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Summer skill development: Which Knicks walked the walk?

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I am trying to be positive for once.

Good evening, children. It’s ya boy Prez AKA “Dont @ me” AKA “No really, my Twitter is locked and private so you can’t @ me,” here to put a bow on some offseason shenanigans.

When Drew and Shwin so graciously invited me onto the P&T Show, we discussed some of the young Knickerbockers’ offseason on-court social media exploits. We hear a lot about who is in better shape, who worked on what, along with staged videos promising “ThE BeSt Is YeT To CoMe!,” filled with comments from current and former teammates (97.8 percent of the time: “ ”).

My goal with this piece is to provide some level of tracking to create an informed discussion here on P&T about where our kids are beginning the season, skill-wise, based on preseason and training camp. Player development is the Great White Whale for our Knicks, the trump card on which Scott Perry and Steve Mills have pretty much bet all their credibility on, even more so than other rebuilding front offices.

We’ve seen very marginal developments, so it’s not like there hasn’t been ANY, but we haven’t (in my opinion) seen truly meaningful development of any player. KP right now is a slightly better version of who he was his rookie year, but he’s for the most part the same, with the physical development to adjust to an NBA 3-point line that we expected. We’ve seen fringe guys on their way out of the league save their careers by having spurts of development (Vonleh, Mudiay, etc). And, although their time in our system (and on the planet) has been extremely brief, we haven’t seen much development from Knox or Frank prior to this offseason.

So, without further adieu, let’s see what we heard early on this summer and compare it to what we have seen over the last few weeks! Also, apologies in advance because I am not as savvy as some of my P&T colleagues and haven’t quite worked out how to screen-record so this will probably more screenshots and “take my word” than we would all like. Also, thanks to Dallas (the writer here at P&T, not the team or city) for some of these clips!

Dennis Smith Jr.: Jumper and conditioning

In his own words, on his remade jumper: “It’s a big difference,” he said. “It’s a really big difference. I can feel it. Everybody can see it, from my pops and my friends. Adding that to my game and getting consistent, I think that’s going to open up the floor, not only for me but for everybody else and make my reads a lot easier. It’s major for me.”

In his own words on his conditioning: “I had to change some of the things I ate,” Smith said. “I’m a country boy, man. We eat different down there. ... I ain’t eat Bojangles for most of the summer. I ain’t no liar. I ain’t eat Bojangles for most of the summer — it helped.”

PRE-ANALYSIS RANT, AND NOTICE TO EVERYONE ON THE INTERNET WRITING ABOUT THE KNICKS: Take your preseason and FIBA and summer league small sample size stats and politely shove it up your butts. You’re welcome! Nothing is worse* than seeing writers paid to write about basketball who ostensibly understand the concept of sample size prove they in fact do not understand it, and cite 3P% over a six-game FIBA tournament or a three-game Summer League as evidence of some change or some theory. If you REALLY want to cite it, please qualify it by saying that it is likely meaningless, but taken together with X, Y, and Z other observations (i.e. “Knox said he is trying not to take as many long twos”), it might support some conclusion (that you almost certainly don’t need that stat to prove). Here’s a back-of-the-napkin trick: if the stat you like takes long to stabilize and/or changes dramatically when you remove one game’s worth of numbers, you should probably fire it into the sun! On the other hand, if it is a statistic that stabilizes much faster, like, say, team pace, then go on and use it! Congratulations, you now are that much closer to understanding basic statistics!

*many things are worse, actually.

OK: Dennis Smiff! Did he remake his jumper for the better? Well, it is tough to tell. From his workout videos, it looked like he had a few goals: 1) stop jumping super high on jumpers, especially threes, to have more consistency shot-to-shot in terms of releasing on the way up, 2) attempting to cut out that nasty hitch and 3) being fluid on free throws and not shot-putting it with one hand like he did last season in Dallas and NY.

Prez’ Verdicts: mixed bag, womp womp.

I couldn’t get all the clips I want, so just trust me here.

1. The free throw’s still kinda gross. If you run back my shitty guerilla video of his free throws vs. New Orleans last week, you’ll see he still actively removes his guide hand before releasing it. What you want to see is the guide hand just remaining set/still while the shooting hand goes through the shooting motion. Not all of them were as bad as that one, so he might be able to improve on the 55 percent he shot from the line as a Knick, but probably not more than 65 percent.

