The Knicks desperately need secondary playmaking from the wing. The 2021 NBA Draft offers several enticing offers, especially with New York’s surplus of picks.
The New York Knicks find themselves in a draft situation unparalleled in the franchise’s modern history. After reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2013, they will not make a top-14 selection.
Despite the team-wide improvements made by New York over the past year, a plethora of weaknesses still haunted this squad, with a lack of shooting guards/small forwards who are secondary playmakers being at the forefront of those weaknesses. Want evidence that they’re necessary to win at a high level? Look at the franchises still fighting—the Phoenix Suns have Mikal Bridges and Devin Booker alongside Chris Paul. The Atlanta Hawks surrounded Trae Young with Lou Williams, Kevin Huerter, and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Now, just because the Knicks are without a top pick doesn’t mean this draft is any less critical to New York’s future. Quite the contrary, actually; the Knicks were active in years past when it came to hoarding draft picks, and they are now seeing the fruits of their labor. Though New York is looking outside in on the lottery, they have three valuable choices in the middle of the draft: 19th, 21st, and 32nd. The act of dangling these picks alone should be enough to capture the attention of a late-lottery team with aspirations of trading down and parlaying their pick into multiple ones.
While trading up is an option that’s worth contemplating, holding onto some/all of their picks is a sensible move as well. There’s a chance that the Knicks land multiple rotational cogs if they play their cards right; there are plenty of players in this class that could address one of New York’s glaring holes on the roster: the shortage of creators at the wing spot.
BJ Boston’s upside is worth the gamble at pick 32
One year ago, BJ Boston placed seventh in the ESPN 100 high school rankings. A lanky scoring machine, his hoop mixtapes inspired comparisons to Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant. The expectation was he’d emerge as a high lottery pick in his single season with the Kentucky Wildcats. However, inefficient scoring (35.5% from the field, 30% on threes) resulted in his draft stock plummeting instead of skyrocketing.
Not only has Boston likely played his way out of lottery contention, but many mock drafts are now predicting he’ll fall out of the first round entirely. Ending his collegiate career with a zero-point performance in 23 minutes probably didn’t help matters. However, when looking past the percentages and box scores, Boston showcased flashes of offensive brilliance that hint towards his sky-high ceiling.
Nominally, Boston’s measurables are ideal for a wing in the modern NBA. At 6’7″ with a seven-foot reach, it’s easy to remember why he generated links to Tatum and Durant, at least from a physical standpoint. For reference, he’s one inch shorter than Tatum while owning a longer wingspan by, again, one inch. Considering Boston has yet to turn 20, he’ll continue to sprout over the coming years.
Boston fits the outward profile of effective scoring wings to a tee. But height itself only means so much. Fortunately for Boston, he has the talents to match his advantageous exterior. Boston’s ball-handling chops are impressive for someone of his stature; he is equally comfortable knifing his way into the paint and dancing with defenders in the in-between area.
— B/R Hoops (@brhoops) March 6, 2021
Boston competed with a palpable bravado that defines three-level scorers. He’s not afraid of taking and making tough shots and frequently employed a Tatum-esque stepback to his left to negate contests on the perimeter. His jump shot mechanics are rock-solid despite his inefficiency, as he finished with a 78.5% free-throw percentage, an accurate barometer of a college player’s shooting prowess. Boston’s failure to get buckets at a high clip was partly an indictment of the lackluster talent around him (the Wildcats’ record was 9-16 in 2020–21).
Boston’s swing skill in the big leagues will be his playmaking. Though a scorer with a score-first mentality, Boston had glimpses of brilliant passing. He can make plays for others off the bounce; Boston proved capable of finding shooters with live-dribble passes off either hand and sprinkled in some noteworthy reads in the pick-and-roll. Additionally, when the defense collapsed in on him, he regularly spotted the open man for on-time and on-target dimes.
If the Knicks seek a dirt-cheap bench scorer with loads of upside, look no further than Boston. There’s little risk and loads of potential reward in using a second-round pick to obtain his services. Would Boston need a year in the G League to hone his all-around game? Perhaps. Although the Knicks should view an opportunity to draft Boston like this: they’d be getting a lottery-level talent at pick 32.
Jalen Johnson makes sense as a point-forward
Draftniks are seemingly puzzled as to where Johnson will land in this upcoming draft. Some have him as high as the top 10, while others expect him to slide to the 20s. At pick 19, the Knicks will need a bit of lady luck to draft Johnson if they stay put. But, as discussed earlier, trading up is an avenue New York can pursue with three of the first 32 choices.
Say the Knicks fancied Johnson, and he falls where he’s expected to (late in the lottery)—they likely could acquire him by trading their two first-rounders. While not a traditional wing in any sense, Johnson is a multi-dimensional player who can run the show on offense and stymie counterparts with his on and off-ball defense.
Today’s Play of the Day is Duke’s Jalen Johnson. Takes advantage of a poor pass, gets out in transition and finishes with quite possibly the best Poster in College Basketball this season. #NBA #NBATwitter #NBADraft pic.twitter.com/O0BF9clfTp
— Jack Liss (@JackLiss8) April 2, 2021
Johnson is an utter handful to contain when attacking the rim, particularly in transition. He possesses excellent body control, speed, and strength at 6’9″, all of which allowed him to be an elite dribble-drive threat; Johnson averaged 5.5 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes in his short stint with Duke. It’s an open secret that New York struggled to score in the open court—their 7.7 fast-break points per game ranked dead last in the NBA. Therefore, adding a top-tier athlete and potent at-the-rim scorer in Johnson could go a long way towards rectifying the team’s transition woes.
