The Knicks' 21st century rookie paradox

Jared Wickerham

Rookies? Knicks? Surely I jest!

This is a wild week in ye olde Knicks towne, good fellows. The front office actually has a first-round pick to work with - a biannual event akin to the Summer/Winter Olympics. They need to make good use of that pick, because their current roster is wracked with instability. Most of their role players from last season are either a. free agents b. retired c. better off retired or d. Steve Novak.

Now, I have no idea what is going to happen in the next few weeks - only a fool would try to predict the comings and goings of the Knicks roster - but it seems highly probably that the Knicks will employ a first-year player next season. While it's probably more fun to speculate on just who that player (or players) might be, it's also important to examine the Knicks' recent track record with first-year players.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Knicks have had 21 rookies play in at least 10 games, and of those players, 13 managed to accumulate at least one win share in their first season:

Totals Shooting
Rk Player Season Age G GS MP TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS FG% 3P% FT% WS
1 Landry Fields 2010-11 22 82 81 2541 521 155 80 17 107 797 .497 .393 .769 5.3
2 Channing Frye 2005-06 22 65 14 1572 374 53 30 47 97 802 .477 .333 .825 3.5
3 Pablo Prigioni 2012-13 35 78 18 1263 143 236 69 2 86 275 .455 .396 .880 3.2
4 Renaldo Balkman 2006-07 22 68 1 1064 294 44 57 44 49 334 .505 .185 .567 2.8
5 David Lee 2005-06 22 67 14 1129 303 43 30 20 51 345 .596 .577 2.7
6 Iman Shumpert 2011-12 21 59 35 1705 186 164 101 8 111 563 .401 .306 .798 2.4
7 Toney Douglas 2009-10 23 56 12 1087 108 112 42 3 55 481 .458 .389 .809 2.2
8 Trevor Ariza 2004-05 19 80 12 1382 242 85 70 18 73 468 .442 .231 .695 2.1
9 Chris Copeland 2012-13 28 56 13 862 119 27 16 12 50 486 .479 .421 .759 2.1
10 Nate Robinson 2005-06 21 72 26 1544 167 147 59 1 114 670 .407 .397 .752 1.5
11 Josh Harrellson 2011-12 22 37 4 540 144 11 23 20 20 162 .423 .339 .615 1.4
12 Mike Sweetney 2003-04 21 42 1 494 157 14 18 12 32 180 .493 .000 .724 1.4
13 Danilo Gallinari 2008-09 20 28 2 412 55 15 14 4 15 170 .448 .444 .963 1.0
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/26/2013.

As you might have heard, this century hasn't been too kind to the franchise - they finished below .500 in nine of the the last 12 seasons. Now, here's where things get weird - when looking at any normal franchise that suffered nine consecutive losing seasons, followed by three consecutive winning seasons, you would probably expect far more rookie activity during the long stretch of losing, as the franchise tried to rebuild through draft picks. The Knicks front office can be called many things, my friends, but 'normal' is not one of them. Five of those 13 rookies played in the last three (winning) seasons, including three of the top six (Landry Fields, Pablo!, and Iman Shumpert).

The last three seasons have provided the Knicks with their most effective crops of rookie performers in the last two decades or so - and keep in mind, they've had exactly one first-round pick in that time (zero in the lottery).

Sure, I could turn this into yet another indictment of the Isiah era if I wanted*, but instead I'd like to flip this into a positive - in the past three seasons the Knicks have proven themselves adept at finding rookie contributors, despite a glaring lack of draft picks. How have they done it? Let's break it down:

1. First Rounders:

They only had one, but they nailed it. Iman Shumpert contributed in his rookie season, fought through a difficult knee injury, and came up huge in this year's playoffs. Even if he never becomes a star, he looks like a safe bet to remain a solid player.

2. Second Rounders:

The Pacers series provided more fodder for the "Knicks don't know what they're doing!" crowd. Yes, they look bad for passing on Lance Stephenson for Landry Fields and Andy Rautins, but I don't think it's fair to assume Stephenson would have had that kind of success with the Knicks. Given his...umm...temperamental nature, I think Stephenson landed in a perfect situation over there in Indiana, and I'm not sure have the New York native would have handled playing under the bright lights for his hometown team. The Rautins pick looks horrible in retrospect, but consider this: Landry Fields, a second round pick, was by far, the best Knicks rookie of the century. That is simply astonishing. And the dude is still helping the Knicks by crippling a division rival with his massive contract (try to get out of that deal, Masai Ujiri, you genius bastard).

The Knicks swiped Josh Harrellson with a second round pick in 2011, and he contributed quite nicely during the crazy '11-'12 season. I'm never going to stop harping on this: Jorts needs to come back. I'd love for Knicks shooting coach Dave Hopla to work his magic on Jorts' three-point stroke, and I think he'd mesh well with Amar'e on the front line. Strike that, I know he'd play well with STAT: in the 131.7 minutes they played together, the Knicks scored +22.1 points per 100 possessions. Bring back Jorts!

3. Free Agents

Pablo Prigioni. Case closed. Check mate. Game, set, match.

Besides Pablo, the '12-'13 Knicks received positive rookie contributions from Chris Copeland - so positive, in fact, that Cope has probably priced himself right out of the Knicks market.

When people tell the story of the Knicks' revival, they focus nearly all of their attention on the big-ticket free agents and the fateful Carmelo Anthony trade. But that's not quite the whole story. The bizarre paradox of the past few Knicks teams is that, as they finally succeeded in attracting true all-star talent and wily veterans, they've also finally succeeded at finding first-year players to contribute on a regular basis. This will be huge for the Knicks going forward, as they continue find themselves capped out, short of draft picks, and in dire need of depth wherever they can find it.

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