In the first edition of our sprawling, biweekly series previewing June’s NBA draft, Mike Cortez examines the contested field and the realistic options for the Knicks.
Tanking season—better known as TANK SZN—came early this year. Typically we make it to February before the Knicks have beaten us into submission. We took our whippings watching Kristaps Porzingis lay on the floor holding his knee. At 10-39, this is the best chance the team has had at the top pick since 2015, the year they drafted KP.
The lottery rules have changed for the better since 2015, when the Knicks actually dropped from two to four. Now the bottom three teams have an equal chance at the top pick—14 percent to be exact. The payoff for being an atrocity of an organization this year instead is limiting a descent in the order.
The team with the worst record has a 47.9 percent chance to fall to fifth. The second-worst team has a 20 percent chance to fall to six, and the third worst has a 33 percent chance to drop to six or seven. These nuances are key for a draft that takes a noticeable talent drop after the top five.
Scott Perry seems comfortable picking in any slot. He did a phenomenal job in 2018, first with the selection of Kevin Knox at nine, then snagging Mitchell Robinson at 36, and wrapping up with Allonzo Trier immediately after the draft. His prowess for picking talent, coupled with the Knicks’ broad need to add the best player available, makes his upcoming 2019 pick a walk in the park.
The biggest issue Perry and company should want to address is playmaking. Offense has been hard to come by (105.1 Offensive Rating), and lack of ball movement has been the key culprit; the team ranks dead last in the league in assists per game with 19.8.
There are capable individual scorers on the roster—Tim Hardaway Jr., Trier, Knox, Porzingis—but no one to bring it all together. The last time the Knicks had someone closely resembling this was in 2013 with a semi-retired Jason Kidd. Luckily there are a few guys that can fill this nagging void.
That is why we are bringing back the TKW Draft Board. If you did not follow along in 2018, it was an updating board that helped us focus on the guys most likely to don the orange and blue.
Rankings were based on talent of course, but availability was heavily factored in. For example, Luka Doncic was always the best prospect available, yet Mikal Bridges was the guy who stood atop our 2018 board due to the Knicks’ place in the lottery.
They do not have that problem this year. If the pong balls bounce right, Perry could end up with first dibs. Whose name should we preparing to hear on draft night? Let’s take a look.
Current Record: 10-39, 14th in Eastern Conference
Projected Draft Pick: 2nd overall
Chance at #1 Pick: 14%
Three months ago, Zion was just a dunker; now, he is a mortal lock to be the first name called on June 20, 2019. Williamson’s rapid evolution from mixtape legend to can’t-miss pick is fueled by his desire to prove he is more than a dunker.
Don’t get it twisted, he is still the Human House of Highlights…
— Tankathon.com (@tankathon) January 6, 2019
…But he is also great at the other things.
When you watch him play, you are not watching a guy who dunks the ball every chance he gets—although he has no quarrels about yamming it on your whole team.
His high school days looking like Will Smith at Bel-Air Academy gave us reason to doubt if he could continue to dominate against better talent. The answer was a resounding yes.
If Draymond Green were exposed to acute gamma radiation, this would be the result. The star-studded cast of Duke has not suppressed Zion, but set him free.
Zion—whose already become known as a mononymous baller—has taken on the Draymond role for the Blue Devils, doing everything, and he’s done it with exceptional efficiency. So far this season, Zion is averaging 21.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.8 blocks. He is shooting an astonishing 73.3 percent inside the three-point line. He is on pace to shatter the NCAA single-season record for PER, sitting at 41.2 at the moment.
His jumper is the only “chink” in his armor. His three-point percentage is poor (27 percent), but it’s nothing that cannot be improved. For context, he and R.J. Barrett shoot the same percentage from the free throw line. There are no questions about Barrett’s shot, and the questions around Williamson’s shot are something he is actively trying to put on ice.
This sequence succinctly summarizes what I’m talking about:
The craziest part about Zion’s collegiate carnage has been his ability to roam freely in the typically crowded confines of the college floor. When he gets to the NBA, there will be a whole lot more space to operate, possibly unlocking a whole new level of Zion.