For all that Johnson brings as a slasher, it’s his point-forward chops that separate him from the pack. Johnson oftentimes functioned as the primary ball-handler for the Blue Devils, confidently taking the ball up in the half-court and creating scoring chances on the break with his vision and ability to push the pace. Though Johnson’s 4.2 assists per 40 minutes at Duke don’t jump off the screen, the eye test hints that he could be a great secondary distributor who manufactures plays for others both in the low post (where he has a penchant for exposing mismatches) and transition.
Jalen Johnson looked SPECIAL in his Duke debut 👀
— Overtime (@overtime) November 28, 2020
Johnson’s outside jumper is the defining fault in his game. While he did hit 44.4% of his threes at Duke, he attempted just 18 of them on the year, and opponents left him wide-open. When coupled with his poor 63.2% clip from the charity stripe and fundamentally flawed mechanics, it becomes evident that he’s a below-average marksman for a wing, at least at this juncture.
With that said, Johnson’s defensive potential more than compensates for his iffy perimeter game. Johnson turned heads as someone who utilized his lateral quickness to switch on diminutive guards and brawn to muscle with behemoths down low as well as protect the rim. His 2.4 combined stocks (steals and blocks) highlight just how versatile a defender Johnson is—there’s a possibility he plays any position from the three to the small-ball 5 in the NBA.
Jalen Johnson played some excellent post defense on Moses Wright, who averages 16.6 ppg, late in the second half. Johnson was key in getting several defensive stops down the stretch. pic.twitter.com/VEKahkRDeI
— BlueDevilStop (@BlueDevilStop) January 28, 2021
Johnson’s skill set epitomizes the word unique. He’s not without his holes, but it’s hard not to fantasize about two-person fast breaks featuring Johnson and R.J. Barrett. His immense potential as a finisher, facilitator, and defender are all reasons why the Knicks could benefit from taking a flier on the teenager come July.
James Bouknight is another intriguing trade-up option
There’s virtually zero chance Bouknight is on the board at pick eight or nine, never mind 19. The UConn Husky staked his claim as arguably the best pure scorer in this draft. Bouknight shot a torrid 52.8% inside the arc this past season; he overwhelmed defenses at and above the rim with his vertical leap and ability to finish through contact. He was also deadly from the midrange, where he loved to go to his pull-up game and create separation with hesitation dribbles and shot fakes.
James Bouknight hesi and pull-up J.
The simplicity by which he makes this look is next level elite. pic.twitter.com/HctvcV9bdz
— Aram Cannuscio (@AC__Hoops) February 27, 2021
Though a renowned bucket-getter with the ball in his hands, Bouknight projects to be an impactful off-ball scorer in the NBA as well. He was one of the most active players in the nation in moving without the basketball; his motor is relentless. Thanks to his terrific stamina and I.Q., Bouknight could be relied on to work his way into point-blank layups on a nightly basis. Should he be drafted by the Knicks, his off-ball adeptness would come in handy from the get-go, considering Bouknight would presumably begin his NBA career playing away from the ball.
James Bouknight kills his dribble with the roll man covered, while the screener's defender shows / floor not spaced — but more of his off-ball movement/scoring craft: pass/cut + contortionist finish and foul pic.twitter.com/9qe00wHe02
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) June 22, 2021
Offensively, Bouknight is as NBA-ready as they come. Yes, his three-point percentage dropped significantly from year one to year two (34.7% to 29.3%), but his usage almost doubled (2.6 attempts per game to 5.0). And yes, his shot selection left a lot to be desired at times, but this is an all-too-common problem among collegiate scorers. If there’s anything to worry about with Bouknight, it’s how he’ll fare on the other end.
To put it briefly, Bouknight didn’t make much of a positive impact on defense in college. He was by no means a negative and was solid at disrupting passing lanes, having averaged 0.9 steals per game across his two years. But his semi-short stature for a wing at 6’5″ and slight build (190 lbs) made Bouknight easy pickings in mismatches. He’ll undoubtedly have to add some muscle if he wants to check guards and wings at the next level consistently. However, his defensive shortcomings should not deter New York from trading up if the right deal presents itself.
Nice sequence from James Bouknight against Providence from the season. Does a nice job fighting for positioning on defense which results in a steal, and then knocks down a nice floater on the other end pic.twitter.com/Rs75x8rMbr
— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) May 19, 2021
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has made one thing abundantly clear over his short time at the helm: if his players are prone to making mistakes on defense, they won’t play. Look at Kevin Knox, who, after shooting the deep ball accurately to begin the year, was relegated to the end of the bench not long after, where he’d then remain for the rest of 2020–21. Then there’s Obi Toppin, whose early-season blunders prevented him from ever becoming a rotational mainstay.
That’s not to say Bouknight would suffer the same fate. Rather, one can use these examples to make an educated guess that’s as follows: Bouknight would have a lot to prove as an irritant, and thus, minutes would be anything but guaranteed.
Boston, Johnson, and Bouknight are three uber-promising prospects whose repertoires could bolster the playmaking at the wing spot from day one. They’re all at different stages of progression but share a commonality in that the Knicks couldn’t go wrong in drafting any of them. We’ll find out what direction the Knicks choose on July 29th.