In British English, a “cornet” is an ice cream cone. Its base is circular and it rises to meet at a single point. Luke Kornet is an almost-23-year-old center. His game’s base is built on three-point shooting and rim protection. The questions around Kornet resolve at a single point: Is he worth committing a roster spot to? Short answer: yes. The Knicks signed him to a one-year, $1.6M deal.
Perhaps the only hotter take in Knick Nation these days than “They have too many point guards!” is “They have too many centers!” You don’t have “too many” of anything if none of what you have is proven. Kyle O’Quinn might have been a bargain re-signing at center...only now he’s a Pacer. Kristaps Porzingis might play center...when/if he returns from a devastating knee injury...only he’s never embraced that role and is out God knows how long with that devastating knee injury and may be less inclined to bang with true centers in the future. Enes Kanter might play center...for a year, at most; he’s not on-board wherever the good ship Knicks be sailing. Mitchell Robinson might play center...only he could spend some or most of the season in the G-League. Joakim Noah might play center...only he’s remained a mysterious figure even after the purging of Jeff Hornacek and is more meaningful right now as a contract than a player. Signing Kornet gives the Knicks one answer at a position rife with questions.
Undrafted rookie free agents are hardly the coin of the realm in today’s NBA; reaching the G-League or landing a job overseas are accomplishments in and of themselves. By any measure, Kornet’s debut season was a success. He appeared in 20 games with the Knicks. That’s something to be proud of, even if your dad was an NBA player and your mom’s a five-time Emmy winner. Andy Rautins, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, and Ognjen Jaramaz were draft picks who never neared Kornet’s run in New York. The organization can be proud to have found a potential roster piece in the roughest of roughs. That Kornet developed at Westchester and then earned the call to the big leagues reflects well on the team’s player development efforts.
The first thing that stands out about Kornet’s year is how centered his game was on three-pointers. No Knick took as high a percentage of their shots from downtown, and it wasn’t really close.
Note the guards on this list. Three of the bottom four rates belong to the point guards. Courtney Lee is 33 and no more a part of the Knick future than Hornacek. Hopefully Damyean Dotson earns more minutes, but at this point that’s about all that’s realistic to hope for from him. The team’s best shooting guard, Tim Hardaway Jr., spent 71% of his playing time as a forward. Ron Baker is the Malik Rose of combo guards: a useful appendage as a 9th or 10th man on a top-to-bottom contender, but ideally not tasked with much beyond that. Couple all this with Porzingis being out for a while and New York needs perimeter threats from its frontcourt.
Kornet burst on the scene with a double-double in his NBA debut against Toronto, then naturally went more than a month without playing more than eight minutes in any game. The last game of the season, in Cleveland, he scored a career-high 23. He also went for 17, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in a late-season win over a Miami fighting for a playoff spot (beating the Heat never gets old). He hit multiple three-pointers in nearly half the games he played (9). Interestingly, the whole corner-three revolution seems to have passed Luke by. He took just 6% of his threes from the corners and made just 29% of those attempts; on all other threes he hit 38%.
I ignored Kornet’s numbers over that lost month and calculated his per-36 averages over the 13 games he played 10+ minutes (minus his second game, a scoreless stinker against Indiana, ‘cuz even young professional athletes nearing wedded bliss deserve a break now and then). Then I used basketball-reference.com’s Player Index tool to look for players 6’10” or taller with comparable numbers to Kornet’s. You know what comes up? Bupkis. Maybe I was inputting something wrong, because I kept picking his numbers as parameters and getting lists with guys who didn’t hit all the numbers Kornet managed. So I did the dirty work of manually poring over all 30 teams’ per-36 numbers. Here are Kornet and his per-36 peers:
Kornet = 15.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.3 threes, 1.7 blocks
Serge Ibaka = 16.5, 8, 1.8, 1.7
Al Horford = 14.7, 8, 1.2, 1.5
Joel Embiid = 21, 13, 2.1, 1.2
Myles Turner = 16, 8, 1.1, 2.3
Thon Maker = 10, 6.5, 1, 1.5
Porzingis = 25, 7, 2.1, 2.7
Jonathan Isaac = 9.7, 6.6, 1.1, 2
Nikola Vucevic = 20, 11, 1.4, 1.3
Dewayne Dedmon = 14.4, 11.4, 1.2, 1.2
Kevin Durant = 27.7, 7.2, 2.7, 1.8
Draymond Green = 12.2, 8.4, 1.2, 1.4
Mo Harkless = 11, 4.6, 1.4, 1.2
DeMarcus Cousins = 25.1, 12.8, 2.2, 1.6
Karl-Anthony Towns = 21.5, 12.5, 1.5, 1.4
Paul Millsap = 17.5, 7.7, 1.2, 1.4
Brook Lopez = 20, 6.1, 2.3, 2
Marc Gasol = 18.8, 9, 1.5, 1.6
Half this list features All-Stars, something Kornet will never be. Nor will he ever be tasked with carrying the load many of these players carry. It’s fair to question how comparable his production is in the first place, coming not over 82 games but over 1⁄4 of a season, late in the season, for a team headed for the lottery rather than the playoffs. But if a year from now Mitchell Robinson’s name was on a list with the players above, we’d all be pleasantly surprised. Kornet’s appearance there is an undeniable positive. He can score from far out, a problem for opponents. You won’t mistake him for Curly Neal off the dribble (or Kyrie Irving, for our younger readers), but he can put the ball on the floor, at least functionally.
Might doesn’t make right, but sometimes height makes might. Here the big man needs but two dribbles to go from faking a three to laying it in at the rim.
He can deny easy baskets from in close, causing opponents a whole other set of problems. These problems matter.
While Kornet is not a plus passer, he also doesn’t treat the ball as a hot potato or get all black holey with it. Porzingis dished 4+ assists just once in 48 games last year. Kornet did so twice in 20. Watch your back, Ben Simmons.
There are reasons to question Kornet’s long-term viability. He’s a weak rebounder for a seven-footer, finishing in just the 30th percentile of defensive rebounding missed field goals and the 12th percentile in offensive rebounding missed shots. Since graduating high school he’s been below-average from distance, often well-below. As a sophomore at Vanderbilt he hit 40% of his threes, but his other three years he made just 24%, 28%, and 33%. His 35% mark as a pro now that the league has had an entire offseason to register what he does and try to take it away.
One might assume now that he’s a professional and has all year to practice, it should improve. But five years of data suggests Kornet’s not a super-tall Steve Novak. If his efficacy stems more from the volume of his shooting than its accuracy, and he’s a fourth or fifth option, how valuable is that?
Another concern with Kornet is his non-footspeed on defense. The man is mostly fish food on the perimeter. Late in the season when the Knicks played the Cavaliers, LeBron James used Kornet as practice for what he’d try with Steph Curry in the Finals: endless pick-and-rolls, forcing Luke into a switch and then attacking him off the dribble. It’s not just that Kornet is slow-moving on the floor. He’s slow getting off it, too.
In the 14 games Kornet played 10+ minutes, his plus/minus was a positive in just three. I’m not sure how relevant plus/minus is, but being a net negative almost three-fourths of the time seems like...a net negative.
There’s no question Kornet’s debut turned out better than almost anyone could have hoped. What his value is going forward will depend on whether the Knicks do anything else at the center position this summer, whether Kornet can improve his three-point accuracy, and whether that accuracy plus his rim protection outweighs his vulnerabilities on the boards and defending in space. What do you feel about Luke 2.0.? Yea? Nay? Meh?