The Knicks are in a great spot, meaning the 2021 NBA Draft may revolve around finding diamonds in the rough in the first round.
I am happy to report that I have visited Tankathon only a handful of times this season. Over the past few years, Tankathon has been my de facto landing page during basketball season. Thankfully, things are different now. Julius Randle is an All-Star, R.J. Barrett is realizing his potential, Mitchell Robinson is Mitchell Robinson, and Immanuel Quickley is my new favorite guard out of Kentucky.
In the few instances I have run a Tankathon sim, it was at the expense of the Dallas Mavericks. Kristaps Porzingis has been a trainwreck in his second season as a Maverick, leaving the door open for that unprotected first in this year’s NBA draft as a mystery item with high upside. My instincts tell me Luka Doncic will see to it that the Mavs pick never reaches the top 10 again, pre-lottery.
Still, two firsts are rare territory for the Knicks, even if both may be in the teens. Multiple top-20 picks—not to mention a third pick just outside the first round—gives the front office flexibility to make moves. If a blockbuster deal for a superstar isn’t in the cards, perhaps a blockbuster for a top prospect in this class is. The top of the 2021 NBA Draft class is on par with the 2019 class and could have as much depth as the 2020 class.
For the Knicks, they can go a few different routes, which makes the early editions of these draft boards tricky. The first edition will be a broad-strokes approach to dip our toe in the water. As March Madness proceeds, and the Knicks’ playoff fate becomes more vivid, the board will begin to form.
Before we proceed to the board, two things to point out. First and foremost, draft position will be as fluid as ever. The only spot we know the Knicks won’t end up is in the top of the draft. However, either with their own pick or via the Mavs, it feels safe to assume one of those will come in the teens, so this initial board attempts to find a middle ground so to speak. As the placement of the picks becomes clear, we will have to say goodbye to some, and hello to others.
Secondly, if the Knicks do not make a major move at the trade deadline or prior to the NBA draft for a star player, they should consider packaging their surplus of picks to nab any of the following players: Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, Evan Mobley, Jonathan Kuminga, or Jalen Green. Any of those players possess the potential to make a significant impact from day one.
Now that we have covered the bases, let us move on to the board.
Current Draft Picks: 18, 20 (via Dallas), 32
Stats (per game): 12.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 49.2 FG%, 47.4 3P%, 80.4 FT%
Tom Thibodeau has had to make sacrifices whenever he made a point guard decision. Elfrid Payton is good at slashing, not so good at finishing, and god awful at shooting. Frank Ntilikina has grown into a bit of a sharpshooter, yet leaves a lot to be desired doing anything else on the offensive end.
Derrick Rose has been the closest to what Thibodeau wants in a lead guard. Even when Immanuel Quickley enters the starting lineup, Thibodeau will want a guy who can get to the rim, run an offense and defend well. How about a guy capable of all three?
Jaden Springer is capable of satisfying any point guard need. Thibodeau has shown an affection for combo guards, and Springer also checks that box, while being a solid prospect across the board. His 6-foot-4, 204-pound frame allows him to create his own destiny in college; that size will also allow him to do similar things at the next level.
Jaden Springer's combination of strength, footwork, dribble moves, and balance makes for really interesting creation. Just uniquely capable of getting exactly where he wants on the floor pic.twitter.com/teMJ0DNGoV
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) December 28, 2020
Springer complements his slashing and playmaking ability with a jumper you can believe in. The sample size is small, but Springer has connected on 18 of his 38 three-point attempts and the release looks nice.
Jaden Springer clean catch and shoot 3-point J.
Nice to see him finding his shot today a bit after struggling in the last few contests. pic.twitter.com/WEPywPpv8p
— Aram Cannuscio (@AC__Hoops) February 27, 2021
As most 18-year-olds do, Springer has had a variety of up and down performances scoring, but since becoming a consistent starter has averaged 16.6 points per game while shooting 46.4% from the floor and 40.9% from deep. The offensive versatility, as my TKW comrade Nick Carannante noted, makes him intriguing.
What makes Springer a can’t-miss for this iteration of the Knicks is his combo guard ability and his defense.
Jaden Springer defense, it's good pic.twitter.com/VXUVNi0v90
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) January 7, 2020
Jaden Springer active on defense, leads to basket. pic.twitter.com/yJ2fZXhySA
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) December 31, 2020
The first clip is from Springer’s high school days at powerhouse IMG Academy, the second from Tennessee. In both clips is a guy who knows how to use his size to overwhelm his opponent and turn defense into offense. That ability will ingratiate anyone to Thibodeau.
