By not trading for Donovan Mitchell, the Knicks showed a commitment to their young players. But are they up to the task of development?
Within Knicks fandom, it can be easy to fixate on the youngest players on the roster as being wellsprings of limitless potential. Whether it be Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, or even Alonzo Trier, there’s nothing the fanbase loves more than to “stan” young players as the change the franchise needs. Homegrown stars have been few and far between for the Knicks in the modern era, and the fandom has clamored for anyone that could potentially fit that bill, however unlikely that may be.
It is easy to become cynical. After all, there’s good reason to hold to skepticism – in fact, for years, a healthy pessimism was the safest psychological refuge of Knicks fans. RJ Barrett breaking the Charlie Ward curse is cause for celebration, but also a stark reminder of all the players over the years that we hoped would do the same.
One of the major criticisms of Tom Thibodeau is his lack of playing time for the younger players, so should we expect that to change this year?
All across Knicks Twitter, and even on this website, you will find legions of fans of Obi Toppin or Immanuel Quickley proclaiming them as future all-stars, or people who think that Rokas Jokubaitis or Deuce McBride are the point guards of the future. Is there any legitimacy to those beliefs?
Let’s take a look at some of the recent history and what opportunities we can realistically expect from the young players on this roster. With Johnnie Bryant by his side, will Tom Thibodeau finally “play the kids” and give young players a chance to prove themselves?
One of the major takeaways from this summer’s Donovan Mitchell trade debacle is that the young players’ trade value may not be as high as the Knicks organization feels and is certainly not how Knicks fans feel, a direct result of their limited opportunities preventing them from gaining cache league-wide.
If you are basing your value of the young Knickerbockers on Jazz trade rumors and nothing else, you would have Quentin Grimes as your top prospect on this team. Ultimately, there are 11 players under the age of 25 under contract for the Knicks, a number that ranges from presumed Westchester Knicks like Feron Hunt and Trevor Keels to players locked into new big contracts such as Mitchell Robinson and Barrett.
We know that guys like RJ and Mitch will get opportunities, and hopefully continue to grow and develop, but not everyone’s path forward is as straightforward. Even when looking at players older than RJ like Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley who are entering their third years, there are many variables in play.
One of the biggest question marks going into this season is about roster management. Thibs is not known for expansive rotations or ample opportunities for younger players. When you look at this roster, you can see exactly what young players are being chopped out of the rotation. Jericho Sims is a great example of a young player whom fans would love to see more based off of the glimpses of Summer League magic and solid play last season.
There was a world where Mitchell Robinson’s Knicks tenure came to an end this summer and Sims was given a bulk of the opportunity at center with a journeyman big joining him and flexibility with small ball lineups to space the floor. However, that is not the world in which we live – not only has Mitch re-signed but another young center was brought into the fold with the signing of Isaiah Hartenstein. This means that barring injury or controversy, Jericho Sims will spend the bulk of this season in the G League with little opportunity on the main roster.
While this was a front office decision, it aligns with the typical Thibodeau trajectory for growth and development: lack of opportunity. It doesn’t take a genius to see that he will almost always play veterans over young prospects, after all, Taj Gibson’s late-stage career is a testament to that. The rotations in his time in New York have displayed that tendency time and time again, with perhaps the most jarring example being his insistence on starting Elfrid Peyton and Alec Burks over Immanuel Quickley, regardless of how productive Quickley was in his minutes. Whether you are the biggest IQ stan or a doubter, it would be nice to see him be given a chance to run the offense. It is impossible to say whether he can or cannot hold his own as a point guard if he is not given an opportunity to play.
It is the age-old dilemma that millions of recent graduates discover each year: you cannot get a job without experience, but you also cannot get experience without a job. When looking through recent rosters, it is impossible to distinguish the difference between players’ not playing because they weren’t good and players not becoming good because they didn’t play. It is impossible to develop as a young player if you are not given opportunities.
Even the chances in Westchester do not reflect accurately the roles players will play in the NBA nor do they have a direct correlation between successes and opportunities. Deuce McBride in his rookie year had 20 assist performances and 40-point games in the G-League, but it did not impact how much he played under Tom Thibodeau. Given a revamped backcourt with the addition of Jalen Brunson, will there be room for Deuce McBride and his hard-nosed defense in New York?
