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Knicks 2018-19 Preview: Kevin Knox

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How will the Knicks’ lotto pick stack up in his rookie season?

2018 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Sunday afternoon, my fiancee complained about my dish-washing. I knew she was right. I was slammed with work deadlines all day and had raced through the dishes. But I didn’t feel like admitting I was wrong.

“You’re too binary about dishes,” I told her. “There’s more to dishes than ‘clean’ and ‘dirty.’”

A couple days ago, SI.com published its yearly feature where NBA scouts anonymously offer the goods on all 30 teams. Here’s what scouts had to say about Knick rookie forward Kevin Knox: “Everyone was buzzing about his Summer League. He had way more freedom, was a way better shooter than in college. At Kentucky he looked like a stretch four, in Vegas he looked like a three. The expectations are unreal now, and he’s not a tough mother.”

A binary is a binary, and best left avoided. Is Kevin Knox a 3 or a 4? Is he better than what we saw his lone year in college? Are our expectations unfair, or not? Is he a tough mudder, or not a tough mother? To all that, I say, “Yes.” Before “Yes,” I say “Wait.”

First, let’s place Knox in some historical contexts. There’s been dark horse “Rookie of the Year” buzz around our boy. Consider the last 20 ROTYs and how their careers took shape, divided into four main categories: Lead Star, Secondary Star, Tertiary Star, and Role Player, with Brandon Roy and Derrick Rose N/A due to injuries (note: in 2000 Elton Brand and Steve Francis tied for the award):

LEAD STARS (3): LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant.
SECONDARY STARS (7): Pau Gasol, Amar’e Stoudemire, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons.
TERTIARY STARS (2): Elton Brand, Steve Francis.
ROLE PLAYERS (6): Mike Miller, Emeka Okafor, Tyreke Evans, Michael Carter-Williams, Andrew Wiggins, Malcolm Brogdon.

If Knox hits a home run this year, looking over that list, odds are he ends up neither a superstar nor a bust, and falls somewhere between “10-year pro” and “valued piece on a contender.” Odds are no one will know for a while. Knox is sooo young! You know what’s fair to expect from year one? Anything. Literally anything.

Here are the last 19 players drafted ninth overall, split into six categories:

LEAD STARS (0): None.
SECONDARY STARS (1): Amar’e Stoudemire.
TERTIARY STARS (7): Shawn Marion, Andre Iguodala, Joakim Noah, DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, Andre Drummond.
ROLE PLAYERS (6): Joel Przybilla, D.J. Augustin, Trey Burke, Noah Vonleh, Frank Kaminsky, Jakob Poeltl.
NAH (4): Rodney White, Mike Sweetney, Ike Diogu, Patrick O’Bryant.
SPRINGFIELD (1): Dennis Smith Jr.

Expecting Knox to be a star may be asking too much, but it’s likely he ends up a contributor on winning teams. This is a cold rain in a hot-take ecosphere, but my prediction for Knox’s rookie season is “Not a legend, but not a bum, and best taken with a grain of salt.” He’s younger than Frank Ntilikina. He’s the same age as LaVar Ball’s son. Not Lonzo; LiAngelo.

Knox shot 35 percent from the field in Las Vegas. In the preseason, he shot 16 of 49 (33 percent). If you want a premature bright side, his rebounding in both was improved over what he did at Kentucky. If you want a reason to fret, he spent much of the preseason in foul trouble. If you find the bright side of things goes down just as easy as the dark, remember rookies struggling with foul trouble merely means the world is spinning on its axis.

Here’s one last comparison for you: the counting stats for three forwards — all retired — over their first three seasons.

How many All-Star games would you guess each player made? I see the first stat line and figure “Hall of Famer.” The second numbers look like a multiple All-NBA honoree. Player three appears decent, if unspectacular.

Each player made two All-Star teams. Terry Cummings ended his career with a Hall of Fame probability of 0.6%. Antawn Jamison never made an All-NBA team. Rashard Lewis was better than decent, though never transcendent. Never a lead star. Never a secondary.

Knox isn’t going to play 36 minutes a game this year, and he’s two years behind Cummings’ physical development when he broke in. If he scored and rebounded the way Jamison did as a rookie, you might sign for that today, especially given Kristaps Porzingis’ non-heroic rebounding. If Knox has a year three similar to what Lewis did, fools will stampede each other to raise his jersey to the rafters.