2. This three was his only make, and you can kind of see what he’s going for with it. He doesn’t jump high at all, and there’s actually not much of a hitch! It’s still a very slow shot, so for that to work he’d have to shoot fewer threes/only shoot when he’s really open. That’s problematic — I don’t have video of the other threes, but he had more variety in his jump height (all were high) and they were more hitch-y too. He was also visibly not willing to take some semi-contested looks from three.

So did he walk the walk this summer? Eh. I don’t really think so. Revamping a jumper isn’t a one summer thing, to be fair, but he went through this last year in Dallas too — that offseason he worked with Steph Curry’s trainer (all are from North Carolina). Hence my tinfoil hat theory that an injury derailed his form and he played/shot through it for months in Dallas, cementing a shittier shot than he had at NC State.

Oh yeah, lost weight: seems legit! he was flying up and down the court pushing the pace. See Dallas’ excellent thread on that here. Being more pass-first, pushing the pace, and giving better effort like he did vs. the Pelicans are all ways he can try to mitigate the demise of his shot.

Mitchell Robinson: Shooting

In his own words, on his shooting: “Why work on something you’re not going to use? I’m looking forward to it.”

Prez’ Verdict: Cool story, bro

Don’t need video or much analysis here. His jumper looks mostly the same as it has since his days in Louisiana, when he shot 38 percent from three his senior year on 100-plus attempts. His footwork on catch-and-shoot threes looked clean in some practice vids, but he didn’t take any this preseason. We just saw free throws and a few random midrange shots, all of which missed but looked fine, I guess. The way I see it, if RoLo and Aron Baynes can hit a midrange jumper and a three here or there, Mitch will get to similarly passable numbers if he takes ’em. No idea if he will. Expect 70 percent from the line this year, though.

Frank Ntilikina: Jumper and handle

In his own words: “Everything,” Ntilikina said when asked what he’s been working on. “My body, the way I handle the ball, the way I shoot the ball, the way I’m comfortable moving around with the ball and without. So I can improve and bring a lot to my team.”

P&T covered Frank in FIBA pretty thoroughly, so I won’t spend much time here. His jumper looks improved, mostly because he is strong enough to shoot balanced more often. Sometimes he still goes into his bad habits of taking long, hanging midrange shots or hoisting threes without using his legs, but mostly the form is clean. I’d expect league average from three and somewhere in the 80s from the line, at minimum.

In the clip above, you see the most notable change, his comfort handling under pressure, which opens up more shots at the rim and more passes like the one he sneaks to Taj. I couldn’t find good clips of him bringing the ball up under pressure (the least-highlight-like thing in basketball YouTube), but he’s willing to just face guys up and go around the back, and throw in basic hesis and the like. I still think his handle is average at best, but that’s way up from where he was at 19 years old. He’s not gonna break dudes down and drive or even catch guys sleeping with hesis (see the RJ Barrett hang dribble drive and layup later in this piece), but it’s a start.

Prez’ Verdict: Small but important steps forward. Will be a “real, useful NBA player” for the first time, especially when sharing the court with RJ. Will this real useful NBA player be on the Knicks by Christmas? Find out on the next episode of Dragon Ball Z!

Kevin Knox: Handling, getting stronger, efficiency

In his own words: “I’ve gotten a lot stronger. I’ve been in the weight room. Just my ball-handling. Just being more efficient around the floor.”

Enough ink has been spilled here about his historic inefficiency last year. This year, Knox is a year older (though still younger than most rookies drafted in 2019), and a year wiser. Arguably more importantly, he will play an entirely different role than the undeserving-usage-sponge he was last year. Gone will be regular 38-minute games and creation responsibilities, some of which will be replaced by increased spot-up shooting and increased transition play.

These clips are illustrative of a few of the changes you hope to see! Knox wasn’t really one for workout videos — just for working out, apparently — and I’ll take it.

The first clip shows a real, actual, legit successful yo-yo crossover (he got mugged after and there was no call, I don’t care about that part) where he really transfers his weight and uses his wingspan to create space. He wopped him up — don’t think I ever uttered that sentence with Knox last year.

In the second clip, he drives left in a crowd and finishes. Driving left-handed and taking contact and finishing requires strength, a better handle, and coordination. Nice! Not shooting stupid floaters is also a great idea for improving efficiency! I don’t expect him to be some ambidextrous finishing savant, but he has been pretty balanced on drives and jumps compared to last year. The final clip shows him dribbling left as the handler in pick-and-roll with Meech, and his handle is strong and confident enough for him to be under control and look over his defenders to fire a frozen rope to his big.