Even if you look a little further back into the modern Knicks prospects over the last few coaches, players did not take the leap you would like from year one to two, nor from year two to three. Those leaps did not come for numerous reasons, but one likely factor is that both Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina saw their minutes decrease and roles destabilize from their rookie to sophomore season. Even with more successful Knicks rookies like Quickley and Robinson, they only increased by about three minutes per game.
Robinson and Quickley are great examples because there has been some stasis in their growth after successful rookie seasons. Quickley had a nearly identical statistical season from year one to year two, and, alongside a protracted cold streak to start the season, a lot of that may come from the fact that his role did not increase whatsoever. So, if you are looking for a breakout third season for IQ, it is possible, but less likely if he remains stagnant with his 25-minute per game type of role where he sees less opportunity from a coach that does not trust him to run the offense.
Obi Toppin is an interesting comparison to the two aforementioned prospects because while his minutes increased 64% between year one and two, he still got fewer minutes in his sophomore season than Robinson, Quickley, Ntilikina, or Knox did in their rookie seasons. While he played an extremely efficient and effective 17 minutes per game last season, that number is still a minuscule sliver of opportunity. It is hard to imagine this opportunity presents itself more significantly with the current roster construction and coaching philosophy. Thibodeau has so far been so unwilling to modernize and go small with Obi at the 5, given that he is a rather unnatural fit on the court with Julius Randle. This is a problem because Obi’s development not only passes the eye test with flying colors but is also backed up by the stats. He nearly doubled all of his statistical production last year, as well as improving his efficiency and aggression offensively.
This is where the coaching, Johnnie Bryant in particular, comes into play because while the opportunity may not always be there, the growth and improvement have been exciting to watch. There is a reason that much of the fandom would love to see Julius Randle traded in order to give Obi the opportunity they feel he deserves. Whether he does or does not have the All-Star potential some fans may see, he needs to be given a chance to continue the growth trajectory that he is on, especially on a team not likely to make much noise in the postseason.
It’s not hard to imagine why teams would not be willing to trade for these players who are so unproven at this time. The one player that appeared to have the most trade value this summer was Summer League superstar: Quentin Grimes. Of all the players mentioned here and based on the roster at hand, Grimes should have the highest expectation in the fan base. Not only is he a perfect fit as a complementary piece that should shine next to RJ Barrett and Jalen Brunson because of his shooting and defense, but he also fills a hole that the team desperately needs at the wing. After trading Alec Burks this summer, this roster is nearly completely devoid of wings. Along with everybody’s favorite Frenchman, Evan Fournier, the complementary wings available are a list of two: Grimes and Cam Reddish. Reddish is another young player filled with potential, but Grimes will be the one given the opportunity and hopefully the chance to show growth that has been missing over the last 5 years of Knicks youngsters.
Unfortunately, Quentin Grimes’ impressive rookie season was cut short because of injuries, but if he can continue to shoot 38% from deep and increase his volume of shooting, there is absolutely going to be room for him on this roster. You would hope that Thibs is willing to give him a chance, especially considering his defensive prowess, but you can never count on that. Quentin Grimes’ next steps forward are clear, and becoming the starting three-and-D wing is a necessary development for him if he is going to be an important part of the team’s future plans.
The modern track record for the development of young Knicks players is disappointing, to say the least. It does not instill confidence in what this team can or will do with its young players. Earlier in the summer, I made the case for Feron Hunt and believe he can be a helpful role player on this team, but will he be given the opportunity? That remains to be seen.
With preseason coming up, we will get a chance to see what these young players look like after an offseason of growth and development, and hopefully impress the Knicks brass. At the end of the day, Tom Thibodeau is the one that calls the shots, and it will require him to show a level of flexibility in terms of creative rotations and roster management that he has rarely in his career shown. NBA champion and new Westchester Knicks coach Desagana Diop will also have an important role in the development of players like Sims, Keels, Feron Hunt, and Deuce McBride.
The growth and development will only present themselves if given the opportunity. If you are an optimist, it’s not hard to convince yourself that the kids will come into camp so improved that they give the coaching staff no chance but to play them. While I am not that level of optimist, it’s hard to deny that this is a largely young roster, which should hopefully take some control out of the hands of Tom Thibodeau. After trading Kemba Walker, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel, there will be more minutes for some of the younger players. How deep that goes and how many opportunities these players will be given will be proven in the upcoming months, but for now, all we can do is wait and see.