We saw firsthand with Kevin Knox the benefit of extra space. The thought of Zion gliding in the open floor is frightening. He can jumpstart fast breaks at the drop of a hat with plays similar to this.
He may not be a floor general per se; however, his surprisingly sound passing and handle make him a viable playmaker. There can be stretches where he runs the offense; his attacking playing style should mesh well with the three-point shooting of Hardaway Jr., Knox, and Porzingis, leading to open lanes or plenty of drive-and-kicks.
At 6’7”, with his athleticism, he could theoretically be used at just about any position, although power forward should be his main residence. That forces the Knicks to play Porzingis at his rightful spot at center while keeping Knox at the 3 where he feels most comfortable.
Zion’s versatility pushes the position-less agenda, while also allowing Fizdale the opportunity to get downright frightening with defensive lineups. The thought of a Zion, KP, Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, and Mitchell Robinson lineup gives me life.
These are just a few reasons why we should all be praying that the ping pong balls bounce the Knicks’ way.
Guard, Murray State
The Knicks have not held back on shooting for the fences with draft picks. Their last three lotto picks (KP, Knox, and Frank) have all been high risk, high reward. Ja Morant was initially in this same category due to his perceived lower level of competition. His strong outings against Alabama and Auburn swiftly put those concerns to bed.
Morant is the best point guard prospect and could end up being the best player in this class. The South Carolina native flew under the college powerhouse radar, but he is no secret to NBA scouts.
He is averaging 24.1 points, 10.5 assists, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game. He is shooting a strong 51.9 percent from the field, including a respectable 33.3 percent from deep, all improvements from his freshman season. Against SIU-Edwardsville, Morant became the first player in D-1 history to score 40 points, tally 10 assists and five steals in a single game.
Jah is the Rastafarian name for God; could Ja be the proper name for Point God? If there is one team starving for such a player, it’s the New York Knicks. The current group of Knick guards includes two players who have no future with the team (Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay), one who could already be the capable facilitator, but is also the most likely to be traded (Ntilikina), and a potential sixth man of the future (Trier).
None of these guys have proven to have what it takes to play the basketball Fizdale wants. Morant offers Fizdale anything he could desire from a point guard and then some. Ja is a basketball savant and has been like that his whole life.
His play mirrors a more young Russell Westbrook—how ironic is it that Durant’s favorite college guy is eerily similar to his longtime partner?—as this very Russ highlight will show you.
Those insane hops aren’t God given. Morant worked his ass off, training with his father to improve a then-small frame. With his larger frame—6’3” and 170 pounds—those hops have allowed him to baptize anyone foolish enough to get between him and the rim.
It has also led to some highlight reel blocks.
Fizdale worked really well with Mike Conley, who is best known for his cerebral play. Morant can offer Fiz a redux of his Conley partnership. Of all the prospects, he represents the greatest fit for Fizdale.
The biggest issue with the Knicks has been the inability to find a maestro to keep the talented scorers on their roster happy. He could play alongside a high-volume shooter like Timmy or thrive next to the defensive-minded Ntilikina. His ability to score in bunches or drop dimes like he broke a coin jar make him a malleable piece to the puzzle.
The potential arrival of Ja could finally give the Knicks the point guard they never had and, more importantly, accelerate the rebuild. A player with Morant’s potential on a rookie deal allows the front office to allocate funds elsewhere.
As The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor pointed out last year, there is a huge incentive to having a point guard on a rookie deal. The Cavs were able to afford the LeBron return thanks to Kyrie Irving being on his rookie deal at the time.
Instead of spending big on Irving or Kemba Walker, Morant can come at a much cheaper price while helping the team remain attractive to big free agents like Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis. Morant might not bring the fanfare that Zion will (although his popularity has been on a steady rise lately), but he may be the best fit for where the Knicks want to go.
Is it possible that R.J. Barrett is now underrated? He has seen a small fall from consensus top pick to third banana, thanks to the two supernovas from Carolina. This time last year, Barrett was expected to be the belle of the ball in 2019. Things have changed, but it’s had nothing to do with his play; he is the safest choice among the elite 3 in this draft.
