New York’s most promising position group on their roster is assuredly its wings. That floor, unfortunately, might be fairly low, too.
To the surprise of many, this Knicks’ roster is looking more and more like a modern NBA team—almost every player, save for Enes Kanter, can play multiple positions.
Some, like Tim Hardaway Jr., are really only nominally position-less. Whether he’s New York’s shooting guard or their small forward on the court, Hardaway is there for one thing: to shoot. Others, like Frank Ntilikina, have roles that oscillate depending on who he’s sharing the court with. When he plays beside a primary ball-handler, Ntilikina is an off-ball creator and a frenetic spider on defense. When he rubs elbows with someone like Courtney Lee or Damyean Dotson, less adept playmakers, Ntilikina is more of a “traditional” point guard.
Nowhere is that lineup flexibility more apparent than in New York’s wing rotation. So, to help suss out who’s going to play what position, let’s break down each player’s strengths, weaknesses, and ceiling on this year’s team.
Ceiling: Rich man’s Rashard Lewis
Knox is raw. He’s not polished, not yet at least. But the Knicks, if we’re being honest, are going to lose a fair amount of games until Kristaps Porzingis comes back (if he comes back at all this season). Which means Knox is going to play. A lot.
What will we see from the Knicks crown jewel? He might not be as “NBA ready” as he will be next season or the year after that, but he’s already an overwhelming athlete at his size: fluid, bouncy, faster than most players half his size. And he leverages that well with a jittery aggressiveness that buys constant one-way trips to the rim most defenders can’t stop.
TOUGH finish by future Rookie of the Year Kevin Knox pic.twitter.com/9E5tjYGKYE
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 3, 2018
It’ll work wonders against the worst defensive teams in the league. Knox is simply too long and too explosive—he runs the floor too hard—to have many nights where he totally disappears against the NBA’s swiss-cheese defenses.
Against the league’s stingiest stalwarts, though? That lack of nuance will show in spades. Knox’s ball-handling is still very basic, limited to one-dribble or two-dribble moves which are going to look very loose when he faces the Kawhi Leonards of the league. He doesn’t understand how to abuse his quick first step yet, either, and often seems to hit the “turbo button” a tad too early to really scramble the defense.
Still, against the NBA’s bottom-feeders, Knox will look a lot like prime Rashard Lewis this year. He’s got a sweet stroke with legitimate range, and jumps passing lanes well. He’s already shown a great motor for loose balls, but doesn’t box out well for his size, instead relying on out-jumping people for rebounds; when he does snag a board, though, look for him to ignite fast breaks by himself. Team defense will be an issue until he can wrap his head around schematics.
Positions: (SG, SF)
Ceiling: Bigger Courtney Lee
Dotson has taken a bizarre path to the NBA, one that, combined with his age, tanked his draft stock when he was selected last year.
After playing his first two collegiate seasons at a high-profile program, University of Oregon, Dotson (along with teammates Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin) was accused of sexual assault. Although charges were eventually dropped due to conflicting testimony from the plaintiff and lack of evidence, Dotson was dismissed from Oregon and floated around community-college purgatory for a while before ending up at the University of Houston where he played well enough to get noticed by NBA scouts as a senior. At age 23, the New York Knicks selected him with the 44th pick in the 2017–18 NBA draft.
The reason I bring that up is because Dotson’s talent level is more akin to a very late first-rounder or an early second-round selection. He’s not a creative playmaker, but he’s a very confident three-point shooter with credible mechanics, and can get a shot up off the dribble or from spotting up. He can also safely bring the ball up to initiate offense, a weapon Fizdale may look to use on nights when Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay are throwing erratic turnovers (bound to happen at some point). Despite a lack of vertical explosiveness, Dotson is fluid and knows how to use both his body and crafty angles to finish inside.
On defense, he’s a competitor. Basketball coaches, from AAU to the NBA, always preach “getting low,” but I actually think Dotson’s stance is too low and hunched over, allowing bigger wings to push through him on drives. Still, he cares on that end, and that matters a lot more than almost anything else with perimeter defense.
Ironically, Damyean Dotson is the perfect heir when Courtney Lee retires—a younger version of the latter who’s still one of the most consistent 3-and-D role players in the league.
Ceiling: Exactly what he is now
Over a quietly impactful 10-year career, Courtney Lee has fluctuated from underpaid to overpaid several times (he’s probably slightly overpaid on this team). His production over that same stretch has never wavered.
I wouldn’t expect anything to change this year. Lee is one of this team’s veteran leaders, and is an established commodity—someone who will hit around two triples a game, play good if not great team defense, and make the right decisions on the court. He’s been a near 40 percent three-point shooter for pretty much his entire career, and is a lock to put up around 10 points per game. Nothing more, nothing less.
