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Looking for flashes of the real Kevin Knox from his freshman year at Kentucky

Where did this kid come from?

NBA: Summer League-Utah Jazz at New York Knicks Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Scouting Kevin Knox was a genuinely unique experience. When I say experience, I mean that literally. In fact, one might go so far as to say my reaction to this pick had a character arc. Ridiculous? Not really — much as Walter White started as a normal father, only to turn into something of a monster, my opinion on this pick made a full 180 as I got deeper and deeper. And now that the young man has taken the Las Vegas Summer League by storm, it certainly seems to validate some of the good traits I picked up from watching his college film. Where did this potential star come from? Perhaps he was there all along, buried under the reels of some truly woeful, disorganized NCAA basketball footage.

Some context before I explain: I watched six full Kentucky games, all played over the span of one month (December 2017 to January 2018). I had no knowledge of Knox before diving into the film. My “professional” scouting background is minimal, and my grasp of college basketball, as a league, is tenuous. On top of that, my understanding of the Kentucky program, top to bottom, was literally nonexistent. So I was going in blind. Of course, any reasonable person might be thinking that they shouldn’t listen to me, and frankly, it’s a fair point. In this case, however, my ignorance turned out to be a good thing.

I’ll never forget how I felt after I finished the first two games (Kentucky vs. Virginia Tech, Kentucky vs. Louisville). There was literally (figuratively) a pit in my stomach. I couldn’t believe the guy I just watched was even a lottery pick, let alone taken by my team in said lottery. A sampling of my negative notes from these two contests:

- Careless with passes

- Doesn’t really ever get in good defensive stance, plays upright

- Footwork on closeouts is consistently awful

- Passive when plays aren’t run for him

- Floats in no-man’s land on defense

- Gambles too much on defense

- Struggles navigating screens, likely relating to footwork & bad defensive fundamentals

- Not enough effort

- Shaky, shaky handle

- I hope this is his worst game (vs. Louisville)

This play sums up everything I saw in those first two games. Louisville runs an Iverson cut for Knox’ man, with two screeners. Except those screeners are barely even trying. Fortunately for them, Knox isn’t trying very hard, either. He gets picked off by the token screens, ends up three feet behind his man, and he’s lucky he didn’t give up a layup.

The only positive aspect of his game that popped, at this point, was his skill on the low block. The rest was genuinely awful, at least relative to my expectations. I knew he was widely regarded as inconsistent, but I have never been lower on a Knicks first round pick than I was at this point in the process. But it was just two games — even LeBron probably has a two-game stretch somewhere out there that makes him look like Lance Stephenson’s long lost brother.

So I kept watching. Next up: Kentucky vs. Georgia, and Kentucky at LSU. I was prepared for the worst, but still prayin’ for the best. And as I continue to watch, I started to pick up on the context of this Kentucky team, which completely changed my understanding of Knox.

Firstly, I found out that six of their main rotation players were freshmen. Six. At points, their entire starting five were all freshmen. I knew Kentucky pumped out one-and-done players, but six freshmen? Coming off the much maligned AAU circuit, to play with a minimal veteran presence? That’s tough to organize as a coach, and tough to adjust to as a player -- particularly one that was used off ball so much. That was the first piece of the puzzle, as I had been constantly befuddled by Kentucky’s inability to consistently execute plays effectively. I still can’t figure out what this was supposed to be:

But that’s not all! As I progressed through the games, I began to realize that certain aspects of the Kentucky team were trends, rather than small sample anecdotes. For example: their spacing was largely awful, and that might be an understatement (SIDE NOTE: This is why spacing isn’t defined by percentages, as a quick glance as the individual percentages from 3 implies Kentucky had a bunch of solid shooters). Knox was often playing with two bigs; while those bigs could kinda hit from range, they usually played close to the rim, and defenders didn’t really respect their jumpers. Count the number of opponents in the paint in the clip below; that’s something you almost never see in the NBA. It’s definitely something he’ll never see while playing with Kristaps.

On top of that, the aforementioned inexperience also affects spacing, which we often take for granted as NBA fans. Watch the right side of the floor in this clip. It’s an abomination. It takes 15 seconds for a player to space out to the right side, and when they finally do it, two guys space to the corner. Not pretty. The concept is simple — it’s literally in the name. Spacing = don’t stand still next to your teammates. This is bad offense.

I naturally focused most of my attention on Knox throughout the early stages of this process, but as I became more familiar with his game, I noticed another important factor -- Knox seemingly went entire games without getting an open catch and shoot jumper. As per Synergy, only 40% of Knox’ catch and shoot opportunities were unguarded, which actually seems generous. Much has been made of his low shooting percentages, but the quality of shots he took were generally low. That’s partly his fault, as his shot selection wasn’t too great, but the roster really wasn’t doing him any favors.

