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(Late) November mailbag part 3: team growth, player development & 2021’s top non-Cade Cunningham prospect

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This one’s all about the future.

High School Basketball: Hoophall West Tournament Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Part one of this mailbag dropped on Monday and part two hit Wednesday. Today, as Lieutenant Eckhart was once advised to do, we think about the future.

1) What non-tanking overall record represents a success for this team?

— TheWallBreakers

Last year’s Knicks’ winning percentage was .318, which over 82 games is 26 wins. This season is scheduled for 72 games, which has always seemed delusional, by which I mean homicidally callous.

If there were a “full” 72-game season and the Knicks went 32-40, that’d be the equivalent of 36 wins in 82 games, a 10-game improvement over last year’s pace. That’d be a success, for sure.

If you’re still carrying a torch for Mike Miller, a seemingly nice guy who did a fine job and who’d pro’ly still be the head coach if he looked more like Frank Ntilikina and less like Timothy Stack, the Knicks would need to win 27 games to match the .386 clip they put up under Miller. That would also be just about the worst of Thibodeau’s coaching career, so if you’re lucky enough not to live in New York state, where gambling and weed aren’t legal but gentrification is subsidized, I’d put decent money on the Knicks finishing over their projected win total this year.

2) As Knicks fans, do we know what good player development looks like for our young players? Is there anything to look for...beyond the usual metrics of win/loss and raw counting stats? I’m curious if good development would be apparent in analytic stats. What should we look for?

— LatvianPrankster

How do you balance the losing with the promise of development? I’m all for developing the young guys and heading into 2021 with a nice draft pick, but if we’re losing — and I doubt it’s only going to be because Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle went 1-for-40 with 20 turnovers — that means our young guys aren’t playing very well. How do the organization and fans keep high spirits throughout the season without coming to the idea that the players aren’t good enough to build around?

— TheJack20

After I shared LatvianPraknster’s post on Twitter, a friend and former student, Charles Hamma, wrote the following: “To me, good player development is more of an eye-test thing from year to year. I think that it’s based on overall mastery of both basketball and movement skills, which to the naked eye would look like a player who’s more confident in him or herself over time.” I like that: “would look like a player who’s more confident.”

I’m not sure what stats, if any, are most useful for measuring young player’s development. For me it depends on what they come in struggling with or trying to achieve. With Mitchell Robinson, for example, his ability to impact on both ends isn’t in question, but his ability to stay on the floor is. So the first numbers I’ll look at this year with him are minutes and fouls.

The eye test may give you an inkling of where the data leads — if you’re not seeing him bumping guards 30 feet from the hoop who are dribbling sideways, for example, his minutes will go up and so will his raw and advanced stats; in turn, you’ll likely see a more confident-looking player. From his rookie season to his second, M-Rob’s minutes went up 12% while his fouls per 36 fell 14%. Getting up to 30 minutes a game would mean a 30% jump in playing time. If he dropped his fouls per 36 by another 14%, he’d be right around Taj Gibson’s rate. If Mitch can do that, that’s development.

For RJ Barrett, it’s a different story. The first line of per-game stats below is his. The second is not.

We talk all the time about Barrett’s shooting as the key to his future. He’s young, and he seems to work hard, and we all need people to place our faith in. Sometimes I worry RJ’s shooting struggles at Duke and last year in New York are the rule and not some early-career exception. But then I decide that’s ridiculous. He’s so young! He seems to work hard! He was just 19! Progress is, if not inevitable, at least the likelier outcome.

The second player was 20 when he put up those numbers, numbers that earned him a spot on the All-Rookie Team. Like Barrett, he was a high lottery pick from a blue blood program. Like Barrett, he was multi-talented, averaging as many as 23.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 5 assists in different seasons. He made three All-Star teams and won a championship. And yet after a rookie slash line of 43/33/63, his career mark ended up an almost identical 41/33/63.

