The Beginning of the Kevin Knox Era in The Big Apple

By Kevin O’Connor

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It hasn’t been easy for Knicks fans to stay positive this century. The last time the franchise was relevant, Patrick Ewing was still playing, Reggie Miller had beef with Spike Lee, and James Dolan had only just taken control of the team. Knicks fans need no reminding, but it’s been downhill in the 2000s with only five playoff appearances since 2000-01 (and only one, in 2012-13, that made it past the first round). Kristaps Porzingis quickly became a silver lining for the franchise when he emerged in 2015, but he tore his ACL in February, deadening most of the enthusiasm the fan base had left. But things have taken a turn for the better in the past week. Conversations with The Ringer’s resident Knicks fans are becoming less and less pessimistic with every passing day. The main reason? Kevin Knox.

At 6-foot-9 with a near-7-foot wingspan, Knox has been a standout at Las Vegas summer league as he’s averaged 23.3 points and 7.3 rebounds and displayed explosive athleticism, shot-creation skill, and tenacity on defense.

There was no doubt Knox had talent, but he wasn’t able to show the full breadth of it during an underwhelming freshman season at Kentucky. He was the 10th-ranked high school recruit of 2017, and in his lone college season demonstrated savvy scoring off the dribble in the pick-and-roll and isolations, two of the most coveted skills in the NBA across all positions. Showcasing those skills during the predraft-workout circuit helped him vault to no. 9 to the Knicks. Knox was my seventh-ranked player in The Ringer’s 2018 NBA Draft Guide, but no. 7 could end up being too low. Knox is already flashing new skills in Vegas. Knicks summer league head coach Mike Miller has been using Knox to initiate on offense, and the 18-year-old is showing passing instincts that were absent in college. In his first taste of NBA action, Knox has made a fairly accurate behind-the-back pocket pass to second-round center Mitchell Robinson, whipped cross-court passes to 3-point shooters, and facilitated in transition.

Knox’s new tricks are particularly interesting given the Knicks’ new head coach. David Fizdale has suggested he would install a multiple-ball-handler system that plays at a faster pace and empowers most players who rebound the ball to dribble up the court and start the offense. Frank Ntilikina was drafted in one of the deepest point guard classes in recent memory, but after his rookie season, the Knicks are grooming him into more of a 2-guard (he’s been using DeMar DeRozan as a primary case study). Both of their young perimeter talents will have opportunities to make plays with the ball in their hands. Knox in that free-flowing system is especially tantalizing: He has legitimate shot-creation skills, and with his combination of size and speed, he could develop into a mismatch nightmare in an era when he’s too quick for larger players and too big for smaller ones. If his playmaking abilities continue to develop, perhaps he’ll become more than just a scorer, which was his biggest selling point in the first place.

After two down perimeter-shooting performances to open Las Vegas summer league, Knox’s confidence didn’t waver. He was rewarded during his third game with a scorching-hot stretch to close the third quarter. Knox showed off all the goods by draining two spot-up 3s and then sinking an iso 3 from the top of the key at the end of the shot clock. Knox shot only 34.1 percent from 3 and 77.4 percent from the line at Kentucky. In Vegas, he’s shooting 8-for-21 from 3, but he has a soft touch and a smooth shooting form. Good shooters don’t become great shooters overnight. It’s a process, even for a player like Knox, who already looks the part of a high-level shotmaker. It takes time. Tuesday’s game was a sign of what could await him as New York’s go-to scorer next to Porzingis.

Once Porzingis returns, Knox should immediately help alleviate the pressure on him. Porzingis dominated the first 10 games last season, averaging 30 points with a 60.7 true shooting percentage, but he faded progressively up until his season ended in February. The decline resembled those of his prior seasons, and raised questions about his durability and whether he can carry the Knicks. Knox’s presence should allow Porzingis to sustain energy over the duration of the season. For that to happen, Knox needs to stay on the same track he’s on this summer. Too often last season, Knox settled for midrange jumpers early in the clock, but he’s already beginning to cut it out of his diet. How? By attacking the rim relentlessly.

Knox impressed me most here. There’s a good chance that in college he would’ve pulled up from the free throw line for a contested jumper, but he instead made a quick read, crossed over, took a long stride to get around the rim protector, and then angled his body for a layup high off the backboard to avoid a potential shot-block attempt. It looks simple, but Knox showed a little bit of everything that makes him so enticing in this one play.

