How will New York’s froncourt fare without their leading man?

Writing a preview of Knicks big men doesn’t feel right without Kristaps Porzingis. When he went down last season, a deep, dark cavity opened in my chest. I wanted to spend the rest of my life curled up under a ton of bricks. My heart was fully agape for a good two months until June 21, 2018, that fateful day which will forever be etched into my memory as the day my beautiful, often foolish franchise drafted two future Hall of Famers.

I’m getting ahead of myself here, but Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson basically saved my life. Leaving aside my internal opera, KP will return, brolic and better than ever, if you’ve been religiously following his recovery on Instagram. Greener pastures await.

But this season, the pastures will look more like a budding yellow. They’re not sickly brown. They’re in the recovery stage from the last 15 years of utter ineptitude.

The Knicks will probably top out at 30 wins and land somewhere in the Eastern Conference cellar. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had watching the young guns play some free-flowing, position-less basketball. Amid an exciting culture change, there are developmental steps from individual players, and new schemes from head coach David Fizdale to look forward to.

New York has gone from league laughing stock who traded a king’s ransom for Andrea Bargnani, the clumsiest player I’ve ever seen grace the hardwood, to a team that carefully deliberates the future of the franchise with a growth mindset. “No shortcuts,” as general manager Scott Perry has been saying all summer. It’s a nice refrain and we’ve heard it before. But I’ve never felt it before. I felt it when management didn’t change their tune just because Jimmy Butler hit the market.

Fizdale has talked about going super big, super small, Super Mario. There are endless lineups he can use this season and he seems willing to experiment, which makes writing a preview of big men difficult. Perhaps Frank Ntilikina is the secret weapon at the 5—a long-held conspiracy theory of mine.

But in the interest of brevity, I will keep the preview to what we would traditionally consider big men: guys who play primarily at the 4 or 5. I’m slipping Knox in there too, because I love him, and because it’s likely he will play significant minutes at the four—more than probably any other guy under 6-foot-10 excluding Lance Thomas. I love you Lance, but you’re not making the list.

Let’s get started.

Enes Kanter

Enes Kanter is going to play the most minutes at center for the Knicks this season. Hate him or love him, we’ll be watching him every night. I used to be annoyed by his Twitter antics and corny trash talk, but I’ve come to appreciate it. He’s dealing with serious geo-political issues in his vocal opposition to Turkey’s corrupt president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and he gets a pass for always trying to make light of things.

Just like he is on Twitter, he’s a pest to play against. Last season, he was second in the league in put-back points and fourth in offensive rebounds. He secured 15 percent of his teammate’s shot attempts, which is in the 98th percentile among bigs. What drives coaches more insane than offensive boards and put-backs? Having a guy to get under the opponent’s skin is a good thing. And he can pump up a home crowd by quickly coming to the defense of his teammates.

The obvious drawback of playing Kanter as much as the Knicks will is that he’s not exactly a mobile big. The pace of play in the league is getting faster and Kanter can’t keep up. He doesn’t want to be a throwback player. He’s been working on a three-point shot. But that’s never going to be where he excels.

It’ll be interesting to see this season if Fizdale will stay true to his word and let Kanter fire away from deep. Pushing him out to the edge might mitigate the biggest strength he brings to the table in his offensive boards. It’s not necessarily the points he scores—second in the league had fewer than four points per game in put-backs. It’s that the opposition has to game-plan around it when it happens in bunches.

It seems unlikely Fiz will have him waiting in the corner for someone to kick to, but maybe it would throw defenses off if he occasionally popped out for 3 instead of rolling to the rim. If the shot is legit, it can add some nice wrinkles into Fiz’s offense. But I don’t imagine him shooting over 35 percent. I’m done being fooled by offseason shooting drills. There is some reason for optimism, however: Kanter shot 46 percent on midrange shots last season, which is in the 76th percentile among bigs, per Cleaning the Glass. He is also a career 41 percent shooter from the long mid-range area.

