Unless you’re a draft junkie or cap expert, there isn’t a great amount of gratifying basketball stimulus right now, yet the sport has burrowed so deep into our brains that the internet is on its third round of discussing whether the Knicks should hypothetically think about trading for Russell Westbrook.
Many of the players we came to know in 2019-20 might be elsewhere whenever next season starts (Christmas time is still a possibility), and most of those staying put still have plenty to prove. The one thing we do know is that the draft will take place on Nov. 18, which is only a few weeks away. Thus, a new rookie will soon be suiting up in the orange and blue for the first time, and we’ll have a debut to get excited for again.
There really is no feeling like the hope that a neophyte will completely fulfill his potential and become the best player ever at his position, leading the Knicks to a decade-plus of championship-caliber basketball. Even former Knicks are yearning for the days of yore.
With that in mind, let’s use some of this down time to reminisce about the regular season debuts of New York’s recent first round draft picks. This is a backwards chronology, in that we’re going to start with last year’s third overall selection and work our way back, stopping before 2015, when the Knicks picked a tall foreign-born player who now lives and works in Dallas, Texas.
2019: RJ Barrett
The third overall pick last year, Barrett stormed onto the scene with an impressive inaugural showing on Oct. 23, 2019 against the Spurs in San Antonio. Though the Knicks lost by nine, Barrett’s stat line was bountiful: 21 points (9-13 from the field, 1-3 from three), 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals.
His 21 points were third on the team, behind Marcus Morris (26) and Julius Randle (25), and he was one of five Knicks with at least 2 steals — Elfrid Payton had 5, one of which led to the following Barrett slam dunk.
Barrett drove and dunked his way into our hearts, and even notched a nifty buzzer-beating layup at the end of the third quarter.
The 19-year-old, who started the game and played a little over 37 minutes, didn’t sound like a teenager from his postgame quotes:
“Like I’ve been saying, it’s a long game. You got to fight for 48 minutes. It was a tough one.”
2018: Kevin Knox
Strangely enough, Knox’s debut was the night of Allonzo Trier’s dunk. You know the dunk. It was, uncomfortably enough, his peak as a Knick. Ok fine, here’s the dunk.
Whoa— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) October 18, 2018
Zo Trier with the dunk in traffic pic.twitter.com/GLruBq20yJ
This isn’t about Trier, though. That guy was an undrafted rookie who is currently a free agent. This is Knox’s time to shine. Which, well, he didn’t exactly shine on night one.
Back on Oct. 17, 2018, the Knicks knocked the Hawks out of their nest, whereupon Atlanta tumbled through the sky before crashing onto the ground. It was a 126-107 bird bloodbath. Most of the scoring came from Tim Hardaway Jr. (31), with Enes Kanter (16) and Trier, Trey Burke and Mario Hezonja (15 apiece) also contributing.
Knox, who had been drafted ninth overall and was 19-years-old at the time, posted 10 points (he shot a barf-worthy 4-16 from the field, including 1-5 from deep), adding 2 steals and 1 block. You can watch the highlights if you want.
More importantly, he made up for his lackluster debut about two months later when he poured in 17 points during the first quarter alone in a December matchup with the Hawks at Madison Square Garden.
This section is emblematic of Knox’s career to date. He’s tantalizingly frustrating.
2017: Frank Ntilikina
Speaking of emblematic, please say hello to the eighth overall pick from 2017. Ntilikina played less than eight minutes in his debut against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Oct. 19, 2017. He missed both shots he took and went scoreless, adding only 1 assist, plus 1 turnover and 2 fouls.
It was OKC’s first game featuring the ‘big three’ of Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, so maybe head coach Jeff Hornacek didn’t want to feed his rookie to the hydra. Instead, Hornacek started Ramon Sessions at point guard. He played just under 21 minutes and finished with 3 points (1-3 from the field), 1 rebound, 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 block, plus 3 turnovers.
Ntilikina tweaked his ankle in practice the day after that blowout loss and missed two straight games, before coming back against the Brooklyn Nets and amassing 9 points (4-11 shooting), 5 assists, 2 rebounds and 1 steal. Frank’s rookie season, like his other two seasons, have been a lot like those first few weeks of his career. Lots of stops and starts. Lots of sputtering. Yet to hit a stride.
Ntilikina has averaged under 22 minutes per game in each of his first three seasons. One wonders how he might perform if consistently given 25 minutes a night. Alas, this is reality, folks. Since Frank’s debut literally doesn’t have highlights, here’s some video from his preseason debut, in which he recorded 5 points, 3 assists and 1 rebound in 18 minutes of action.
2016: The Knicks didn’t have a draft pick
It’s a little convoluted, but this was the case in part because of the original Carmelo Anthony trade in 2011, and in other part because of the Andrea Bargnani trade in 2013. Fun stuff!