Lee’s not the lockdown one-on-one defender he once was, but he’s still solid on that end, and Ntilikina will help with picking up guards bigger and faster than Lee.
Worth noting: OKC almost stole Lee this summer, which, with the emergence of Allonzo Trier (more on him in a bit), would have made things a lot easier as far as who makes the final cuts for this roster.
Ceiling: Bigger, faster, stronger Marco Belinelli
Why? Because for the first time in his disappointing NBA career, he finds himself in a good basketball situation. If he can’t make it work now, it will never work.
In Orlando, Hezonja was lost amid a rotating door of coaches, point guards, and other wings to compete with. His shooting, billed as a strength when he was drafted fifth overall by the Magic, was way brickier than advertised (41 percent from the field, 33 percent from three over his career). He was always confused on defense. Most importantly, Hezonja had that permanent “deer-in-the-headlights” look.
Compare that situation to the one he’s in now. Fizdale will probably start him over Lance Thomas when the regular season roles around, and he’s got the ultimate green light from his head coach to shoot now. Despite averaging just 3.5 assists per 48 minutes in Orlando, Hezonja has talked a lot about improving his playmaking and passing, and he showed glimpses in the preseason opener:
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) October 2, 2018
We’ve literally never seen Hezonja do that in an NBA game. It’s a nice re-introduction to the considerable upside he possesses that convinced Orlando to draft him high in the first place. He’s 6-foot-8, athletic, can bring the ball up the floor with pace, is still just 23, and can credibly play three positions on the floor.
The only thing that could hold Hezonja back this year is his own mental stability. He’s very self-critical, and it seems like Orlando really took a toll on him. If he can’t steady the tide now with a player-friendly coach like Fizdale, and a group of guys his age that have his back, it’s not happening for him.
Tim Hardaway Jr.
Ceiling: Poor man’s Bradley Beal or new-school Joe Dumars
It doesn’t feel like it, because he’s has taken about one million shots in just five seasons, but Tim Hardaway Jr. is still only 26 years old.
He’s pushes the ball aggressively up the floor, has a sweet stroke, and is borderline irresponsible at hunting for his own shot. Still, his reputation belies him; THJ has never been as good a shooter in the NBA as one might think. He hasn’t cracked the 50/40/90 club, or even been particularly close (a career 42/34/80 shooter). Last season after Porzingis went down, THJ’s efficiency tanked despite having more creative freedom on offense. He jacked up seven three-pointers per game sans Porzingis, while shooting a career low, 31 percent, from out there. Those are objectively below-average shooting splits.
A lot of this can be attributed to defenses being able to key in on Hardaway after Porzingis’s injury. Space becomes tighter and angles disappear when a franchise star is gone. That definitely affected Hardaway’s efficiency, or lack thereof. But he’s just not been a great shooter on the level of say, Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick, in the NBA, regardless of context. It’s a mirage, and we have five seasons of evidence to prove it.
That being said, when he’s hot Hardaway can light it up with the best of them.
With more floor-spacers around him—Knox, Hezonja, Dotson, and Lee—Hardaway should have cleaner looks than he’s ever had in a Knicks uniform. He should, in theory, have his most efficient shooting year.
On defense, when he tries, he’s league-average. When he doesn’t, he’s a disaster.
Ceiling: Austin Rivers
The Knicks have some decisions to make. Trier, signed to a two-way contract that basically guaranteed a spot on New York’s G League team, has been impressive in practices and looked sharp in his preseason debut.
Undrafted out of Arizona, Trier is an uber-aggressive, confident isolation scorer; his Twitter handle is even @ISO_ZO—he definitely proved that with Wednesday night’s 25-point outing. While he doesn’t do much off the ball other than spot up from the corners, his herky-jerky ball handling and ability to get past his man are legit NBA weapons. It doesn’t seem like any of these young Knicks are afraid of the spotlight (except for maybe Hezonja). Trier, however, seems to relish it.
On defense, Trier projects to be feisty, if a bit undersized and not strong enough to guard bigger wings. He’s apparently getting ridiculous, Lebron-esque chasedown blocks in practice, and has been tenacious on the ball.
There’s a lot of Austin Rivers in Trier, and not in a bad way. Rivers, because of his unique path to the NBA and a couple of unfortunate appearances on “Shaqtin’ a Fool,” has become sort of underrated. He’s a good two-way player with combo-guard size, and nifty isolation tricks to get his own shot up. If Trier can maximize his playing time this year, that’s exactly the kind of production he’s going to output.