This preview isn’t telling you anything new. That’s the point of it. You can take it as liberating or nullifying or a hundred other ways. Binaries are best left avoided. Knox was the summer league’s fourth-leading scorer. Last year the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer was Giannis Antetokounmpo. I close my eyes and I can see Knox growing into his frame and pursuing the pantheon, as the Greek Freak has. The ingredients are there, per The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks:

“Knox is an NBA-caliber athlete who can switch screens and match up with multiple positions on defense, and he has the skill set of a guard on offense. He’s a consistent 3-point shooter (34.1 percent on 4.5 attempts per game as a freshman at Kentucky) who can put the ball on the floor and score off the dribble. Knox didn’t get to show all he could do in college...”

The signs are present. His points per game at this stage are less meaningful than the nature of those points. Exhibit A was on display in Brooklyn, where Knox scored at the rim after attacking a closeout, pushed for a bucket in transition, then pushed and pulled-up from midrange:

In the preseason, Knox finished 228th in scoring. You know who was 228th in the league last year? Cory Joseph. Split the difference between Antetokounmpo and Joseph and 116th was Spencer Dinwiddie with 12.6 points per game.

As a quick Dinwiddie/”Best-Team-In-Town” aside: pro ball in NYC has been trudging through the desert for years in search of the Promised Land. I can’t say it better than the great Syrian writer Osama Alomar did in his micro fiction “The Pride of Garbage”:

When the owner of the house picked up the bag of garbage and headed out to the street to throw it in the dumpster, the bag was overwhelmed with the fear that she would be put side by side with her companions. But when the man placed her on top of all the others, she became intoxicated with her greatness and looked down on them with disdain.

People who don’t struggle often in life face double trouble when adversity does strike: the struggle itself and the struggle with struggling. Those who struggle a lot see life slowed down. They did the reps to gain the clarity of mind to associate the sensation with growth rather than failure. Luckily, this is not Knox’s first time struggling. He told Newsday’s Steve Popper:

“...I started off at Kentucky a little slow...People strategize, game plan. Defensively, kind of stop you. It’s a little bit different. Once I found that rhythm, found out what I was really good at, Coach [John Calipari] found out what I liked to do offensively and defensively, being more engaged...This is all learning for me. Like [David Fizdale] says all the time, I’m going to get my butt kicked a lot and I’m going to have a lot of mistakes. It’s part of a rookie year, you’re going to have ups and downs. It just shows how much confidence he has in me keeping me in the starting lineup.”

“Being more engaged” has already emerged as one of the more pleasant parts of Knox’s game. When his shot isn’t falling he hits the boards, playmakes on D, hardscrabbles his way to a positive performance. As far as his safe spot in the starting lineup, a bit of a surprise to some given Knox’s subpar play the last three preaseson games and Fizdale’s talk about the starting lineup being an open competition, the coach put it best:

“No (he didn’t earn it), he’s been up and down. I think he’s shown the ability to start in the first two (preseason) games with the double-doubles. And the last three, he stunk. But for that position and what we’re trying to grow there I think he’s what we want to put in that spot and just let him go through the hell of it and get beat up and have some success...”

Having said all that......

“It’s going to come sooner or later,” Knox said after the Brooklyn game, and he’s right. It will. With Porzingis out much (if not most) of the season and the Knicks lacking the personnel to shoot as many three-pointers as Fizdale would probably like, this team is going to look to run and generate the most-likely-to-succeed two-pointers they can. Knox will be a big part of both those projects.

I cut the very end of the Tjarks blockquote earlier. His complete sentence was “Knox didn’t get to show all he could do in college, where he was surrounded by non-shooters in supersized lineups.” Look on thy shooters, Knick fans, and despair. Porzingis is still no more than a whisper. New York’s lead sniper is Tim Hardaway Jr., who hit 32% from downtown last year and is below-average for his career. Trey Burke is, too. Courtney Lee can shoot, but he’s first on the list for the next train out of town. Enes Kanter will probably shoot at least a hundred three-pointers this year. Mario Hezonja? At least triple that. Emmanuel Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina will be legally required to shoot threes. Knox will remember life surrounded by non-shooters.

As far as his game, that’s what’s fair to expect of Kevin Knox this year. We’re not going to know what he is because we’re not going to see him at his best because he’s going to be asked to do more than he can. He’s being given a weight he can’t possibly carry. As far as his future, we’re going to see how a question shapes in answer in real-time, over (hopefully) 82 games. He’s being given a front-row seat to what he can’t do now, so he learns what he has to do so someday he can. You don’t need to know and you don’t need to wait. The season is hours away. What Kevin Knox is is now.