Kevin Knox has been a surprise positive for the Knicks so far, developing well off the bench with better decision-making ability and shooting.

We’re only a handful of games into the season and it’s already been a whirlwind of emotions for the New York Knicks. A good portion of these mixed feelings is due to the recent history coming back to haunt the Knicks in good and not-so-good ways.

Former Knick Kristaps Porzingis’ first game against his former club saw him lose but score 29 points and notch five blocks in the process. It’s still a bit difficult to reconcile the hasty trade with details still leaking months afterward. However, contrary to popular belief, that wasn’t the only event of the 2018–19 season that mattered. Although the entire NBA agreed that Kevin Knox’s rookie season was an abject disaster, the general consensus has proved to hold little weight. Knox’s crowning as “the worst player in the league” was a silly mass delusion—and it’s time to walk it back.

It’s the beginning of a new season and the rest of the NBA has probably moved on from the take, but nobody holds a grudge like yours truly (except maybe Stephen Jackson). Let’s jump back to last year’s takes.

In the New York Post last season, Knox was ranked second-to-last in Real Adjusted Plus-Minus. Being second-to-last at anything sounds pretty bad. Even being picked second-to-last in pickup lets you know how booty everyone thinks you are. So, RAPM, an advanced statistic with controls, must be correct—right? Not entirely, and especially not with the 2018–19 Knickerbockers.

The core issue is: it doesn’t explain much. Essentially, what adjusted plus-minus does is take into account positive and negative box score stats. It tallies those points as a team and then controls for every combination of teammates, and the opposing team’s matchups as well. Then, using those controls, it estimates the subject’s impact, pulling out their contributions. In other words, it accounts for all of the lineups. So, Knox ranking dead last by the end of the season with a -7.47 RAPM suggests that the average impact he had every game was making the team demonstrably worse. The team was bad when he was on the court, but it does next to nothing in explaining why.

Knox was the ninth overall pick in 2018, and an over-publicized Summer League campaign put him under the microscope in a season where he would be the Knicks go-to scorer. Of the Knicks who were with the team for the entire season, the only other player with a higher usage rate was Emmanuel Mudiay at starting point guard. Knox also logged the most minutes on his team, and seventh among rookies. It might seem like a flimsy notion, but with a sample size that huge and a team that awful, no one looks good under those conditions. Yet, he still managed to crack the top five in rookie scoring.

Irresponsibly using convoluted statistics without context is a key reason why Kevin Durant’s comments about blog boys isn’t just foolishness. Tell me you prefer Dusty Hannahs’ minutes to Kevin Knox and I’ll call you a liar directly to your face. The only real takeaway from using statistics like this for rankings is that the stats nerds rattling them off aren’t real stats nerds.

In spite of the harsh criticism, Knox seems to have turned a corner this summer. Compared to last year’s stats, his Las Vegas output wasn’t all that impressive: he averaged 16.8 points and 5.0 rebounds on 37% shooting. Sometimes the shot was falling and other times it wasn’t. Not to say that the eye test is the end-all be-all (even though the on court product is), but Knox appeared much more poised. He moved more with and without the ball, and he didn’t appear lost on the court. Even in his good games last season, fans could see Knox scampering about aimlessly when he didn’t have the ball in his hands. Now, it seems like there’s much more purpose to his movement. His 1.5 assists per game in the first 11 games of the regular season strengthen that claim.

During his rookie year Knox was very much a black hole on offense. The ball would be dumped to Knox on the perimeter, a piss-poor screen wouldn’t work, and he’d try to muscle his way into the paint with substandard ball-handling skills. It rarely worked out. Now, there’s a bit more variety in his role, which has helped tremendously. He’s a scorer, but he finally realized there’s four other players who can accrue points to his team’s total. And, surprise, surprise, his assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to rise from the 0.72 in his rookie year to 1.89 through the first stretch of the season.

Passing and better on-ball decisions aren’t the only places where Knox has shown growth. Currently, he’s shown a better shot selection and shot execution. On catch-and-shoot three-point opportunities Knox is shooting 44.7%, and these make up 48.1% of his total shooting opportunities. Although he’s rarely gotten to the rim this season, he’s shooting 60% under the basket, up from 50% a season ago, per Basketball-Reference. All-in-all his decision-making has vastly improved since his rookie campaign.

Consistent gripes about his defense are not unfounded. At times it makes him unplayable, but expecting a lot in that department raises the same issue I had with his criticism last season: the expectations are far out of hand. Knox has taken major strides in the main area where he’s expected to contribute. Let’s leave some room for growth in the next stage of his career.

 

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