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Knicks player development in 2018-19: Marginal improvements, sneaky good

How did the Knicks fare at developing their young players last season?

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NBA: New York Knicks at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Warning: meaningless meandering basketball philosophizing comes first, evaluating how we developed our players last season comes second — so feel free to skip my rambles and scroll down to the good stuff!

Player development was supposed to be the main attraction of the Fizdale-Perry Administration in MSG. We heard about Conley and Gasol evolving under Fizdale; we heard about Fiz bringing some of that Heatles-Era p90x conditioning; we heard about Perry’s preference for younger players with athleticism and upside, with a good head on their shoulders; we heard Perry express confidence in Craig Robinson’s development program.

So have we seen successful player development? I have heard a few writers covering the Knicks note that since we didn’t deem any of the project signings from last year worth re-signing, we struck out on that front. By the same token, our cadre of kids (except for Mitchell Robinson) have underwhelmed on the development front. And Tim Hardaway Jr., the lone big money signing that Fiz and Perry inherited and had a chance to develop, remained the same inefficient zero-way player he was with us in Dallas despite no longer being a primary option. So what does that mean?

Development is a tricky thing — we all think we know it when we see it, and we pretend we know how much of it is due to a coach and how much is due to the player himself. The Media “knows” the Celtics developed Jayson Tatum, and “knows” the Kings developed De’Aaron Fox, both of whom were hyped but “arrived” ahead of schedule. We “know” the Raptors developed Pascal Siakam, partly in the G-League, which lends a bit more credence to that particular claim. Other players are harder: do we give the Wolves credit for Lauri Markkanen’s development in Chicago? Do we give it to the Bulls? Or do we assume incompetence from both teams and give credit solely to Lauri? Or was Lauri (like Tatum) simply already really good, undervalued on draft night, and thus not “developed” much at all? What about role players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Ingles, or Joe Harris — how much of their late bloomer development can be attributed to the teams they ended up on vs. the teams they started with?

Additionally, an undervalued player can not develop much and still produce and become hugely valuable and appear developed, and overrated or less good players can develop and still not be that good! I bring that up to say that player evaluation and player development are two separate things to me, despite their overlap in player perception. I am of the opinion that the Knicks are not that good at player evaluation, but seem to be solid in development, as you will see below. This year will be a really telling year for their development, which plays an inordinate role in this organization’s future because, moreso than other organizations, Perry and friends draft guys not based on what they have done, but more on what they could do.

Anyway, ON TO THE YOUNG PLAYERS! Since there are a lot of players to cover, I’m gonna keep it concise for each and focus on one question: did they end the season as meaningfully better players than they began?

Frank Ntilikina

Frank didn’t really end up, by eye test or by stats, meaningfully improved last year. His jumper and his finishing never came around, his defense was slightly more inconsistent than his first year, and injury marred his season. His playing time and his position were jerked around incessantly due to his ability to defend multiple positions and the rest of our guards’ ability to... not do that. The one notable change in his game came during a midseason stretch where he tried, with mixed results, to buy into Fizdale’s “aggression first” mentality, resulting in some higher FGA/minute games (both good and bad) and less pass-first play (and less assists).

Verdict: No development, womp womp.

Dennis Smith Jr

We didn’t have Dennis for most of the year, and we got him after a few injuries. As a Knick, he didn’t change his game up that much, aside from having more opportunities to run the offense than he did in Dallas in the Carlisle/Luka/multiple-ball-handler offense. As a result, his assist percentage ticked up and his turnovers ticked down, and his free throw rate also went up. Beyond that, his finishing and shooting numbers all remained pretty similar to his rookie year. From an eye test perspective, his shot is unquestionably more broken both in-game and on free throws, compared to his days at NC State: he has a more pronounced hitch and his guide hand comes entirely off the ball VERY early. But that isn’t the Knicks’ fault, from a development perspective.

Verdict: N/A.

