The following article was written by guest contributor Colin Connors.
With Kristaps Porzingis’ timetable still up in the air and the front office poised to make a splash next off-season, the theme for the upcoming Knicks’ season has shifted to one of youth and development. However, with only a few young prospects on the current roster, the front office entered this offseason poised with the task of collecting more youngsters while also keeping their books clean going forward. Unfortunately, (as every front office knows all too well) young prospects generally aren’t available under those circumstances unless there’s serious baggage involved — this meant the only way for New York to acquire young talent would be the annual “second draft sweepstakes.”
The second draft is a new phenomenon that has swept across the league’s less fortunate teams in recent years due to the suddenly-more-mainstream nature of tanking. Not nearly as exciting as the first, the second draft consists entirely of former highly regarded lottery picks whose failures for the team that drafted them sours public opinion on the player to the point that said team lets them walk for essentially nothing. These forgotten prospects are then picked up on team-friendly deals by organizations with no immediate plans of winning who think they have the system in place that can salvage at least some of the player’s once-boundless potential.
While the success rate is far from promising (Ben McLemore in Memphis, Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas in Brooklyn, Georgios Papagiannis in Portland, etc.), the idea is sound. In lost seasons when winning isn’t the number one priority, why not use a meaningless roster spot on a forgotten young prospect once beaming with potential and hope his shortcomings are endemic to his prior team? If the player’s struggles continue, they’re off your books in a year and all you lose is a few more throwaway games. If he thrives, you have a great shot at retaining him, considering the long-awaited success he found in your system.
It became clear the Knicks liked the idea when they got their feet wet last season by acquiring two quasi-second draft prospects in Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke. The mild success that Burke saw likely inspired them to dive right in this offseason and sign former top-10 picks Mario Hezonja and Noah Vonleh.
Coming into the draft not-so-many years ago, scouts touted both Hezonja and Vonleh as stud athletes with star potential. Unfortunately, for their first couple years in the league, development was hard to find as their tantalizing physical tools failed to translate to much on-court substance. Those failures to meet the expectations attached to their draft position caused both of their earlier teams to cut bait and abandon them before their rookie deal had even run its course. Fortunately for Knicks fans, not all is lost in these signings, as both Hezonja and Vonleh were thrust into new roles late last season due to extraneous circumstances, and surprisingly, found the greatest success of their young careers.
After essentially losing his first two seasons in a haze of knee issues and maturity problems, Hezonja finally took meaningful strides this season after being moved to the power forward position out of sheer necessity once the Magic’s injury list began to pile up. After playing almost exclusively as a 2-3 his entire career, Hezonja played the four for almost 60% of his minutes last season (per Basketball Reference). The change suddenly made him look like the plus athlete scouts once drooled over as his struggles to create off the dribble against perimeter players became a thing of the past when facing the slower-footed forwards. There was even an 11-game stretch in February where Hezonja averaged 15.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.5 assists and looked like the Magic’s best player. In the end, he posted career highs in everything from points, assists, and rebounds to VORP, PER, and BPM. This left Orlando’s new management kicking themselves for their short-sighted decision to decline his 4th-year team-option the previous summer despite being strapped for young talent.
After having the Magic’s decision makers bury him behind the Jeff Green’s of the world in multiple overly-ambitious attempts to chase the eighth seed, Hezonja comes to New York with a newfound role and the most playing-time certainty of his young career. Considering the newly hired David Fizdale built his reputation on player development, it’s not impossible that the trend of former Magic prospects picks finding their second legs in a better situation (see Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo) continues with Mario Hezonja. Even if he doesn’t pop, it’s still within the realm of possibility that Hezonja turns into a quality role player that they could re-sign next summer.
In Vonleh, it’s yet another flier, but the ceiling is far higher than his four-teams-in-five-years career would suggest. After being traded to Chicago at the deadline in a purely cost-cutting move, Bulls’ coach Fred Hoiberg decided to experiment and play Vonleh on the perimeter for the first time in his young career. The move worked wonders as the agile Vonleh thrived beating bigs off the catch and shooting threes at more than double the rate he had in any season prior. While the efficiency was spotty at times, Vonleh posted career highs across his per 36 numbers and in every catch-all advanced stat (PER, BPM, VORP, etc). Ultimately, the Bulls were 4.6 points better with him on the court and at times had to trim his minutes during their season-ending tank-fest.
The odds of Vonleh reaching his pre-draft potential are slim to none at this point, but there’s a decent possibility his past season was the beginning of a reinvention from which the Knicks will get to reap the benefits. If things break right, Vonleh could be a serviceable floor-spacing depth forward to pair next to Porzingis in shooting-heavy lineups.
As exciting as those numbers are for either player, let’s be clear: the Knicks aren’t getting a star with either of these signings. But that’s fine. The second draft isn’t about finding a forgotten star, it’s about developing solid bench depth for a fraction of the market cost.
To see the model for utilizing the second draft, look no further than the Portland Trailblazers. Looking down their rotation in recent years, some of their best ancillary contributors (Mo Harkless, Shabazz Napier, etc) have been rescue projects they picked up for spare parts. With multiple stars eating away at their cap space, general manager Neil Olshey usually has no choice but to take chances on bargain bin prospects to round out the roster. This season is no exception as the Blazers enter the season depending on unproven draft “busts”, Wade Baldwin and Nik Stauskas, to right the ship and provide their backcourt depth.
And yet, as I mentioned before, the success rate for second draft contracts is never very high. For every Napier or Harkless, there’s a few Papagiannis’ and (at least in his Blazer tenure) Vonleh’s. That’s why Knick fans shouldn’t be worried about the positional redundancy of Vonleh and Hezonja, or Burke and Mudiay. Let the cream rise to the top. If even two of them become contributors to future Knick teams with legitimate playoff aspirations, then this whole process is a win. Kudos to the New York front office for embracing the second draft, don’t be surprised if other teams begin to follow their lead.