The Knicks have done a better job this season running after a defensive stop. Springer will fit right in with the current group and makes for a fun pairing with Quickley in the backcourt. Both are experienced playing on or off the ball, only Springer is a little bigger, which could help him take tougher defensive assignments down the line.
Even taking his adjustment period into account, Springer fits the team’s core. The front office will likely add a veteran guard to the roster anyway, possibly re-upping Rose, so Springer will not have to deal with the “point guard of the future” pressure that would come with playing for the Knicks.
Springer is simply good at basketball; certainly one of the better guards in this class. The only concern for the Knicks would be Springer being on the clock by the time they are up.
Stats (per game): 19.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 55.6 FG%, 46.3 3P%, 88.9 FT%
The forgotten feeling I want back in my life is rising with anticipation as someone spots up for three. Since Steve Novak left town that feeling has been dormant. The Knicks have not had a true sniper since Novak—unless you consider Marcus Morris a sharpshooter. It is a position sorely needed on this roster, and Corey Kispert is the long-term solution for which every fan should be rooting.
Kispert has improved his three-point shooting average in each of his four years at Gonzaga, shooting 46.3% from deep this season and 41.0% for his college career. He is undoubtedly the best shooter in this class and does not need a lot of space or time to get his shot off.
— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) February 26, 2021
He is a sniper in every sense; the shooting stroke alone is beautiful, but Kispert’s ability to knock down jumpers while stopping on a dime on the break is a game-changer. Not only can he drill a jumper from anywhere on the floor, but he can also put the ball on the floor if he’s run off the arc.
— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) March 9, 2021
Coming from the Gonzaga machine, it would not be surprising for Kispert to be a rookie in name, but a veteran in practice. Kispert could step in and take the spot currently held by Reggie Bullock as the floor-spacing shooter. Kispert has the requisite size to survive on the wing. Playing alongside plus defenders such as Barrett, Randle, and Robinson, Kispert could be hidden.
The points he gets torched for would not be enough to outweigh a guy who can erupt at a moment’s notice.
Stats (per game): 11.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 35.2 FG%, 27.0 3P%, 80.6 FT%
You know there had to be a Kentucky guy here. Expectations were sky-high for BJ Boston heading into his one-and-done tour in Lexington—expectations that fell considerably short. The Wildcats as a team failed to live up to Big Blue Nation standards, and Boston’s overall body of work also fails to meet the hype that surrounded him coming out of Sierra Canyon.
Boston struggled mightily early in the season, particularly during a stretch versus quality opponents including Kansas, Louisville, and UNC, shooting a chilly 32.8% from the field and 20.0% from three. When you watched Boston you saw two things: a player with all the scoring potential in the world, and a player who is still a work in progress, physically.
hello bj boston pic.twitter.com/oNbF847m1i
— Mike Cortez 🇵🇷 (@CortezEra) November 29, 2020
The source of Boston’s struggles is mainly physical, but he also ran into a common problem for a John Calipari player. Everyone who goes to UK is used to always having the ball in their hand on their high school teams; being shifted off-ball is a new reality to which some take longer to adjust. Tyrese Maxey had to do it, Quickley had to do it, Eric Bledsoe had to do it, and the list goes on forever.
The key difference between Boston’s experience and the others is that his point guard was also not physically ready. Devin Askew, Kentucky’s lead guard, was ineffective, to put it mildly. Terrence Clarke played seven games and took a powder, only worsening the situation, and the result was a forgettable freshman season from someone who was thought to be a top-five pick in this class.
That will not happen. Some mock drafts have Boston sliding down as far as 29th overall. Others believe Boston could return to Lexington for a second season. Calipari himself was very cryptic when asked about Boston returning, going off on a riff about guys like Quickley and P.J. Washington returning.
"Let me tell you why I stick with him…"
— UK Sports Network (@UKSportsNetwork) March 6, 2021
Thankfully for Boston and Calipari, New York’s Kenny Payne and the influx of former Wildcats will not let Boston get lost in the abyss. As I said, the scoring potential Boston possesses is among the best in the class, and once his body fills out he can become a lethal scorer.
Under the watchful eye of Payne and the wings of Quickley, Randle, and others, Boston could take his rookie season to bulk up. Calipari himself said that Boston’s problem is not about putting the work in, it’s physical limitations. Boston will feel right at home with a team that prides itself on staying in the gym.
The Knicks could have Boston spend the majority of his rookie season adding muscle and fine-tuning his game, either up with the main roster or in the G League. A similar plan worked wonders for former Wildcat Keldon Johnson, who the Spurs may or may not have given super solider serum this past offseason.
