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2019-20 Knicks Season Preview: Kevin Knox

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Will he fall into a sophomore slump or become a sophomore sensation?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks
Goal number one for next season: more photos of Knox celebrating.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Rookie Kevin Knox displayed flashes of potential as a potent offensive force with the length and athleticism to be a solid defender, but the former Kentucky Wildcat has a lot to prove going into his second season as a pro.

The 2019-20 campaign is a dangerous one for Knox. He’s no longer the darling teenager who dazzled during Summer League in 2018 and looked like the steal of the draft. He may have once seemed forever 19, but Knox is now 20 and coming off an up-and-down rookie season that certainly had some pleasant highs but also featured unwelcome periods of bleh.

The basic stats of Kevin Knox last year
basketball-reference.com

David Fizdale will probably give Knox the chance to show he deserves to be the starting small forward to begin the year, but things could get dark if he struggles early on and gets benched in favor of free agent acquisitions like Marcus Morris.

In order to earn his keep, Knox will have to improve upon a real seesaw of a rookie season, because seesaws are for children, which don’t belong in the NBA. Okay, enough about seesaws and who should or shouldn’t be playing on them. Let’s explore some goals we’ve got for Knox as he enters his sophomore year.

Goal 1: Fire out of the gate like a racehorse

Not to be all zoomorphic, but Knox has the frame to be built like a thoroughbred if he would just beef up a bit. Keeping with this horse-theme for a sentence, the best racehorses don’t dilly dally when the starting pistol is fired; they shoot out of the gate.

Knox looked good again in Summer League this year, but that was against inferior competition, and his game appeared pretty much the same as when we left it at the end of a 17-65 season. Which is to say his game looked tantalizing, but it remains unclear what exactly we should be expecting as the 2019-20 schedule kicks off.

Knox’s stats for 2019 Summer League
NBA.com

If he can blast into the season sinking long range shots at a high clip and weaving his way into the lane for layups and three-point plays, while also showing improvement in areas like ball handling, rebounding and defense, Knox could suddenly look like a star in the making. Which, yeah, most NBA players could look like stars in the making if they improved in every area, but Knox’s height and length, mixed with his potential as a shooter and playmaker, means he really does have a chance to be better than good.

Laugh all you want, but a rolled ankle three games into last season caused Knox to miss seven straight contests, and although those were the only games he’d miss, the injury disrupted his debut and he wound up playing an uneven season.

We haven’t heard any noise about Knox gaining 25 pounds of muscle or completely changing his diet, but don’t be fooled by that one Summer League play where Zion Williamson ripped the ball out of Knox’s hands like Knox was a baby and Zion was a giant. Knox says he feels stronger heading into year two, according to this article from Newsday’s Steve Popper, and if he can open the year with a series of strong showings, the haters and losers will begin to disappear.

Goal 2: Show some consistency

For most of last season — minus December when he won Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month — Knox was like a frustrating puppy. He seamlessly fit into the family one day, only to poop all over the carpet and endlessly bark at nothing the next.

Here are a few examples of that metaphor in basketball terms:

> In mid January, Knox followed a 31-point, 7-rebound performance at home against the Philadelphia 76ers with a 5-point, 4-rebound showing in D.C. against the Washington Wizards.

> Though he shot 34.3 percent from deep for the season and would sometimes look like a knockdown shooter for multiple games at a time, Knox hit just 29.4 percent of his threes for all of February. In March, meanwhile, he hit 43.1 percent of his threes.

> He had individual games of 15 and 10 rebounds, and he had exactly 10 rebounds three times, but Knox never strung together even two consecutive games with double digit boards. On 12 occasions, Knox played over 20 minutes but secured two or less rebounds. He had between zero and four rebounds 40 times in 75 games. He’s 6’9”.

Imagine if Knox’s numbers for the year could look like his numbers from last December, when he posted 17.1 points and 6 rebounds per game, scored 20 or more points six different times, and shot 38.4 percent from three. What if he could do stuff like that consistently for the whole season? Wouldn’t that be nice?

Goal 3: Improve his shooting, including free throws, plus pass a little more

We’ve discussed how it would be really cool if Knox upped that three point percentage, but in reality there is a lot of work to be done if he wants to avoid becoming known as an erratic marksman.

Last March, P&T’s very own Drew Steele, known across the internet as @ScooterToots, put together an extremely in-depth look at just how historically bad Knox had been to that point in the season. To put it succinctly, Knox wasn’t good. He was bad.

YIKES to some of these figures. Sixth percentile in effective field goal percentage and shooting percentage at the rim, and 82nd percentile in long-twos shot frequency? On top of the poor efficiency and shot profile, Knox is in the 79th percentile in usage rate and the sixth percentile in assist-to-usage ratio. He’s not only a low efficiency player, but also a high volume shooter who doesn’t pass. It’s the worst type of trifecta for a wing player.

The high-usage, low-efficiency scoring is something that is truly concerning. Of rookies who have played at least 300 minutes (37 total players) this season, Knox has the eighth-highest usage rate (22.4) while posting the sixth-worst true shooting percentage (46.4). When that rookie range becomes those qualified for the minutes-per-game leaderboard (25 total players), Knox has the seventh-highest usage rate and the second-worst true shooting percentage.

By the time last season came to a close, Knox had overall averages of 37 percent from the floor, 34.3 percent from three, and 38.7 percent from two. All of those figures will hopefully tick up since Knox is now a more experienced player who theoretically should have a better idea of when to shoot and when not to shoot.

He should also have more talented shooters surrounding him — sorry Mario Hezonja, Noah Vonleh and Emmanuel Mudiay, but it was a toss up every time any of you shot the ball outside of layup range — so hopefully he can up those assists per game from the paltry 1.1 he posted in 2018-19.

One way Knox can help himself with all of the above is by improving his free throw shooting, because when you’re a lock to make shots from the stripe, people don’t want to foul you, which can open up space. Suddenly, your three pointers are a little more open, or there’s room to drive to the hole, or your passing lanes become clearer because you have an extra half second to recognize your surroundings. In the NBA, even the tiniest bit of free space can make a massive difference.

At 71.7 percent, Knox was 13th in free throw percentage among Knickerbockers who took at least 30 free throws last season (he hit 162 of 226 attempts). Heck, Deandre Jordan, a career 46.6 percent free throw shooter, bested Knox significantly, hitting 51 of 66 free throws as a Knick, good for 77.3 percent.

The average NBA player shoots about 75 percent from the free throw line, and that figure has stayed consistent for decades, according to this 2009 story from the New York Times. Knox isn’t a bad free throw shooter, but right now he’s below average, which means teams can defend him without worrying too much about getting called for a foul and giving him two free shots. If Knox can inch his percentage upwards, his value will rise dramatically.

Win the MVP for both the regular season and NBA Finals

If Knox could accomplish this last goal, he’d join an illustrious list of players that includes LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Willis Reed, among a few others.

Wow, what a list.