbers, but on par with his draftmates.

Damyean Dotson

Preseason Grade: A-*

Dotson made the most out of his preseason games, especially in the first where he led third- and fourth-stringers to an overtime victory. That is precisely why there’s an asterisk next to his grade. He had some nice hoops, but garbage time is garbage time, overtime be damned. If he’s truly an NBA-caliber player, then Barry Bonds-ing his preseason play is only fair. After all, it isn’t like he took the end of the bench and dominated the opposing teams’ starters like another Houston, Texas, native.

This preseason he averaged 8.0 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game in 13.5 minutes of action, RealGM. Dotson shot 56 percent from three-point range on 1.8 attempts as well. The sample size is small, but seeing anything from Dotson on stable minutes is better than the mishandling he suffered at the hands of former coach Jeff Hornacek. At 24 years old, he’s on the older end of the Knicks’ prospects and is still buried in the rotation. If there’s any goal for Dotson this season, it’s to prove that he belongs in the NBA playing 10+ minutes night in and night out. Fizdale has mentioned position-less basketball and even sent Frank to play the 4 in the last preseason game, so the best advice for Dotson would be to capitalize on his versatility. He has the size and skill set to play on both wing positions and sub in as a small-ball 4 in spots. His switchability may be the strength that gets him on the court since his defense has been uninspired thus far. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dotson ends up as a sweetener in a trade before February, but if he’s the real deal Holyfield he’ll show Fizdale that he’s too valuable an asset to give up. With the third season of his contract non-guaranteed, it’s a make or break situation for Dotson.

Kevin Knox

Preseason Grade: D

Oh, Kevin. The only thing that kept him from an F was the first preseason game where he had a 13 point and 10 rebound double-double. It has been downhill since then. The problem with doing well in Summer League, the problem with being poised to be a star, is that you put a target on your back. Each Knicks opponent exposed his inexperience. Coming out of the draft, everyone knew he was a raw athlete. Knox used that as the pith of his game in college, but, in the NBA where everyone is a supreme athlete, his crux becomes a crutch, and an ineffective one at that. Through five games, he averaged 8.8 points on 32.7 percent from the field and 16 percent from three.

Even if he doesn’t rebound to Summer League levels, neither Jimmy Butler or Giannis Antetokounmpo had exceptional rookie campaigns. He was made vulnerable, sure, but Knox is no fraud. As a 19-year-old that will be relied upon in this offense, there will be further growing pains. Overcoming these initial shortcomings by showing that he’s more than a scorer will keep his rookie accolade chances alive. Mental toughness and inexperience appear to be his most evident adversaries. For Knox, there’s a lot to learn, and Fizdale might be the teacher up for the job.

Mitchell Robinson

Preseason Grade: B

He appeared in three out of five preseason games and made an obvious impact. His draftmate, Kevin Knox, may have had trouble riding the momentum from Summer League, but Robinson certainly hasn’t. At first look, Robinson’s numbers were pedestrian. He averaged 5.0 points and nabbed 4.3 rebounds through 14.6 minutes of action, but his presence was felt every second he was on the court. See how quickly he catches a risky pass in the pinch post and throws it down in a second.

Then, immediately on the other end, he blocks the living daylights out of Joe Harris’ shot:

That’s all one sequence from The Iron Giant. From that moment on he terrorized the entire Nets lineup. Whenever there was a drive to the basket and Robinson was in the paint, the Nets detoured. Whenever there was a rebound in the air and they weren’t 100 percent sure Robinson was gone, they shielded the ball like a baby in a storm. That’s impact. He ended with only seven points and four rebounds in that preseason game, but managed to finish with two blocks in his 17 minutes of action. 

The foul trouble early on and his lack of offensive tools are glaring weaknesses. He air balled his first shot from outside of the paint in the Knicks final preseason game, but Ntilikina air balled his first couple of shots too. Either way, he’ll need to develop a post game and some offensive capabilities to become a legitimate force on the floor. Blocks and lobs can get a big man far, but the only real impact players with such rigid skill sets are DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, and Clint Capela. If you can get away with it you better be the best of the best with a complementary cast. That’s why the Miami Heat are so uneasy about Hassan Whiteside.

Per a report from ESPN’s Ian Begley, Robinson will see plenty of time in the G League this season, but he’ll also be practicing and playing with the NBA-level Knicks. When Robinson’s number is called to permanently join the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, he’ll likely be ready.

Allonzo Trier

Preseason Grade: B+

He was fairly ineffective during Summer League, but preseason was more or less his coming out party. As soon as Trier was subbed in, Iso Zo, his self-imparted moniker, took over. The crossover is deadly and his blow-by speed is perfect for a guard. At 22 years old, he’s an old rookie, but with what he’s shown so far against NBA talent that’s no problem at all. Trier is a mature player who knows exactly what his strengths are. When it comes to the rest of his cohort, Knox, Robinson, and even Ntilikina, they’re still figuring out what brand of basketball they’re able to play. How do they fit in on offense? Are they skilled enough to handle the ball? When do they have the green light? The Iso-Zodiac Killer just wants to know who his next victim is.

Trier is somewhat polished already. He’s a baller’s baller and even head coach David Fizdale knows it: “I really like the kid’s attitude. He’s got a toughness about him that fits me,” Fizdale said. The first-year Knicks coach also admitted Trier has a ways to go in his development when it comes to sharing the ball. Over the five preseason games Trier averaged 14.2 points—the third-most for this season’s rookie class—and 1.6 assists, and, needless to say, his crossover is a thing of beauty.

Zo may have a solid foundation and identity, but there are clearly still areas he needs to work on. At times he can be a lazy defender, and he hasn’t utilized his playmaking abilities. His speed and ball-handling open doors for assists, not just shots. When he fully realizes his potential as a lead guard who can shoot, pass, drive, and defend, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with on an NBA level.

Trier is currently on a two-way contract and the Knicks don’t plan on converting it until absolutely necessary. It makes sense that his time in the G League would be sporadic since the shooting guard spot has a waiting list longer than Hamilton. Playing time in a lesser league may be preferable to sitting on the pine.

While Kevin Knox didn’t give us much to rave about in preseason, the rest of the young core had key moments where they demonstrated NBA-ready attributes. Ntilikina, Dotson, Robinson, and Trier all appear to be prepared for the regular season. Hopefully, they can provide synergy for the rookie lottery pick among them. The young Knickerbockers have a lot of promise and, if they impress this season, the front office can go into this summer feeling secure in the foundation it has established.