Allonzo Trier

Trier is exactly what I was talking about in my intro spiel: he was underrated coming in, exceeded expectations, and surprised everyone. Did the Knicks develop him? Probably not much, given it was his rookie year. I will say I saw noticeable effort to pass a bit more later in the year rather than Iso Zo it up every. single. time., though that was more of a game-by-game observation: his assist:turnover ratio didn’t meaningfully change as the year went on. What the stats DID bear out: he put up a higher volume of threes (going from under two per game to 2.3 and then 3.5 in February and March, respectively).

Verdict: A teeeeeny bit of development.

Emmanuel Mudiay

I think most of Knicks fandom cheered when Mudi signed his contract with the Utah Jazz, because he was a player who was frustrating to watch and overrated by a vocal segment of Knicks and non-Knicks fans due to his sporadic 25- and 30-point games. I need not recount all the ways his bad decisions and lack of effort on defense outweighed those rare scoring outages, but it is worth putting all of this in perspective.

Emmanuel Mudiay was on his LAST CHANCE. He was almost certainly on his way out of the league, despite being fairly young. Now, he will enter 2019 in what is truly, honestly, the role he is suited for: third point guard/injury insurance player on a good team with the personnel to make up for his defensive ineptness should he ever (say, due to an injury to another point guard) require more minutes. In that role, his ability to drive and hit 7-foot pull-ups in streaky fashion can be managed and mitigated.

Fizdale got Mudi to somewhat focus his shots into those he was a little bit better at, even if he was not GREAT at those shots: open threes off the catch, shots at the rim, and 7-to-10-foot fades. As a third point guard who knows what he can and cannot do, he can likely remain in the NBA for another five years, if not more. That’s pretty good for a guy who could have easily ended up hooping in China (again)! We, as fans, always hope for the magical and sustainable outlier breakout, but really most of those are quite predictable in retrospect: Draymond Green and Siakam were dinged for age and not fitting the mold for established positions despite being immensely productive in college, for example. When coach said he would “get Mudiay right”, i’m sure he had his hopes set a bit higher, but i’ll tell you who is very, very happy with his development: Emmanuel Mudiay and his new new $1.5 million deal.

Verdict: Developed from unrosterable to third-string NBA point guard. Sneaky and solid!

Damyean Dotson

D-Dot had a weird season. The older second-round draft pick out of Houston finally became the respectable movement shooter we all thought he would be: not on the level of a Reggie Bullock or a JJ Redick, but orders of magnitude more deadly than any other shooter on the Knicks off screens. He shot 37 percent on catch-and-shoots, and missing a significant amount of open looks (with the nearest defender 4-6 ft he shot 30 percent from three) indicates he could possibly bump that percentage up a bit. Aside from shooting, he also continued to be an astonishingly poor finisher for someone of his strength and moderate athleticism, and continued to be a good-if-not-great defender. Finally, his defensive rebounding cratered, but I am willing to chalk that up to playing out of position at the 3 and even 4 sometimes.

Verdict: Developed into a two-way movement shooter. He’ll be in the league coming off benches for a long time, barring injury. Pretty solid.

Noah Vonleh

I’d say Vonleh was in a similar boat to Mudiay: young, but almost out of the league despite his youth. For a significant portion of the season, Vonleh seemed to be a consistent low-volume stretch 4, switchable on defense and respectable from three — even pushing 40 percent from deep for a few months — and then his shooting completely cratered, which had a landslide effect. Without his shooting, he was effectively useless on offense as a 4. As a 5 he was faster off the dribble, but playing at the 5 only highlighted how harmful his power forward defensive skillset (plus on the perimeter, minus at the rim) could be when miscast as a center.

So did he develop? It’s an odd question. The league is awash with 4s and 5s of all skillsets, and he was very close to being a hot bench commodity before the slump. However, like Mudi, he was almost out of the league, so the fact that he even had a 3-4 month stretch of positive two-way play is notable. He knows not only what he has to do, but that he has in fact done it before, which is more than he could say before he came under Fizdale’s tutelage.

Verdict: Developed from unrosterable to a potentially useful bench big with a nice floor and some upside to spare.