The team’s reluctance to utilize the G League is documented, specifically with Scott Perry, so it is not a foregone conclusion that Boston would spend the proper amount of time at Westchester. A new regime will hopefully right this wrong the team made with Kevin Knox. Boston would be a great trial run to show the effectiveness of developing while getting routine game reps.
The Knicks need a scoring punch on the wing but have the luxury of being patient. Kevin Knox has not worked out, and Ignas Brazdeikis does not seem to be gaining any traction to a main roster rotation spot. A bulked-up Boston can supply Thibodeau with a deadly wing scorer who can hit from anywhere on the floor, as the team continues its climb towards a perennial playoff team.
His practice playing off the ball will prove vital in the NBA, and sharing the floor with playmakers like Quickley, Randle, or Barrett will feel like night and day for Boston.
It can’t feel good to fall from a sure-fire lottery prospect to a mid-first-round pick. Boston’s disappointing season could be a blessing in disguise. He would be given attention in New York, and if everything plays out as it should, he could grow into a fan favorite.
Stats (per game): 20.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 39.1 FG%, 22.8 3PT%, 82.5 FT%
Elfrid Payton has shown that Thibodeau will live with a guard with a suspect shot if he can break down a defense and get to the rim. If that guard can also be the lead facilitator, all the better. That is why Auburn’s Sharife Cooper and the Knicks are already being talked about in the same sentence.
Diving into Cooper’s highlights makes me excited for March Madness.
Cooper has the ball on a string and relentlessly gets to the rack. He averages an impressive 8.6 free-throw attempts per game, where he shoots 82.5%. The ability to find his points through aggressive drives will endear him to Thibodeau and help take some playmaking responsibility off of Randle and Barrett.
The only true concerns with Cooper are his size—6’1″, 180 pounds—and his outside shooting. Those concerns, while valid, are outweighed by the spacing that Cooper can provide just on his ability to break the defense down. He is a smart passer who will find guys rolling to the rim or guys spotting up, and if all else fails, he can create for himself.
Brilliant pass from Sharife Cooper here in the P&R.
Is able to get the defense to bite on the corner swing pass because of his eyes. This is not a normal play from a young point guard playing his first college game. pic.twitter.com/wHyXQVMbcp
— Aram Cannuscio (@AC__Hoops) January 9, 2021
He may not possess the floor of a Jaden Springer (or combo guard potential), but Cooper is exactly what the Knicks are looking for at point guard.
Forward, Real Madrid
Stats (per game): 2.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.7 blocks, 48.3 FG%, 31.6 3P%, 53.3 FT%
In the HBO classic Entourage, the movie star around which the show is centered, Vinny Chase, gets lectured about how to choose his next movie. “Remember, one for them and one for you,” Chase’s publicist says. Think of the Usman pick as Leon Rose offering Tom Thibodeau a similar proposition.
I know what you are thinking: this guy’s stats are as underwhelming as they get. How can he make this list? The answer is simple: Usman Garuba is a Tom Thibodeau guy. At 6’8” and 229 pounds, Garuba can be used like P.J. Tucker or Draymond Green, playing small-ball center at times, but mostly serving as his team’s junkyard dog.
The 19-year-old is likely just scratching the surface of his potential, yet was good enough to play decent minutes at Real Madrid.
Garuba is aware on the floor. He knows when to cut, when to spot up in the corner, and when to rotate on defense.
Garuba’s fit would be defined from day one under Thibodeau. Right now, Taj Gibson is Thibodeau’s fail-safe as a defensive enforcer. Garuba could provide a similar safety net off the bench, and insurance if Nerlens Noel does not become the long-term solution as Mitchell Robinson’s backup.
It is reasonable to expect Garuba to guard at least four positions, possibly all five, only adding to the Draymond archetype. Even at 19 years old, Garuba’s anticipation is beyond his years.
Strong defensive possession by 18-year old Usman Garuba on Derrick Williams in the Euroleague yesterday. Garuba has had very little impact offensively this season, but has been able to earn minutes regardless thanks to his tremendous defensive instincts and versatility. pic.twitter.com/csQsVX2QKM
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) October 9, 2020
Garuba can serve as the yang to Obi Toppin’s yin, and become the defensive anchor of the second unit.
He has fluctuated throughout big boards, but it is safe to assume that he will be available when the Knicks come on the clock at least for the first pick. In a perfect world, he is the second selection after the team addresses more its more pressing scoring needs.
Keep Tabs On…
Guard, G League
Guard, Arizona State
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