Prez’ Verdict: Seems legit

I will go so far as to say if he gets more layups, more spot-up threes, fewer floaters, more transition buckets (and doesn’t shoot 75 percent on dunks again — not a typo), and continues to get to the line at the same rate, he’ll be passable for a 20-year-old in terms of offensive efficiency rather than the cover-your-eyes LiveLeak-video-type numbers he put up last year.

RJ Barrett: Jumper, finishing, handle, defense, world peace

In his own words: “I missed way too many layups [in Summer League].”

“Really right now I’m working my tail off on the defensive end. I’m just trying to get better there. Coach always wants a defensive guy on the court, you know? So if I could do that starting out. … It’s funny. If you’re smart on how you do things and keep your movements precise, that will even give you an advantage or help you keep up with a stronger guy.’’

In his trainer’s words: “I put him on the exact same shiftiness program that I put Bradley Beal on a few years ago, and it really helped Brad turn into a playmaker,” Hanlen said. “With Brad, it was really a two-summer process. We put RJ on it in the pre-draft. It takes time to get shifty and get your body moving, get it to more fast-twitch movement and everything like that.”

There’s a lot RJB was purportedly working on. Let’s start with...

Defense: his defense has been far better than at Duke. Now, at least, he appears to be pretty thoughtful as a defender and as a player working on his craft. In the second clip above, he navigates an off-ball screen with ease by not blindly following his man, but also keeping an eye out for screens, like in the first clip. He also is fond of jumping a screen and forcing ball handlers one way (sort of like “ICE-ing” if you’re familiar with that), and he often manages to do it without selling out. In the second clip you see him supporting Frank’s harassing defense by shading Collins, preventing the easy pass out to Collins, all while pointing and barking orders. He has done a lot of pointing and directing for other wings this preseason, which is pretty neat to watch - it’s a sign of a defender dictating/anticipating rather than reacting.

Wiggle/handling: No clips here. He’s shown control more than wiggle, to be honest, which is the first step. I haven’t seen him really cross someone up, but the control helps him find passes inside the three point line, which wasn’t his forte at Duke. We knew he was a tremendous passer from above the break, but being able to control your handle allows you to be in situations like this:

... and still be able to pass to the open man through a crowd here, which he did.

Now, what that handle look like, Rowan?

This kind of move is the fanciest we’ll probably get. Hang dribbles to lull guys to sleep before the blow-by. Eventually, he’ll learn counters and combos off that, but that’s probably a second-year thing or later — it ain’t his game right now.

Finishing: No pics or clips here, just take my word. He has finished with his right hand a few times without hesitation. He’s finished strong, high off the glass, reverse layups. It’s pretty clear to me that he’s put in some work in halfcourt finishing. He was crappy near the rim at Duke (50 percent), with a significant percentage of his makes both buoyed by tons of assisted transition buckets and weighed down by tons of horrible in-between flip shots and floaters. He hasn’t shot many of the latter this preseason. I don’t expect a rookie Kevin Knox finishing situation this season with him, at all. Probably something around 60 percent at the rim, which would be pretty good for a rookie. For comparison, Jayson Tatum shot 64 percent inside 10 feet (which is great) as a rookie, per NBA.com. He’s still not explosive off the dribble in terms of vertical leap, which makes most contested finishes difficult ones. However, I suspect he will utilize his strength advantage and eschew shittier finishes as a rookie, compared to his time as a Duke frosh.

Jumper: Not going to spend time on this, in a plot twist... his jumper is pretty streaky and a work in progress, which we knew. I don’t doubt that he worked on it, though. I’d expect a rough year, probably something like 30 percent from three and 65 percent from the line. What he can do to help is not take as many midrange shots, which I think will happen naturally on the Knicks since he won’t be the main scorer like he was at Duke.

Prez’ Verdict: Mostly legit!

How players go from bad or OK to good on defense as they transition from college to the NBA isn’t really well understood... it’s probably a combination of work, but also of study. He’s clearly done both. The jumper’s still a work in progress, but everything is slowly progressing from where it was at Duke before he’s even played a real game. Pretty good sign. He still needs the jumper to tie everything together, but he won’t be Lefty Mario Hezonja, at worst. The work on finishing and shot selection shows self awareness of weakness, which is honestly half the battle with uber-talented dudes, as Knick fans know all too well.