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Development or Nah? Checking in on the young Knicks: Part 1

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How do some preseason predictions look halfway through the year?

What’s up, it’s Prez AKA Young Walt Clyde Phrases AKA Bootleg Shea Serrano Voice, here to check in on the younger Knickerboogers. At the end of the preseason I prognosticated about what we could expect in terms of skill development (and production!) during the 2019-20 season. Now that we are at the halfway point, it is time to hold my own hating ass accountable and review the footage and the stats.

Let me start by giving big shouts to Poster and Toaster extraordinaire Dallas Amico, Knicks/Draft Twitter stalwart Spencer Pearlman, and Knicks Film School’s Tom Piccolo for constantly sharing clips and shot charts from the young Knicks, making the production of this piece much easier for me.

Let’s get into it! Part 1 will cover Dennis Smith Jr., Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett. Part 2 will cover Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. This was written before the win versus Miami, so all stats predate that. The format will feature quotes from my preseason piece, followed by me making excuses for why my incorrect predictions were absolutely 100% not my fault in any way.

Mitchell Robinson

This preseason, I focused on his offseason “shooting” workouts:

“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.”

He hasn’t taken any threes, mostly because THE KNICKS ARE COWARDS. #FREEMITCHJUMPER. Maybe next year, Prez. He’s at 62% from the line, which is admittedly much lower than the 70 I was hoping for. Hopefully he can get that up a tick by season’s end.

How about the rest of his game? As has been documented all around Al Gore’s Internet, he has benefited more than any other Knick (though an argument can be made for Julius) from the coaching change. Miller has him involved as the central threat in many offensive sets by being in many a pick-and-roll (especially with Frank Ntilikina), and has him dropping back and guarding the perimeter less often, allowing him to contest more shots at the rim and foul less. 6.3 fouls per 36 in October/November, versus 4.8 fouls per 36 in December/January.

His rebounding and shot blocking are down a smidge, but that’s probably statistical noise. His DFG% at the rim is up to 59, which is actually pretty high given his prodigious talent. I know different sites have different metrics for that — I’m using NBA.com, for what it’s worth. Last year he was at 52%. It is tough to posit reasons why that might be; it could be because (especially late in games) his solution to avoiding foul trouble is just straight up not putting his hands up and hoping his reputation alone does the job of rim protection. He really needs to find a balance between handsy hack defense and hands-free defense.

For comparison, most other well-known rim protectors sit from 48 to 53% on NBA.com. His high number could also be because of his early-season struggles where he was fouling guys and not really sure what his job was on any given play. Could also just be noise: Spencer provided this halfcourt defensive shot chart and it says 48%, though that might be rim and the surrounding few feet, which would naturally be a lower number than only shots at the rim.

Finally, I would be stoned by Shwin and Dallas if I didn’t mention his improvement from “never makes contact on screens” to “brushing defenders lovingly when feeling intimate.” We never saw this last year:

For some more details on his screen setting, check out this thread from Dallas. Also, because of the sets we are running, he will even do veteran-ish maneuvers like reversing a screen if the initial isn’t there.

So is Mitch developing as expected, or nah? Not with the shooting (lolz) but he’s chugging along otherwise thanks to minor increases in responsibility, which require him to set more screens, pass more, even dribble once in a blue moon. He could probably develop more if they played him more than 20 fuckin’ minutes a game, though.

Dennis Smith Jr.

Man oh man, where to begin. He’s had a rough year.

Compare that to this:

Now look at this:

Aaaand look at this:

This was before he was introduced to Keith Smart! Hence my theory that this whole weird change in Smith Jr.’s shot began in Dallas, probably with an injury of some kind.

This preseason, all we heard from DSJ was 1) about him losing weight thanks to having a chef on board full-time and ditching Bojangles and 2) him reworking his jumpshot with Keith Smart.

After the preseason, this is what I wrote about the jumper:

“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.”

