Free agency has come and gone. The Knicks missed out on superstars and filled their cap space with solid players on short-term deals. While the strategy is generally a smart one, New York also has a collection of young players that need room to grow. Fifteen players are legitimately fighting for playing time, and head coach David Fizdale must find the right balance of letting the kids play (more important) and satisfying the vets (really not that important if we’re being honest, except for showcasing trade value). Let’s dive into how this rotation might shake out.
The young guns
RJ Barrett: This one is fairly simple. The Knicks took Barrett with the third overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, despite multiple avenues to move the pick. The Maple Mamba will be handed the keys this year and have every opportunity to succeed. Barrett had an up-and-down Summer League, combining brutal inefficiency with crafty passing and attacking instincts. He’ll have the ball in his hands a lot, so expect plenty of growing pains, although those should start to subside in the second half of the season. Aside from a night off or reduced minutes here or there, this should be RJ’s team, for better or worse.
Mitchell Robinson: We know Big Mitch is getting more than the 20.6 minutes he averaged last season. The second-round steal is arguably the Knicks’ most promising young player. His incredible defensive ability, shot-blocking prowess, and lob-catch radius make him one of the more enticing bigs in the league. He may top out as a rich man’s Rudy Gobert, and what that means in the modern NBA is up for debate. But the Knicks will give him every chance to see if can reach his ceiling. Robinson averaged 4.3 blocks per 36 minutes last season, and his average of 2.4 blocks per game was second in the entire NBA. It would not be a surprise to see the big man lead the league in blocks if he gets the minutes I expect him to.
Kevin Knox: While it was mostly a house of horrors, there were some bright spots during Knox’s rookie year. He showed some shooting ability and versatility, and the kid is still approaching his 20th birthday. While he may be inefficient and poor defensively so far, let’s wait a bit before we call him a bust. That being said, Knox’s percentages and passing numbers were atrocious, and he absolutely needs to work on taking better shots and making his teammates better. Knox looked more refined this Summer League, for what it’s worth. I think he should get all the minutes he can handle, and hopefully his conditioning is improved so it isn’t just First Quarter Knox. The Kentucky product may never be a star, but if he reaches his potential, there’s a highly talented 3-and-D wing somewhere in there. The 2019-2020 season should give him all the opportunity to show what he’s got and continue to grow, especially as a small-ball 4. But if things go south, I worry about him getting buried behind Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock, Bobby Portis and the other vets, entering a situation similar to Frank Ntilikina’s. Speaking of...
Frank Ntilikina: The French Prince has become a line in the sand for Knicks fans — beloved by his supporters, trashed by his haters. That’s saying something for a guy who has yet to average six points per contest. However, we all know Frank’s game is predicated on his defense, and while he may have taken a step back last season, he showed enough promise his rookie year to make you think he can be a lockdown defender with his size and instincts. During an injury-riddled second year, Ntilikina could never find a rhythm on the floor. But he’s only approaching his 21st birthday and still has the potential to be a valuable 3-and-D guy. The ironic part about all of the Frank trade rumors is that he may be the last guy the Knicks should be looking to trade. His value is at rock bottom, so you aren’t getting anything for him, and his ability to play off-ball makes him a better fit next to a star (one day) than arguably anyone on the roster. The caveat here is that he must develop into at least an above average spot-up shooter. I believe Frank should get every chance to show his stuff in a make-or-break year, but with the construction of this roster, I’m not optimistic about that happening.
Dennis Smith Jr.: The centerpiece of the Kristaps Porzingis trade, Smith Jr. will get the chance to take the starting point guard role and run with it. If he makes a leap, that’s great news for New York, as they desperately need some of these young players to pop and become more than “solid rotation players.” Smith Jr. saw his shooting percentages take a hit once he joined the Knicks, but with more talent surrounding him, he should theoretically see those numbers increase. The problem with that theory, however, is the Knicks’ spacing. It’s hard to really know which of the Knicks’ young players will develop into consistent three-point shooters (I expect Dotson to be that this year), but only three of their new free agents have shot it from deep at an above average clip for more than one season: Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock, and Bobby Portis. Julius Randle’s long-ball looked good last year, but I’m not sold just yet. Smith Jr. needs all the room he can get to operate and use his athleticism to get to the rim. Has the front office really put him in the best position to succeed?
Allonzo Trier: I’m not the biggest Trier fan, but there’s no doubting his production. Iso Zo was a walking bucket off the bench last year, scoring from everywhere on the floor, including 39 percent from deep (albeit on limited attempts). Trier has some passing chops and the size to be an OK defender despite his limited athleticism. He reminds me of a Lou Williams type who comes in and takes over when the starters take a breather. That type of player is much more valuable on a contender, and the Knicks will be lucky to win 30 games this season. Still, his scoring ability and sheer numbers will make it hard to keep Zo off the floor. If he takes another step forward, Trier presents an interesting conundrum. He could bring back some value in a trade, and given his age (24 in January), he may not completely match up with the other young Knicks’ timelines. On the contrary, if the Knicks truly do want to continue star hunting as soon as the trade deadline or next summer, Trier could be an important piece on that hypothetical roster.
Iggy Brazdeikis: While Summer League Iggy showed some exciting flashes, I don’t want to jump the gun just yet (see Knox, Kevin). Brazdeikis is no doubt a smooth player with a good shot and feel for the game. He has a scorer’s mentality and plenty of confidence. But how does he handle NBA length and athleticism? Iggy should get the chance to earn some minutes with his strong play, but a crowded roster may relegate him to the end of the bench. If that’s his fate, I’d rather see him play some minutes in the G-League and get in reps. Then if some guys get moved at the deadline, the second half could be his time to shine.