Kanter is still a black hole on defense and I’ve given up hope for improvement on that end. He only blocked one percent of opponents’ shot attempts when on the floor, good for the 29th percentile among bigs. He’s as slow as the Brooklyn-bound R train on a weekend night when he guards the pick-and-roll. Point guards lick their lips when they get him on the switch. He tends to get caught in between, not knowing whether to hedge up hard or sag off. He’s indecisive in those moments, and when he is decisive, he tends to overplay whichever he chooses; hedging too hard and not being able to recover back, or dropping too low and allowing an open mid-range shot.

He’s a plodding and ultimately flawed center who will throw an occasional monkey wrench in the opponent’s game plan. Even if he’s not part of the Knicks’ long-term plans (he’s not), he’ll certainly provide some entertainment this season.

Mitchell Robinson

I’m convinced Mitchell Robinson is made of rubber. There’s no other explanation for it. He just extends his arms over everybody and gobbles up everything in sight. Basketballs, other limbs, whatever is in his way. He’s galloping around the court stealing souls with vicious blocks and catching bodies finishing off lobs on the other end.

He has all the tools to become a major problem in the league at 7’1″ with a 7’4″ wingspan and a rare athleticism. He’s an NBA talent right out of the gate.

He just has to work through some mistakes before he can get any serious playing time. The first thing that’s going to keep him tethered to the bench is his propensity for fouling. Although Robinson was the first big man off the bench for Fizdale in the preseason game against the Wizards, he won’t be able to stay on the floor long if he can’t stop fouling guys down low. He had three fouls in 16 minutes in the first preseason game and four fouls in 10 minutes in the second.

He got absolutely manhandled by Kanter on the block during the Knicks open scrimmage and clearly needs to work on post defense against thicker guys, but players like Kanter are increasingly becoming a rarity in the modern NBA. And as Fiz pointed out, Robinson will have the Turk to practice defending all season.

M-Rob doesn’t know how to properly set screens yet. He slips picks too early to dart to the rim, and his hips are never in the right place. I hate to say it, but Joakim Noah could have been a great guy to teach Robinson the nuances of screen-setting. Kanter isn’t the dude who’s going to make a difference for Mitch in that department either, not known as an expert screen-setter himself. It’ll have to be Fiz’s developmental staff.

Robinson needs to work on his pick-and-roll defense, but he does display a great feel for showing out on guards. He can cover so much ground that even if he over-hedges, it only takes him a single light-speed stride to recover. He’s sloppy and jumpy as a help defender, but has a solid understanding of the distances he can cover, which is not exactly a teachable trait. He is way longer than guys expect too, which has led to a few blocked three-pointers, and shots opposing players have to arc way higher than anticipated to get off.

Mitchell Robinson plays extremely hard. He’s all over the court at all times. His insatiable motor and enthusiasm will earn him minutes with the team. And he doesn’t back down either; just ask Markieff Morris.

The front office and coaching staff clearly recognize the talent they have on their hands with M-Rob. Though it would make sense to get him major minutes in Westchester for conditioning, learning the basics of staying his ground, and free-throw shooting, that ship has probably sailed. He’s earned the right to play out those mistakes against NBA talent. I envision him starting out with 10-15 minutes a night backing up Kanter as a rim runner, and if he is able to put it together, maybe he usurps Kanter as the starter by season’s end.

Also, he may be the only NBA player not named Giannis who can dunk from the opposite free-throw line on one dribble.

Noah Vonleh

If Zach Lowe hasn’t given up on Noah Vonleh yet, neither should you.

It took everything in me not to overreact to watching Noah Vonleh give it to the Wizards backup bigs (minus getting stuffed by Jason Smith). His stroke looked nice, albeit a little jerky, he played aggressively, and showed off some surprising 1-on-1 dribble moves. He was quicker than I remembered from the few games I saw him play last season.

Vonleh’s scouting report reads pretty much exactly as when he came out of college. He’s a ferocious rebounder with a good eye for angles in which the ball will come off the rim. He’s a competitor, will throw down some massive dunks, and has something of a touch around the rim. His shooting metrics through his career have been horrid, never finishing with an eFG percentage above the 36th percentile among bigs in any of his four seasons. But he’s only 23, so there’s still hope for improvement in that area. And he’s never going to lose that 7’3″ wingspan.

Yes, I know there wasn’t a defender in sight in that last clip.