On the P&T Pod around the same time, I also suggested to Drew and Shwin that because of how terrible it looked, he was going to play himself out of the rotation completely. It didn’t happen immediately due to Elfrid’s injury, but it happened! We don’t have a good sample size because injuries and benching means he hasn’t played much... but you can see that the jumper continues to regress. Don’t need data for this one. It’s also botched his whole play style, which depends on leveraging the threat of a pull-up that was passably mediocre with great handle and explosiveness to get into the paint. Teams just sit back now (like in that first clip vs. Brooklyn).

So is DSJ developing, or nah? Definitely nah. He’ll probably be gone before the deadline, for some shitty 2nd rounder, and personally I think it is the right move. You hate to sell low, and you hate to acknowledge that the main player you got back in the KP deal ended up sucking, but this isn’t a Knox situation where he was a “project” (giant sarcastic air quotes there) — he is mechanically broken and injury prone. Time passed doesn’t project to correlate to even mild improvement anymore. It’s a sunk cost, sadly.

RJ Barrett

What a journey we’ve been on with young Rowan. Pre-draft, I was quite a hater. Mario Hezonja comparisons were thrown around willy-nilly. He began the regular season playing fucking point guard because our prior coach was incompetent. His first five games he averaged 18 points per game on 47% from the field, before beginning a slow, brutal march toward his current ~40% mark.

In preseason, what was I saying? Well, there was quite a lot...

  • His defense clearly appeared better than it was at Duke, and that was a welcome developmental surprise that most had no reason to believe was a preseason mirage.
  • Handles: Drew Hanlen said he put RJB on the Brad Beal plan, which took two years and change to pay off. Accordingly, I didn’t expect him to really showcase any notable handles this year.
  • Finishing (for this one I will indeed quote the preseason piece): “He was crappy near the rim at Duke (50%), 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% at the rim, which would be pretty good for a rookie.”
  • Jumper (also gonna quote for this one): “I’d expect a rough year, probably something like 30% from three and 65% from the line. What he can do to help is not take as many midrange shots.”

So... I am not going to hide the ball here. As many have pointed out, he is decidedly not making an immediate major impact like, say, Ja Morant, who was picked ahead of him and has shown more improvement (and, as an aside, has taken some elite traits he had in college to the bank as an NBA player, which is why I value those so much in draft analysis). Though, while Ja making such a dramatic impact so quick was a surprise to many, RJB not making one shouldn’t be a surprise. Anyhow, his shot chart is below, and it AWFUL. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t developed — my argument, as you’ll see below, is that he actually has had some meaningful development that hasn’t translated to his production yet. That nuance matters! Of course you want it to translate to production, but I think he is moving in the right direction. Non-star guards usually have one or two really rough seasons to start their career, and he is no different.

On top of that, he really needs spacing to drive since he’s not an above-the-rim finisher in the halfcourt, and he absolutely doesn’t have it (even if Miller has helped in that department a bit). Ja Morant, for example, is an above-the-rim finisher who has gotten significantly better at finishing, but also benefits from playing with bigs who will shoot threes. Jaren Jackson is a legitimate sniper, but even Jonas Valanciunas and Bruno Caboclo (!!!) will shoot ’em. That means opposing centers playing Memphis, even if they don’t respect those two, will stand 17 feet out instead of, say, 10 feet out like they do against Taj and Mitch. This is why my hot take of “not pushing Mitch to shoot is a coaching failure” is not really in jest at all. The point isn’t that Mitch can make them, the point is it helps everyone else if he takes them. /rant

OK! Enough fucking soapbox Prez, get to the point. What has he improved on (or not improved)?

Defense: Check the vid in Dallas’ tweet below and keep track of RJ the whole time. It is not uncommon to see him execute multiple actions without failing in a possession: he is physical with Robinson on the cut, gets around a screen and follows a sprinting Robinson up to the 3-point line, then makes a rotation/close-out successfully. Three for three. He wasn’t doing that at Duke.