Barrett already has the mindset, body, and skill to hit the ground running in the league. Coach K leans on R.J., a lot. He is competent in all phases of the game, a big reason Coach K relies on him so heavily.
Since ACC play has kicked off, Barrett has averaged 37.8 minutes per game. With those heavy minutes, R.J. has been able to keep his normal production, but has been left open to more criticism than his superstar running mate.
The main gripe with R.J. is his gunner mentality. His greatest trait is his relentlessness, which is a gift and a curse as guys like Kobe can tell you. There are some moments where his Mamba mentality goes too far. In the waning minutes of a loss to Gonzaga, Barrett was taking on the world when he didn’t have to. On the other hand, his relentlessness has led to some impressive performances, most notably his 30-point outing against Virginia.
What Barrett brings to the table is a professional mentality. Steve Nash being his godfather gives me unjustified faith he will pan out. He plays the 1, 2, and 3 for Duke and has the frame (6’7”, 6’10” wingspan) to do the same at next level. His main residence should be the 2—too much time at the 3 could lead to Andrew Wiggins 2.0.
R.J. the person is exactly what the Knicks need in the locker room. Concerns with New York’s effort have come up this season, something that you never have to worry about with Barrett. On the court, he might be too much of an overlap with Tim Hardaway Jr., the team’s resident high-volume scorer. There’s only one ball to go around, and with Timmy, KP, and Knox, R.J. might not get as many touches as he would like.
A selection of Barrett with Timmy still on the roster is where fans would have to mildly be concerned. Barrett can spend some time at the 3, but his best use is when he can impose his will, at least until his shot becomes more consistent—right now he is hitting threes at a meager 31.1 percent.
He will make his bones at the rim early in his career. Against bigger 3s, this can lead to some ugly stat lines. But if Timmy is gone—the team has made him available for trade—slot R.J. in at the 2 where he can use his size to score down low.
Frank Ntilikina supporters should be Barrett’s strongest allies. A selection of Barrett heightens the likelihood of Frank sticking around. Barrett’s offensive-minded, but defensively competent playing style is the perfect complement to Ntilikina in the backcourt.
Romeo Langford represents an intriguing option if the Knicks were to fall outside the top three. Langford came into Indiana with a lot of hype thanks to his prolific high school career. He ranks third all-time on the Indiana high school scoring list with 3,002 points, and his hometown park is named in his honor.
Langford has remained a scorer in college. He’s been the only Hoosier to score double-digits in every contest, according to Fox Sports 1, and leads all Big Ten freshmen in scoring at 17.2 per game. At the rim he is as good as it gets, shooting 59.8 percent inside the three-point line. Beyond the arc he has struggled mightily, shooting an icy 21.1 percent.
To get the optimist’s view of Langford, his 28-point showing against Maryland is required viewing.
He single-handedly kept the Hoosiers in the game by imposing his will on offense. His soft touch on the rim was on full display, as well as his ability to get to the line. It was like watching everything the Knicks wanted in Mudiay.
Similar to Barrett, Langford would be a nice complement alongside Frank. His driving ability and general offensive savviness can play well off Ntilikina’s passiveness. Langford also has the size to play 1 through 3, which makes him a valuable piece for Fizdale’s vision of versatility.
Cam Reddish has suffered from being the third banana at Duke. Compared to R.J. and Zion, Cam has been somewhat of a letdown. He is averaging 12.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 2.1 steals. Those are not exactly the numbers you can get amped about.
His marksmanship was his greatest appeal heading into Duke, and remains the thing that will keep him on the court.
Reddish’s smooth jumper gives us reason to expect his 33.1 three-point percentage will improve over time. The main concern, however, is his motor. While R.J. and Zion go Super Saiyan the full game, it’s easy to forget about Cam sometimes. It’s similar to what Kevin Knox did last year at Kentucky.
But like Knox, Reddish has his moments where he reminds us he is legit.
Opportunity could be holding Reddish back at the moment. The Knicks can offer that, but his overlap with Knox is reminiscent of the situation currently cramping his production at Duke.
Names to Keep Tabs On
Guard, Texas Tech
Wing, North Carolina
Kevin Porter Jr.
Stay tuned for the second edition, coming after the trade deadline!