Mike Cortez’s Knicks Draft Board returns to more broadly explore the back half of the top 10 and lottery prospects, including UNC’s Nassir Little and Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson.
For the past month and change, our focus has been on the cream of the crop. The inability to win games has granted the Knicks the luxury of planning for a top-five pick. As of this writing, they hold a two and a half game “lead” on the Suns for the worst record in the league, mitigating their floor to fifth overall should they fall in the lottery. That’s made scouting potential draft picks easy.
Recent developments have given us reason to widen our lens. There are reports that Frank Ntilikina will be available on draft night. Ideally, if Frank must go, it would be as part of an Anthony Davis blockbuster, but the team is reportedly looking for a first-round pick, which could also be thrown into an offer for AD.
The top five of this draft has sorted itself out. Until the top guys start playing meaningful basketball again, which starts this week, there is not much to report. With some extra time on our hands, now is as good a time as any to focus on the other guys.
Today they get their proper attention—and ranking.
As with the guys at the top of the board, best player available above all, but there are some exceptions. What we know about the current Knick roster is the front office likes Dennis Smith Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, Damyean Dotson, Kevin Knox, and (forces vomit back down) Emmanuel Mudiay. That should shift top priority to wing depth, but given the talent deprivation, fit should not be the primary focus.
Let’s get to know the other guys.
Current Record: 13-54, 15th in Eastern Conference
Projected Draft Pick: 1st overall
Chance at #1 Pick: 14%
Pick Floor: 5th overall
Guard, Murray State
Hold on, let’s talk some Ja for a moment. Unlike his peers, he played his conference tourney last week. Morant also went through his first big test, playing back to back games in front of the national audience. To heighten the stakes, this was likely Morant’s only chance to play in the NCAA tournament, giving him an opportunity to prove himself against the best.
As he has done with everything this season, he dominated. Both performances highlighted his awareness of the situation. In his semi-final game against Jacksonville State, Morant knew when to take over, and knew when to drop the ball off to a teammate. He hit the game winner to advance to take on Belmont in the final.
Against Belmont, he realized his team needed him to take over the scoring, which he did—finishing with 36 points to carry Murray State to their second straight tournament.
Up next for Ja is a chance to become even more of a household name.
Wing, Texas Tech
The Other Guys
De’Andre Hunter has had the benefit of longevity on some radars. Had he come out last year, Hunter would have been an ideal second-round target. He decided to return to Virginia, where he played an integral role in one of the nation’s best defenses.
This season he is shaping up to be the Mikal Bridges of this lottery: the older guy of the bunch, but an optimal 3-and-D plug-in player who can start from day one.
Hunter was promoted to the starting unit this season after coming off the bench as a freshman. His defensive impact has remained consistent with added responsibility, flexing a 91.7 Defensive Rating. He is an instinctive defender who rarely fouls (averages 1.9 personal fouls per game) and can guard positions 1 through 4.
Offense was the key question mark with Hunter heading into the season. However, he has put those concerns to bed with an improved game. Hunter improved shooting numbers across the board, but his sharpest improvement came beyond the arc. He is shooting 47.3 percent from three, up 5.5 percent from his freshman average—not to mention he increased his three-point attempts.
His performance against Duke was sound evidence for Hunter’s pro potential. He is ridiculously athletic and can use that athleticism to glide to the rim.
The Knicks could plug Hunter in at shooting guard or small forward from day one. His defensive aptitude makes for a nice pairing with Mitchell Robinson. His ability to slash on offense or catch-and-shoot from the corners makes him the type of guy you want to pair with Dennis Smith Jr.
Hunter should already be on the Knicks’ radar if they were to fall to five. But if the chance to flip Frank arises and the return pick is used to take Hunter, then New York’s GM Scott Perry would receive worthy praise.
Shame on me for not including Brandon Clarke on any prior board.
Clarke is the best player in college you haven’t heard of. March Madness will finally give Clarke his proper stage, but until then, allow me to introduce one of the most dominant players in college basketball, as SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell eloquently explains in greater detail.
The numbers on their own are impressive: 16.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 1.2 steals. Even more impressive is Clarke’s desire to get better. After two strong seasons for San Jose State he decided to transfer to Gonzaga, a choice based heavily in their ability to develop players and winning culture.
Since arriving at Spokane, Clarke has vigorously worked to fill the only real hole in his game, his jumper. His free throw percentage is up to 68.5 percent (he shot 57.2 percent his sophomore season at San Jose State), proof that progress is being made. Right now he mainly operates inside the paint, but continued confidence in his jumper will allow him to open up his range.
The only issue Clarke can’t fix is his age. For draft purposes, he is a little long in the tooth at 22 years old. Age was not a factor with Trier, an undrafted flyer the Knicks took who has firmly entrenched himself into the team’s core, nor should it be for Clarke.
What Knicks brass should obsess over is the defensive potential of a frontline of Mitchell Robinson and Clarke. Dreams of Zion and Mitch forming a swat team can still be fulfilled with Clarke; he’s had a block in all but three games this season. Against Duke he had a few weak side swats and is more than capable as a help defender.
