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Learning to appreciate Jarrett Jack, starting NBA point guard

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This is not supposed to work.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Jarrett Jack is an interesting player within the context of this Knicks squad.

That's a sentence I would have laughed two months ago. At that point, it appeared Jack was on his way out of the NBA; he was 34, had suffered two consecutive season ending knee injuries, and wasn't even on a roster LAST season until February. Jack was unsigned all summer, and appeared to be a camp body after signing the only non-guaranteed contract on the entire Knicks roster. Jack was a dumpster fire in preseason, and it was a surprise that he even made the team.

A couple weeks later, Jack was announced as the starter against the Brooklyn Nets. I experienced a near breakdown as I prepared for the inevitable: two weeks of articles and podcasts and SportsCenter segments breaking down how the Nets (THE NETS) had a brighter future than the Knicks. All hope was lost. But then...against all odds...they won. And they won again. And again. All of a sudden, a month later, the Knicks are 12-9 with Jack as a starter.

That’s seriously amazing. Point guard is arguably the most important position for modern NBA offenses — how can a 34-year-old point guard, who has barely played in the past two seasons, have that kind of positive impact? And what does it say about the Knicks as a whole?

We can start with Jack himself, who deserves a ton of credit for what he’s done so far. He fits the almost-completely-washed veteran point guard cliche to a T: can’t score anymore (2nd lowest usage of his career along with his lowest true shooting percentage), but manages the offense and emphasizes finding his teammates in the right place at the right time (Derrick Rose subtweet #1). Jack plays a classic brand of savvy, subtle, and clever offense, a style he’s honed over the course of his 14 year career. Focus on Jack for a stretch, and you'll notice him going out of his way to find good looks for his teammates (occasionally to a fault). Focus on the courtside mics during a stoppage, and you'll likely hear Jack yelling out how many seconds are left on the shot clock. If you had to pick an archetype to fit around a young core of developing players, the high IQ, selfless leader role exemplified by Jack is a good one to take (Derrick Rose subtweet #2).

For example, Jack knows exactly how to maximize Kristaps Porzingis' gravity without any semblence athleticism and scoring chops. No matter what pick and roll coverage opponents throw at him, he know how to beat it. Obviously, he doesn't always have the ability to beat the defense, but he knows how. We saw a good example of this early in the brutal loss to the Hawks:

Notice how Jack dribbles towards the sideline once the Hawks show their pick and roll coverage. Doing so forces Atlanta's two man contain away from the middle of the floor, where Porzingis is wide open. On both possessions, Jack uses his veteran guile to get the pass behind the soft double team. That's just good, fundamental offense. Not exactly rocket science, but it’s something. Jose Calderon would've been too scared to make the pass, Brandon Jennings would've pulled up for 3 before the screen even got there, and Derrick Rose would've missed Porzingis completely (not a subtweet; I called him out directly). It's a big improvement. That says more about the carousel of Knicks point guards of the last five years, but it's something.

And Jack has the same chemistry with every guy on the roster. He knows where his teammates excel, and he makes a concerted effort to get them the ball in those spots. Despite extreme limitations, Jack is actually posting the second highest assist percentage of his career. That's definitely boosted by Porzingis' presence (more on that later), but it adequately reflects Jack's style of play as a Knick. Compared to Ramon Sessions, who has been exponentially worse than Jack in spite of immense physical advantages...you can see why the coaching staff trusts Jack to manage the offense. That brand of unselfish basketball is contagious, and you can see it seeping into the mindsets of the young ballers on this squad.

All that stuff is great, and frankly, mere competency makes Jack one of the better Knicks point guards of the last half decade (this sentence digs deep into my soul. Also, Derrick Rose subtweet #3). Unfortunately, we all know deep down that Jack could never start on an actual good team. There's a reason the Knicks grabbed him off the scrap heap right before preseason; Jack has a lot of limitations, and those limitations put an artificial ceiling on how good the Knicks can be.

The scoring issues I alluded to earlier are easily the biggest detriment to Jack's game. Teams flat out don't care if he has a head of steam as he enters the paint because he's not a threat to finish at the rim (Jack’s head of steam compared to Westbrook’s head of steam is kinda like Isaiah Thomas standing next to Shaquille O’Neal). To his credit, Jack is a solid midrange shooter, especially from the elbow...but that's about it. And opponents know this. All too often, Jack finds himself in a good position to exploit a defense, only to be physically unable to execute. You know how defenses panic and send five guys to help when they see LeBron screaming down the lane in transition? Prepare for the complete opposite:

Toronto's defense barely even reacts to Jack attacking the rim in that 4v2 situation. He's got a wide open lane to the rim when he passes the 3 point line, but he doesn't have the explosion to finish the play. Focus on DeMar DeRozan, who stays glued to Courtney Lee rather than digging down to help on the drive. That's a microcosm of the issue. Defenders don't respect Jack's finishing, so they don't help off their man. That means less help, which in turn means less defensive rotations. That means a defense can stay organized and avoid mismatches, which in turn leads to less openings to exploit. That's the kind of stuff that completely hamstrings an offense.

