The most crowded roster spot this season for the Knicks is at the wings, with contrasting skill sets making it a tough decision who to play.
The New York Knicks roster, save one last decision, is set for the upcoming season. Having cut shooting guard Jacob Evans earlier this week, if they want to make room for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—who would be a great body for R.J. Barrett to practice against—on their 15-man roster, they’ll likely cut one of Omari Spellman or Ignas Brazdeikis.
That decision is unlikely, though, to materially affect the wing rotation, as Iggy and MKG probably won’t get significant run anyway. The gluttonous Knicks have a seven-course meal of wings in the rotation this year, and a lot of players with positional versatility on their roster, so the battle for minutes on the wing behind R.J. will be fierce. How it might shake out will be one of the interesting questions for the upcoming season. Let’s run down some of the options.
First, here’s the list of players who could theoretically play minutes at the 3 this season, which is more than half the roster:
- R.J. Barrett
- Kevin Knox
- Reggie Bullock
- Alec Burks
- Frank Ntilikina
- Ignas Brazdeikis
- Michael Midd-Gilchrist
- Austin Rivers (?)
- Obi Toppin (?)
The favorite coming into the season to play the bulk of the minutes at the 3 is R.J. Having amassed strong counting numbers for a first year player (14/5/3/1), and coming in with his level of pedigree, it’s hard to foresee any situation in which he doesn’t earn 30-plus minutes a night (for reference, he earned 30.4 last year). His most natural position is small forward, but the Knicks experimented last year with him at the 1 and 2. Given the success that the Spurs had with the DeMar DeRozan at the 4 experiment, it seems worth giving Barrett an occasional shot there too in some smaller lineups.
With some added bulk from the long offseason, we can expect his finishing, which was one of his major weaknesses last season, to improve. He actually got to the rim at a very strong rate his rookie year, often barreling his way to the cup through more bodies and limbs than anyone in the league saw (statistically, he was the player with the worst spacing surrounding him in the entire NBA).
— Karens In Paris (@NekiasNBA) December 7, 2020
He took 5.8 field goal attempts per game in the restricted area, which is 14th highest rate among all non-bigs and 31st among all players. But when he was at the rim, he shot a pedestrian 53.4%, in the 23rd percentile among wings, per Cleaning The Glass. That should naturally rise with his improvements in the weight room, and if Tom Thibodeau plays lineups with more spacing (let’s get Burks, Quickley, and Rivers some good minutes). But at the rim, he was always a little stiff and relied too much on his natural strength rather than finesse. It worked on smaller guys, but finishing through the league’s behemoths is a different story.
RJ Barrett used a combination of strength, patience and body control to get from near midcourt all the way to his strong side of the rim, without a screen, finishing through Austin Rivers plus the foul: pic.twitter.com/FSJKLdA7dX
— RJ Barrett Stats (@RJBarrettStats) February 25, 2020
The biggest thing I’m watching this year is how that finesse develops, and that includes with the non-restricted-area shots in the paint, in which he shot a ghastly 27.6%. I mean…I’ve never heard of an NBA player shooting that low from any range. He also shot 28% on ALL mid-range attempts. Gucci Mane Burrr
Kevin Knox *Deep breath*
After a putrid sophomore season in which he shot lower than 36% from the field, 65% from the line, and was one of the worst defensive players in the league, Knox is potentially entering his make-or-break year. It sounds silly to say about a lottery guy who showed some decent flashes his rookie year, like the 31-point game below, but he has straight up looked like a baby deer sliding around a frozen lake in a panic for the majority of his minutes on the floor. The Knicks will have to choose whether to pick up the last year on his rookie contract after this season.
According to preliminary reports, he’s looked good in the few practices the Knicks have run so far, so there’s some glimmers of hope. But after having his minutes shuttled from nearly 29 in his trial by fire rookie campaign to about 18, it’d be a surprise if he earned more than 20 a game this season, especially with how many players can play the wing for the Knicks this season. His chances of running much at the 4 are slim too, with the serviceable rotation of Randle and Toppin.