Insert Porzingis as the screener into the pick-and-roll, and the possibilities are endless—and possibly devastating for defenses. Porzingis can roll and finish with finesse inside, pop for 3, or pop and then attack a closeout. Knox could potentially score from anywhere. Robinson, drafted no. 36 by the Knicks, has also flashed potential as a lob threat on the roll and a putback machine on the boards. Robinson still has a long way to go in doing the little things—executing plays, screening cleanly, and making quicker reads—but he’s an elite athlete who plays hard. If Robinson works out, then Fizdale can get creative using jumbo frontcourts featuring Porzingis and Robinson, or he can play smaller with Knox at the 4 alongside one of the two bigs.

What has to be especially exciting for Fizdale is the ability to have Knox reverse roles in the pick-and-roll.

The Knicks have frequently used Knox as a screener in the pick-and-pop, like in the play above, and in other actions to free shooters. Ntilikina might be considered a 2-guard by the Knicks, but he’ll still run plenty of pick-and-roll (he’s a far better passer now than DeMar DeRozan was at the same age). If Frankie Smokes brings the ball up the court, New York can use Knox off the ball as a cutter or in dribble handoffs to create for himself or others.

Considering the nature of NBA defenses that largely switch on-ball screens, Knox could end up feasting on mismatches with his potential to score from anywhere. He can pull up from midrange like he did frequently in college, and he’s expanding his range and putting a greater emphasis on attacking the rim. Knox has drawn a lot of fouls this summer, and though some could end up looking like tough, contested misses against NBA length inside, he has an ambidextrous touch, so he should eventually grow into an effective finisher, and not just a loud one. You can’t knock Knox when he’s throwing down slams in traffic.

It’s only summer league. I know. The two-week event is an alternate reality for many players, who are given the opportunity to do things they may never experience in an actual NBA season. At this stage of his development, Knox’s best skills are his cutting and running transition, not necessarily the on-ball playmaking he’s demonstrated thus far in Vegas. Against NBA defenses, and not diluted summer league rosters, it’ll be harder for Knox to score as potently as he is doing now. But his game has clearly grown since the end of the college season. Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum looked like no-duh NBA talents last summer; Knox is having moments for the Knicks that capture a similar spirit.

That doesn’t make him a lock for a Rookie of the Year–caliber season, however. Both the Jazz and Celtics made noise in the playoffs because of deep rosters; New York’s supporting cast isn’t as strong, and Porzingis could be out until midseason. But the Knicks should be better overall, especially on defense after ranking 22nd last season. Ntilikina was already one of the NBA’s better perimeter defenders last season as a rookie. Now he’s a year older and stronger. Knox’s potential versatility should help at the forward and wing spots. In summer league, Knox has been the intense, high-effort defender he was in high school rather than the passive wanderer he was (and some of his teammates were) last season at Kentucky. If Knox’s newfound effort level carries over to the regular season, his switchability will benefit the team. And then there’s the boom-bust nature of Robinson: While he needs to prove he can defend the pick-and-roll and effectively communicate rotations, he at least projects as a superactive rebounder and shot blocker with a skill set resembling JaVale McGee’s.

It’s these moments that give Knicks fans something to get excited about again. There is, for the first time since Carmelo Anthony was acquired in 2011, a promise on this roster. In Porzingis and Knox, the Knicks now have two core pieces for a promising team under the eye of Fizdale. They’re surrounded by a gang of lottery selections—Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Trey Burke—that hope to find the right framework for their talents. They’re all still young. Maybe one of them develops into a winning contributor in New York. Ntilikina is already a ferocious defender who now has a clear direction in terms of his offensive development. The team has two complementary veterans in Enes Kanter and Courtney Lee. Tim Hardaway Jr. is overpaid, but he plays his role as a spark-plug scorer. Fizdale might be able to turn this team into something competitive fairly soon.

The Knicks have the talent for the first time in a long time and will have the ability to create maximum cap space starting in 2019. If the young players make progress, it may not be long until New York is a free-agent destination the way the Lakers transformed themselves into one over the past few seasons. Knicks fans booed the Knox selection on draft night, but he could be the steal that helps make the team relevant.

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