He’s not very aggressive in looking for his own shots, having been assisted on 57 percent of his shots last year, in the 88th percentile among bigs. And he lacks something of an on-court awareness and feel for his own skills, regardless of his motor.

He oozes physical tools, just like many of the other former lottery picks the new-look Knicks have taken chances on. He fits into the organizational philosophy and should get a very serious look this season, especially since the Knicks depth in real big men is a weak point.

Fizdale has complimented Vonleh’s drive through training camp and he has been described as the type of guy who have wanted nothing more than to improve his craft since high school.

This, from an Indy Star pre-draft profile, warmed my heart.

“Even when his family visited Disney World, Noah Vonleh, then 14, wouldn’t compromise — he wanted his mother to find him a gym. ‘There was no vacation without a gym, said Vin Pastore, Vonleh’s AAU coach. ‘There was nothing without a basketball.’”

Those are the type of guys you want to build an organizational culture with.

He is visibly leaner than last season and could end up seeing regular rotation minutes around 15-20 a night if the cards fall right for him. We could also see a trial period before he ends up tied to the bench for chunks of the season.

A fun cherry-picked stat: Only two players boasted a higher per 36 combo than his 10.9 points, 12.8 rebounds and 0.8 threes made in 2017–18: Joel Embiid and DeMarcus Cousins.

Luke Kornet

Kornet has the smoothest stroke of any Knicks big not from Latvia. He shot 37 percent from deep in 20 games with the Knicks last season. He’s a pretty one-dimensional player, with 60 percent of his shots last season coming from behind the arc.

He’s a not-so-athletic string bean with subpar footspeed who can’t bang with the bigs down low. But he tries hard on defense and does get some blocks due to his length. He blocked 2.2 percent of shots last season, which is in the 71st percentile among big men. But he was mostly playing against backups.

He should see 10 or so minutes a night, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him fall out of the rotation if Robinson or Vonleh make some strides.

Isaiah Hicks

The only redeeming quality I’ve seen in Isaiah Hicks is his Yabusele-sized booty. It’s good for bumping guys trying to get around a screen and good for boxing out.

If a big butt is the only thing going for him, I don’t even know why he’s on the roster. He got bullied by a guy named Devin Robinson in the preseason. I don’t expect him to get much playing time. He should be released to make room for a fully-guaranteed Vonleh or Trier contract.

I suspect Hicks has a nice career in China ahead of him.

Kevin Knox

There’s a lot of flexibility with how the Knicks are going to use Knox this season. He’ll get most of his minutes at the 3 or 4, but regardless of where he’s officially listed, he’s going to be playing a variety of roles in different sets. He can run around screens and hit mid-range shots or spot up from the corner, much like he did at Kentucky. He can initiate the offense as the trigger man from the high post with his quick first step. He’s been working on pick-and-roll ball handling, which he’ll get plenty of chances to do off weak side swings if the point guard doesn’t see anything in an initial action.

Knox looks significantly bulkier in his preseason action than he did in Summer League. It’s clear he’s been hitting the weight room. He might still struggle initially with guarding stronger 4’s if they take him down low. We don’t have much footage of him defending in the post, but he certainly has the speed and length to cover the quicker forwards off the catch, if he could maximize efficiency with his footwork.

Knox was actively crashing the boards in his first preseason action. He notched 10 in 26 minutes in the first game and four in 22 minutes in the second. I liked seeing Kanter cede the defensive glass to him so Knox could get out running. He scored three baskets going coast-to-coast against the Wizards. The Knicks finished 29th in the league in fast break points last season, per NBA Stats. Knox at the 4 with runners around him should get the lead out, even if the guy trailing the play to the top of the key is sigh Kanter.

Face the Facts

The Knicks’ big man rotation will be weak this year as we await the return of our kingly Latvian. There will be very little resistance in the paint, as we have zero accomplished shot blockers on the team. Mitchell Robinson will make some spectacular blocks, but won’t be a consistently positive defensive force until he nails down some fundamentals.

The Knicks will mix and match tons of different lineups, and we should see a plethora of players getting experimental “big man” minutes. But instead of crying about how poor the on-court product is, let’s stay focused on the incremental steps our players take this season. I can’t wait to see what Knox, Robinson, and Vonleh can do.