That being said, he and Reggie Bullock are the most likely candidates to soak up minutes behind Barrett on the wing, and hopefully he is coming to an understanding that it’s make-or-break. That might help him play with the hunger that’s been missing from his game. And is it too much to ask that we get Kenny Payne to smash his PlayStation to stop playing Fortnite?
Don’t forget when Kevin Knox wore a Fortnite jacket on draft day pic.twitter.com/HmowSJHfq3
— WaptorsWan➐ (@abasketballgod) October 21, 2020
Not much to say here really. Reggie is what he is. He’s a decent career three-point shooter who doesn’t add all that much on either end. He provides a little bit of stability with seven years of NBA experience under his belt, and at 6’7” with some bulk, has the size to guard some of the league’s larger wings. But his career 38.5% three-point shot abandoned him last season with the Knicks, in which he clocked in at 33.3%. If he’s going to shoot below league average again from deep, there shouldn’t be any reason he plays more than 10 minutes a night given that is supposed to be his primary skill set.
Now Burks is intriguing. He’s a real flamethrower in the pull-up game from deep, and though his shot selection has been putrid at times, he is capable of getting hot and lighting another team up from beyond the arc. He’s going to be this year’s Marcus Morris; fun to watch when he’s hot, but ultimately eating a shit ton of possessions with unwarranted off-the-dribble triples which, when not falling, will give us all aneurysms.
Alec Burks is one of 64 players who attempted 100 pull up 3s last season. Out of those 64, Burks ranked 6th in percentage — 39.4 percent.
Burks attempted a career-high in 3s last season but his % actually went up. #Knicks
— Chip Murphy (@ChipperMurphy) November 21, 2020
His most natural position is at the 2, but has the fluidity to play the 3 with his size at 6’5”. What he gives you on the offensive end though, he may take away on the other side of the ball. Not that the other options on the wing are all that much better there.
Rumor is that the starting point-guard job is down to Elfrid Payton or Dennis Smith Jr., and that Smith is in the pole position right now. I generally don’t trust training camp rumors, but Thibs likes explosive guards with the ball in their hands and Frank is the opposite of that, lacking any real explosion and often playing way too safe and measured.
Reading between the lines in what Thibs has said about him (that he has good defensive versatility, no mention of his offense), it’s possible Frank ends up sliding up a position to play some chunk of his minutes on the wing. Thibs values the type of skills Ntilikina brings to the table on the defensive side of the ball (motor, I.Q., positioning), so it’s hard to see him not cracking the rotation at all. But it’s tough to put him at the 2 with his lack of a jump shot, and with more reliable shooters in Burks and Rivers. It’d be wise for Thibs to split his minutes between all top three positions as he looks for lineup combos that work. For more on off-ball Frank, peep Mike Cortez’s piece, which points out that Frank shot over 50% from the corners last year; a good omen for his off-ball capabilities.
He’s a real flamethrower on offense, but lower than zero kelvin on defense. He may end up getting cut, but it would be nice to see the Knicks give him a chance after he lit up Summer league last year.
As mentioned earlier, he’s a great body to throw on Barrett at practice. He’s a great defender and big enough that R.J. will have to find some new tricks to make it work against him. There’s no reason he should be getting rotation minutes though. Need I remind you of his jump shot?
Tory Lanez's jumpshot 😭 pic.twitter.com/szHIfJDEUn
— WSHH FANS (@WSHHFANS) July 13, 2016
Rivers played 22% of his minutes at the 3 last year. He’s unlikely to get much time there this year, as the situation with Russell Westbrook and James Harden was fairly unique. It’s not like there’s anyone the Knicks need to play at the other two guard spots so badly that Rivers will get pushed up. He’ll be good to play in three-guard lineups, but he likely won’t be the 3 in those (on the defensive end, since three-guard rotations are very fluid on offense).
Obi Toppin made mention that he trusts Thibs will put him in the right position to succeed, whether that’s at the 3, 4, or 5. But please god, no, don’t do it. Thibs, I beg of you: leave this man at the 4 and have every minute he plays be with Mitchell Robinson behind him to clean up his defensive mistakes. Have the cojones to bring Julius Randle off the bench.