Luke Kornet

It cannot be stated enough that, despite how much we loved the UniKornet, he was astonishingly bad at certain big man things: namely finishing and and rebounding. However, this is 2019. The best teams either employ a franchise 5, or a rotation of 5s with different skillsets which include, yes, the skills of a guard at the 5 on offense without traditional big man things like rebounding or finishing. The man still is an elite (louder for people in the back: elite) rim protector, holding opponents to 57 percent (lower than Meech) at the rim, on top of being an extreme high-volume shooter with range well beyond the 3-point line. Sadly, demand for the UniKornet in the era of Brook Lopez was not quite as high as I expected. However, I think it is safe to say that an undrafted center securing a two-year deal and showing that his small sample size of shooting and shot blocking in 2017-18 was not an aberration counts for quite a bit as far as bench player development goes.

Verdict: Some small development, but probably was underrated to start with.

Kevin Knox

Knox is the perfect example of a player who can show some progress/development but still be really bad. He just has a lot of holes in his game to work on, and no player that flawed is going to solve ALL of that in 6-7 months, especially in their rookie year. Similar to his year at Kentucky, we saw one notable development over the second half of the season. At Kentucky, it was the discovery of his floater (now used far too often, causing many a rage quit in the Prez household) as a weapon to use over smaller collegiate defenders packing the paint. In New York, we saw tiny, tiny, tiny upticks in February and March in his assist percentage, the number of passes he made, his free throw rate, and his drives per game, which to me indicated a small improvement in his ball handling and his patience. It did not show up in improved results (points, efficiency, etc), but I hope this is a sign of improved handle coming into the new season, which would do wonders for his finishing, passing (let’s go from black hole to just regular ball hog, shall we?), and for our offense as a team.

Verdict: Small development that didn’t quite pay dividends and was hardly noticeable. Hopefully he has more in his second season, especially now that he won’t be a second-option type.

Mitchell Robinson

Ah, was Mitch a case of a player who was already great who people undervalued due to his college non-journey? Or was he skilled but flawed, and learned how to harness that due to training from Coach Fizdale? I personally would say it is mostly the former, but some of the latter too. The guy was a McDonald’s All-American who posted historic block rates in the Nike EYBL circuit. If you really read up on what happened to him going into college, to me it seems like he was taken advantage of: he originally committed to his choice college in part because of an assistant he knew well, who was eventually let go before the season began. Some folks on the internet were loudly predicting his being-undervalued too, especially at The Stepien.

On the other hand, we saw him come into the league foul-prone and a bit clueless, and by the end of the season, with the help of Fizdale (and maybe DeAndre Jordan), he had developed into a bit more cautious of a defender — and one who was less foul-prone (one foul every 5.9 minutes before the break, versus one every 6.7 minutes after). He also pretty much floated along as a 70 percent free throw shooter after the break, a far cry from his early months hovering between 40 and 50 percent.

Verdict: Mitch was underrated entering the season, but was developed pretty well in areas that matter tons for his role. He’s the closest thing to a flagship draft pick and flagship development project that the Perry-Fiz administration has.

Verdict on Knicks development in 2018-19

Miracles, by definition, don’t happen often. If you bring on players with more flaws, even after positive development they will have more flaws than players who enter your team ecosystem with less flaws. This is obvious, but easy to forget. This year will be much more telling as we see some players enter years two and three of developmental programs (Frank, DSJ, Kev, Meech, Trier) and see players with much more established strengths (despite flaws) join the fray (Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton). We will also see a player in R.J. Barrett who has flaws that are less dramatic than previous Knicks picks, making it potentially easier to develop some of those flaws into neutrals and develop some of his small strengths into BIG strengths.

Like I said in my introduction, while this stuff is important to all teams, it is even MORE important to the Knicks, because the front office has pursued an intentional strategy of drafting and signing athletic, aggressive, inefficient scorers with good size with the hopes that some of their (numerous) flaws are correctable. I look forward to seeing these kids change in 2019-20 as much as Perry does, and pray that the changes become more significant and noticeable than they have been the last two years.