Brandon Clarke has been a defensive force for @ZagMBB this year. Blocking shots at the rim, in transition, & along the perimeter.— Dribble Handoff (@dribblehandoff) November 26, 2018
If his pace continues, he'll become just the 9th player in the last 25 years to average 15+ PPG & 4+ BPG. Joining the likes of Duncan & Emeka Okafor. pic.twitter.com/LdYpt8596w
Clarke is the type of player you can live with getting in return for Ntilikina; he is the type of player who adds to the winning culture the Knicks are trying to build.
Wing, North Carolina
This is the true meaning of a project.
Nassir Little was once considered a top-five pick. Now he has slipped as low as the teens in some mock drafts.
Why? He’s done next to nothing in his freshman year at UNC. They used to say Dean Smith was the only person who could stop Michael Jordan—could the same be true of Roy Williams and Nas?
Little’s one shining moment this season came against Virginia Tech. In that game, he showcased everything we salivated over in his high school mixtape.
It was the only time he seemed comfortable on the court. For most of the season Little has looked like a man with no country. Roy Williams has kept his play around the 20-minute mark (18.4 minutes a game), which as likely added to Little’s struggle to grasp the system.
Selecting Little would be a leap of faith. The hope, if Little were to end up in New York, is that he learned from the bench at UNC and will benefit from Fizdale’s freedom. Fizdale ripped the chains off Noah Vonleh, metaphorically speaking, and Vonleh has become closer to the player we thought he was coming out of Indiana. The same could be true for Nas.
A strong March Madness could give us a clearer picture as to who Nas is. But for now, he remains someone that could stand to benefit from the strong development staff in Westchester.
Plus, I mean, his name is Nas. Where does he belong if not New York?
Darius Garland held more appeal before Dennis Smith Jr. was added to the mix. Garland had the look of a top player, but his college career was cut short at five games due to a torn meniscus. He withdrew from Vanderbilt to prepare for the draft, where his stock remains high.
Should fate land Garland in New York, he’d be an adrenaline shot to an anemic offense.
Garland shot 47.8 percent from deep, and 53.7 percent on the floor in five games at Vanderbilt. The Knicks, who continue to toil near the bottom in three-point percentage, ranking 27th in the league at 34.0 percent, have had trouble generating offense outside.
Playmaking is another key hole on the current roster which Garland can fill. His handles are strong. He is crafty enough to get to the rim or pull up. He can shoot from deep, off the dribble, or off a spot-up. Darius would be a great leader for the second unit, or lead guard should the team suddenly decide to pivot from DSJ.
The main negative for Garland is his size. At a wiry 6’3″, Garland is limited to playing one position. Smith is also 6’3″, so the two would not have much overlap given the height they’d be giving up to the opponent. Playmaking and outside shooting remain a top priority, but unless Garland slips, the team would be better served addressing playmaking at the wing.
When people talk about Gonzaga this season, Rui Hachimura’s name inevitably surfaces. Billed the great Japanese hope, Hachimura has been a constant offensive force for the ‘Zags. He shoots a strong 61.3 percent from the field, operating mostly from the midrange and at the rim.
Rui can pour in points from his comfort zone, averaging 20.6 per game. The next step in his development is extending his offense behind the arc. He is shooting 46.7 percent from 3, yet he has not attempted more than three 3s in a game.
The good news is Hachimura can be trusted to develop his game. In three seasons at Gonzaga, Hachimura has steadily improved. This year is his first season as a starter, and he has responded by leading the team in points per game, while shooting a career-best from the field.
For the Knicks, Hachimura could be an intriguing offensive complement to play alongside Mitch. Rui has not flashed anything to warrant a belief he can become an elite shot blocker or rebounder, but he has the foundation to space the floor. Rui is another name to keep tabs on should the Knicks land another first round pick.
This is the first season in recent memory Kentucky doesn’t have a guaranteed lottery pick. Keldon Johnson is the only chance coach John Calipari has at extending his streak of lottery picks to 12 straight. This year’s UK team is unique in the sense that they do not have that clear-cut alpha. Even towards the end of last year, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander slid into that role.
P.J. Washington figures to take on that role for the Wildcats’ tourney run, but he will certainly need help from Johnson, who arrived at Lexington as the top UK freshman. Johnson has games where he plays like a top guy (21 points in a win vs. UNC), and others where you forget he exists (zero points in 27 minutes vs. Georgia).
Johnson is the type of player to target if the Knicks were to acquire another first-round pick outside the lottery. The appeal with Johnson starts and ends with his three-point shot. He is shooting 39 percent at Kentucky on 3.9 attempts per game, and is more than capable of putting the ball on the floor and pulling up off the dribble.
The irony about Johnson is he has a little bit of Malik Monk and Kevin Knox. He has the tools to erupt like Monk—he’s UK’s most consistent perimeter scorer—however, he possesses the same passiveness that kept Knox from being a flat-out star. Johnson figures to fit a bench role to start.
His ability to shoot will have a similar effect to what we have seen from John Jenkins. Playing him off someone like Trier would space the floor nicely for the second unit. With the opportunity to develop at his own pace, Johnson can grow into a more consistent role as a floor spacer.
The Draft Board will return…