He also does a good job of reading defense without gambling. Watch below as he boxes out Hayes, and in a split second realizes 1) Julius is back on Hayes, therefore it is OK for him to leave Hayes, and 2) the next pass from Hart in the corner to the top of the key is gonna ripe for the picking.

Handles: Ball handling doesn’t really improve for guys midseason. You are what you are and go work on it over the summer. We’ll see what his handles look like next year. He’s not starting from as low a baseline as Frank did, and you see where Frank is now — he’s made a couple people fall, which would have been unthinkable Frank’s rookie year. Brad Beal had the most dramatic trajectory of ball handling improvement, which is why Hanlen cites him as the gold standard among his clients — let’s hope RJB follows in his footsteps.

Finishing: You can see in that shot chart that he’s below league average around the rim. At the actual rim he shoots 55%, per Basketball Reference, which is a solid mark compared to him shooting 50% at the rim at Duke vs. worse competition. It’s not the 60% I was predicting in the preseason, so I will eat a bit of crow there. He gets a few easy dunks and layups in the halfcourt via cuts and in transition, which definitely helps his numbers here.

Still, he is much better with his right hand now than at Duke:

He still takes far too many bad-idea flip-shot layups, which is why there is a dramatic 10% difference at the rim versus around the rim for him. He shoots 43% on “layups,” per Basketball Reference. Frank and Elf, two dudes who are OK at the rim but not great (which is a startling thing to say about Frank, in a good way!) both shoot 49% on layups, for comparison. The following reel is from one game!

Miami Heat shooting coach Rob Fodor talks about “eyes and elbows make layups,” and what he means is that younger guys have to focus on looking at the rim, keeping their elbow tucked or aligned and not flailing about (think of your typical Knox baby giraffe rim foray brick) and keep their hand under the ball as much as possible in order to control the layup. If you rewatch RJ’s misses, you can see him struggling with some of those points of emphasis.

RJ will need to continue to work not only at technique, but also on decision making around the rim, shot selection, and understanding how to translate physicality into drawing free throws. He’s getting better, though!

Jumper: Not great! I predicted he’d end up at 30/65 from three and the free throw line, respectively. Right now he’s at 30/59. His free throw woes are well-documented, but he is trending up. In the short October schedule he shot 40%, and every month since then has ticked up: 55, 64, and 73%. I’m pretty confident he will end up right around 65 by year end.

As for the actual live game jumpers, if you go back up to that shot chart, the one redeeming number is his shooting from the corners (38%). Everywhere else, the jumper is very inconsistent. You guys know I love to be an armchair shooting coach, but I’m not gonna lie — RJB is kind of an enigma. His form isn’t great, but I can’t really put my finger on what things need changing the most. It has a lot of moving parts. I don’t have the technological knowhow to do a side-by-side of his jumper and a few other lefties — James Harden, Rodney Hood, D’Angelo Russell, Goran Dragic — but if you pull up any of their jumpers, there’s a lot less going on (especially in the lower body) and the shots look much more fluid, effortless and less aimed. Occasionally, RJ will have a fluid and easy-looking jumper, but it’s pretty rare:

Anecdotally, I feel like I have seen more of those later in the year than earlier, but I can’t prove that is anything other than recency bias.

So is RJ Barrett developing, or nah? I would say yes. His defense is improved. His finishing has improved a little bit from Duke. His jump-shooting is mostly still trash. His handle is what it is and he already knows how to use it to get into the paint with gusto. What does any of this mean for his prospects as an impact player? Really, it’s hard to tell just yet. The boring answer, I know, but unlike most of the NBA Media World, I am perfectly OK with giving a boring answer instead of trying to force-fit everything into some greater narrative.


That’s all for today, kids. Hope y’all enjoyed this! Frank and Kev will be the subject of my withering nitpicking soon for Part 2. Feel free to let me know how incredible my predictions were in the comments. If you have any criticism, please provide it to me on Twitter at @shwinnypooh.