On the few occasions he does drive to the rim, he can't finish, and he knows it (only 7.8% of his shots come from 0-3 feet, which includes transition opportunities). Jack has a lot of space to operate with because of Kristaps' gravity, but he's unable to take full advantage because of his subpar finishing.

Here, Jack waltzes right into the lane; Ibaka can't help contain because he's terrified to leave Kristaps on the perimeter. Look at how much space there is when Jack turns the corner! Since it's Jarrett Jack, though, Toronto doesn't overcommit to helping, and thus, nobody is open. Because Jack can't finish, he settles for the floater. That's not good enough in those situations. Getting that kind of advantage should result in a quality look 100% of the time. Later in the half, the EXACT SAME THING happens again, and it nearly turns into a turnover. Defenders just won't rotate off their man to try to contain Jarrett Jack in the lane. Compounding the issue? Jack doesn’t even want to shoot — he’s been a persistent overpasser this season, and everyone knows it.

This has a ripple effect. Why would you ever leave Kristaps Porzingis in order to contain Jarrett Jack? The kind of Dirk-like defensive attention Porzingis receives opens up space for ball handlers, but someone has to take advantage it. And as much as I like Jarrett Jack, a true dynamic ball handler would feast on all that glorious spacing.

That becomes obvious when Jeff Hornacek gives the ball to Tim Hardaway Jr. and runs similar actions. Which is exactly what they did when they needed some late buckets to close out the Raptors. Hornacek ordered up the same play two times in a row: a Horns set flowing right into a dribble handoff from KP to THJ. For dessert, the Raptors got a nice helping of side pick and roll out of a broken play. It was gloriously effective.

EXHIBIT A

Just feast your eyes on the palpable confusion radiating from Kyle Lowry & Pascal Siakam. This is what happens when you pressure a defense from multiple angles (as in, the screener and the ball handler both scare opponents). Hardaway gets free throws because he's got the athleticism and ball handling to get to the rim when the opportunity arises.

EXHIBIT B

Lowry doesn’t know how to stop this, and he’s getting annoyed. He's out there waving his arms in frustration like it's the first round of the playoffs. That’s because this play was initially defended well; unfortunately for Kyle, as KP vacates the area, Ibaka is dragged with him. That opens up a runway for Hardaway to attack. He beats the help for a dunk easily. Again, this is what a dynamic ball handler can do with Porzingis as a screener.

BONUS: EXHIBIT C

Kyle Lowry is now completely dejected. This is similar action to the others in effect; this time the Raptors have given up on defending these plays and decide to just switch. But that isn't gonna help, because Porzingis finally has a post game, which he immediately shows off for an easy bucket. That was easy!

Remember, Tim Hardaway Jr. isn't a point guard. Even with his improved passing, he's not the type of guy you can trust to run dozens of pick and rolls every game. But it really didn't matter; the Raptors just couldn't do ANYTHING to stop the combined powers of Hardaway and Kristaps.

And that's the ultimate point of all this: Jarrett Jack having this kind of an impact says as much about Kristaps Porzingis as it does about Jarrett Jack. Porzingis is having a Dirk-esque impact on offense, one that's been mostly impossible up to this point in his career (something I already dove into). The respect he gets from opponents is game changing for his any of his teammates, but ball handlers get an even bigger advantage. The other players on the team deserve credit as well, but nobody else is in the same plane of existence as Porzingis when it comes to disrupting defenses.

To be clear, I don't mean to trash Jack at all — he earned a roster spot, he's been a hugely pleasant surprise, and I'm happy he's on this team. Watching him run the offense is exponentially more interesting than flashy finishes at the rim (Derrick Rose subtweet #4). He's clearly the best option to hold down the starting job until Frank Ntilikina can get a functional handle. He knows what he's good at and limits himself to that role, which deserves praise...especially after last season (last one, I swear).

But there's still plenty of meat on the figurative bone. As long as Jack is starting, there's a glass ceiling for the Knicks offense. That ceiling will be there until a dynamic point guard takes the reigns. And I think even Jarrett Jack himself would recognize that.

If an point guard who was nearly out of the league two months ago can respectably start for a team that has outperformed early expectations...what happens when he's replaced by someone better? When that space is occupied by a fully evolved French Prince, or the jitterbug handle of Kemba Walker? After all, the Knicks may actually be on the road to respectability under a new regime (knock on all the wood), and the Church of the One True God has drawn attention around the league.

So what does Jarrett Jack's success really mean? It means that replacing him with the right player could lead to a perennial top five offense. It means that the right moves could lead to continued success for an impossibly moribund franchise. And it means the framework of a legitimate team may be taking shape before our eyes.

Finding that player is the real trick, of course. But setting the stage early makes the next step that much easier...and the show is almost ready to begin.