Damyean Dotson: Dotson has shown plenty of promise to develop into a dependable 3-and-D player. What worries me is whether or not the Knicks completely understand the value in that. Dotson hit nearly 37 percent from deep last year and proved to be able to shoot from all over the floor at a decent clip. Combined with his solid wing defense, he can contribute to a winning team. There may not be a ton of upside, but Dotson is the kind of two-way player that New York has historically neglected. The Knicks’ defense has been an abomination for so long that you’d think they’d focus on that end of the floor a little more as they try to reach relevance again — many of their players would get exposed defensively in a playoff series, and Dotson is not one of them. I’d love to see the Knicks prioritize Dotson, but with the developments of RJ, Knox, Mitch, and DSJ all ahead of him in the pecking order, plus the new free agents wanting minutes, Dotson could get buried. What’s worse, I could see him moving to a new team and providing real value in greener pastures.
The grizzled vets
Julius Randle: It seemed like Randle was the Knicks’ big free agent target all along — at least once Kevin Durant was out of the picture. I warmed up to the signing once I realized that there was a third-year option, but I didn’t love it at first. Randle has never been an above-average defender, although his offensive game is starting to blossom. One-way players tend to limit your team. Yet there’s something to be said about having a legitimately good basketball player on the Knicks roster. Randle averaged over 20 points per game last year and shot well everywhere on the floor for a Pelicans team that lacked talent once Anthony Davis requested a trade. He averaged 3.1 assists last season and showed the ability to play point forward. As long as his 3-point shooting is for real, Randle should make the Knicks better and should get all the minutes he can handle. Hurting the defense isn’t a concern right now, since the Knicks aren’t going to make the playoffs. What matters is Randle is the best player the Knicks have had since they traded Porzingis. And at 24 years old, who knows what his ceiling is. Maybe he has a D’Angelo Russell-type breakout and the contract looks great, or maybe the Knicks can move him for some serious value.
Reggie Bullock: Bullock has proven to be an exceptional 3-and-D player in his six-year career. However, he doesn’t really do much else. That’s still enough to make him the perfect role player to fit in any lineup, and that’s why I expect him to play a good amount. Bullock is probably more valuable on a playoff team, so maybe the Knicks can flip him at the deadline for something of value. Until then, he’ll bring some much-needed floor spacing for the Baby Knicks.
Wayne Ellington: Another dead-eye shooter, Ellington will have one main similar role for these Knicks: space the floor. Ellington was actually a slightly better defender than Bullock last year, but his track record is questionable, and he doesn’t do much in the playmaking department. Bullock, Ellington, and Dotson are all players in the modern-NBA mold, so it’d be great to see them all get a decent amount of playing time. But with all the power forwards on this roster, it’s likely the Knicks will play big more often than not, which could hurt Ellington’s minutes. I could see him as an end-of-the-rotation guy who could be rewarded with more minutes if his shooting percolates. But with the signing of Marcus Morris, someone else will be the odd man out, and I think it’s Ellington.
Bobby Portis: Portis is similar to Randle, just not nearly as skilled offensively, even worse defensively, but a better 3-point shooter. The redundancy of this move is why I’d have rather not signed Portis. But the former Bull will get some run, rebound a ton, and space the floor (nearly 40 percent from deep last year). It’s not out of the question that fans prefer him to Randle at the end of the year depending on how things shake out. But it’s also very possible he finds himself riding the pine late in the season. I’m guessing we see the latter.
Taj Gibson: Speaking of beating a dead horse, the Knicks signed yet another big man to their crowded rotation. Do we not care about seeing what Knox can do at the 4? The Knicks have so many players (look how long this list is) and simply not enough minutes to go around. I don’t think Gibson will play many minutes this year, and I really hope I’m right. If we paid him $10 million this year to sit on the bench and be a leader for the young guys, I’m fine with that. But there’s really no reason he should be taking time away from Mitch, Knox, and Randle.
Elfrid Payton: Payton is a tricky one to peg. He’s a great passer and a plus rebounder for a guard (7.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game). He even turned in a decent defensive year last year, and at 6-foot-4 with about a 6-foot-7 wingspan, he could continue to improve on that part of his game. But he can’t shoot, and that’s a major red flag. Payton said he came to New York because he knew he would get minutes, so we know he’ll play. The Knicks are also lacking point guards, with him and Smith Jr. as the only true PGs on the roster (although I expect Barrett to get some time there). Look for DSJ to start and Payton to back him up, but if the Smith Jr. experience goes south, Payton could supplant him as the team’s starter.
Marcus Morris: Morris is a talented all-around wing who can shoot, rebound, defend, and even do a little secondary playmaking. His All-Star-esque numbers fell off last year, but any team would be happy to have him. The problem with this signing is that the Knicks’ pack-of-sardines roster has become even tighter. I’d be much more excited if Morris was the Knicks’ first signing, and they didn’t take everyone else, but he should be able to help out the kids and bring back a return at the deadline, at the very least. Morris and Randle are probably the Knicks’ two best players (unless Mitch has something to say about that), so I expect them to get first cracks at starting.
To recap, I feel like the Knicks will give some of the young players the chance to succeed early, but with a tight leash. If the inefficient play of DSJ or Knox continues, Fizdale won’t have any choice but to play the more productive vets.
Expected starters: Dennis Smith Jr., R.J. Barrett, Marcus Morris, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson
Expected bench: Eflrid Payton, Allonzo Trier, Kevin Knox, Reggie Bullock, Bobby Portis
Lost in the shuffle: Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, Wayne Ellington, Taj Gibson
Would benefit from the G-League: Iggy Brazdeikis