As a team, there was a distinct lack of playmaking, which often put Knox in tough spots. This becomes apparent when focusing on Hamadou Diallo, one of Kentucky’s starting guards. This guy is on the level of washed Derrick Rose when it comes to missing open shooters. Diallo had an assist percentage of 9.5% last year; even Rose has never posted an assist percentage lower than 13%. Look how open Knox is in the clip bellow. Even more revealing, look at how Gilgeous-Alexander, at the top of the key, reacts to the Diallo drive. He’s already been conditioned to recognize that the kickout is not gonna be there. He’s literally just walking around, not even bothering to prepare for a kickout, because he knows it’s not coming. It’s actually hilarious.

Gilgeous-Alexander himself was a fantastic playmaker for the Wildcats, but there’s only so much he can do alone. It’s also important to note that Knox’ role as an off ball player likely played a role in his shot selection. If you’re not getting open looks on a consistent basis, but you’re expected to carry the scoring load (even with help from SGA), and you’re not handling the ball? You’re probably gonna take some bad shots when you get the chance. As a team, Kentucky’s offense was pretty awful considering the talent on the roster. They finished 73rd in offensive rating last season, below standouts like Northern Kentucky, Western Kentucky, and Campbell (???). The Wildcats were actually the 2nd worst offensive team containing the namesake of their home state, ahead of only Eastern Kentucky. So there’s that.

At this point, four games in, I’m starting to feel better about this. Knox obviously wasn’t perfect -- he still showed a lack of intensity, particularly on defense, and there were some questions on offense. But I was sold on his post game (which Calipari didn’t use enough), and his shooting looked real, if a bit inconsistent, considering everything we just discussed (77% free throw shooter; 1.179 points per possession on unguarded looks with a sample of only 67 attempts; shoots an easy ball). He had also flashed an instinctive understanding of the game at times: a quick pass out of a post up here, an anticipatory adjustment on defense there. So at this point, I’m thinking: questionable defender with tools, who doesn’t really impact the game outside of his scoring, but can shoot the rock and post up a mismatch? Effort issues, but he’s 18 years old? Taken in the late lottery? Swing for the fences. I’m fine with it.

The last two games I watched, however, really sold me on Knox as a prospect, and legitimately got me excited to see what he could do. About a month after those embarrassing games we discussed earlier, Kentucky played at Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, and he looked like a different player. He showed some improvement in the A&M game, but he got in foul trouble; that turned out to be a preview for the Vanderbilt game, which was a game-changer for me. Don’t bother looking at the box score; that’s not what this is about. What stood out was that, for the first time, Knox had a positive impact on the game outside of his scoring. In the first four games, I didn’t see a single noteworthy defensive play. He always bothered shooters with his length, yes, but other than that, it was ugly. In the Vanderbilt game alone, I caught four or five defensive plays that popped. His footwork on closeouts was improved. His defensive fundamentals were there. He actually got over screens! He was paying attention, and working hard, and working smart. He used his length and athleticism to his advantage instead of using them as a crutch.

The help to contain the drive! The anticipation of the pass! The steal! YES!

The length! The athleticism! The verticality! YES!

And this...the best defensive sequence of his season up to this point, at least in terms of projecting him forward. First, Knox navigates a screen; his closeout a bit shaky afterwards, but he doesn’t bite on the fake. He digs down off his man, using his length to help his teammates. Knox would never do this kind of stuff early in the season, and it drove me insane. Then, to top it off, he funnels his man to his help defender, disrupts without fouling, and helps force the miss. This is great.

It’s obvious Knox improved substantially over the course of a month, let alone the rest of the season. Two weeks later, he dropped 34 on WVU, one of the best defenses in the country.

The point of all this? Context and projection. The early December version of Knox was quite bad for a lottery pick. The early January version of Knox was a different animal. On top of that, this kid has only played full-time basketball for three years. He’s got a ton of stuff to work on, but the rate at which he improved is astounding for such a young player. His summer league performance is even more proof of that. There were questions — fair questions — about his ball handling, as he didn’t do much of it at Kentucky. He’s obviously shown it’s already gotten better. This entire article was largely outlined before his brilliant summer league performance, and it only serves to prove the point. Knox is a swing for the fences, but it’s a calculated swing. And even if it doesn’t clear the wall, there’s a good shot it’s a double anyway.

What will Knox be? Nobody knows for sure, of course. But his natural skill, combined with his lack of experience, means there’s a world out there where Knox is the second star of a future Knicks teams. I’m not sure how likely that is, but I don’t think it’s hyperbolic, at all. He can shoot, he can play out of the post, he’s a willing passer, and he’s a superb athlete for his size. He’s already starting to answer questions that lingered on the scouting reports -- I consistently questioned his effort, but I just watched him recklessly dive on the floor for a loose ball in a summer league game. That’s not something a guy does if he doesn’t give a shit. I still wouldn’t expect Knox to lay waste to the league a la Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum next season, but Knox looks to be a spectacular use of the 9th overall pick. Between him and Mitchell Robinson, there’s a chance that the 2018 draft turns into the type of draft that changes the direction of a franchise for two decades. Let’s hope these guys are up for the challenge.