There’s no guarantee Barrett ends up paralleling Antoine Walker. One stat to follow this season if you’re hoping RJ hits a higher plane: shooting percentage. Walker showed no improvement from year one to year two; he just took more shots, including nearly doubling his three-point attempts.

The number I’d follow with RJ is his percentage of assisted field goals. Last year, 35% of his 2s and 94% of his 3s were set up by someone. Walker’s first few years were spent with better point guards than what Barrett enjoyed; playing alongside David Wesley and Archbishop Molloy legend Kenny Anderson his first four seasons, Walker had about 43% of his 2s and 92% of his 3s as a Celtic set-up by someone else. As his career went on, those numbers dropped; by the time he reached Miami it was down to 33%. If Barrett’s assisted percentage goes up, that will suggest improved play at the point, or at least that the offense is coming around. If that in turn helps his shooting accuracy, we could be in for a treat.

Regarding how best to balance losing and development as a fan, I treat these kinds of years as win-wins. If the Knicks wring every ounce of success they can from their veterans, primarily, they’ll be a losing team that pro’ly misses the playoffs. If they play the kids more, they’ll be a losing team that def misses the playoffs. For me, I accept right off the bat this team is unlikely to have much success this season no matter what they do. I always want to see them win, so for me every game is a victory of sorts: if they actually win, hooray for my team! if they lose, hopefully the youngsters don’t lose the lesson while the team gains some more ping pong balls.

Losing doesn’t necessarily mean your rookies and green prospects aren’t good enough. In the 2008-09 season, Oklahoma City, featuring Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as 20-year-olds, began the year 2-24, a winning percentage of .077. They went 21-35 the rest of the way, a .375 clip. You can suck — OKC was one loss from a 60-win season — and still feel like you’re making progress. That’s New York’s humble goal this year: suck, but don’t just suck.

If it helps any, I have a feeling 2021 will feature so much real-world darkness and depression that the Knicks won’t really make a dent in our already crumbling headspaces. And let me be the first of 18,763,558 people who will point out the Knicks will likely have cap space for two max players next summer and a top pick in a cheesecake draft. I know you’re tired of holding on, but just hold on a little while longer.

3) Who is your favorite non-Cade Cunningham prospect in the 2021 draft?

— alleyhoop 20

4) If you dunked the ball having jumped from beyond the 3-point line, would it count as a 3-pointer?

— blazenyc

Lotta weird stuff went down with this question.

  • First, I swore I remembered Olympic long-jumper and world-record holder Michael Powell dunking from the 3-point line and nearly killing himself after doing so. Nope. Never happened. Imagination 1, memory 0.

Hard as is it to believe, I couldn’t find any footage of anyone dunking from that far out. But it gets weirder.

  • I reached out to the official NBA Referees Twitter page in hopes of an answer. I felt encouraged, as their profile literally says “Encouraging communication, dialogue and transparency with NBA fans, while offering expertise from our elite group. Let’s talk.” Nope. Never happened. Reality 1, Hope 0.

After DMing them blazenyc’s question, they replied asking for a link to a prior mailbag, so they could “better understand how this information would be shared.” OK, I thought. No problem. I sent them a link to Monday’s part one. The next thing I heard from them was this:

I don’t know what’s so risqué about this question that they won’t answer it, but I also reached out to the official pages of ex-refs Steve Javie and Ronnie Nunn. So far, no answer from either. I feel if you dunk from that far out, it should be three points. But I know some will say once the player touches the rim, it’s now a two-pointer. So with no guidance from the zebra pantheon, let’s just make a decision here and now, as ourselves.

Poll

If someone dunks taking off from behind the arc, should it be worth 2 points or 3?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    2
    (76 votes)
  • 83%
    3
    (392 votes)
468 votes total Vote Now

5) Got any weird food combos that you love but everyone else always says is gross and you cannot figure out why? I LOVE chocolate ice cream with pineapple topping. Whenever I get it, people look at me like I am crazy and I do not understand why.

— gbaked

Combos? No. I love to mix foods together; the more, the merrier. I can’t think of any that really weird people out. I like strong flavors together, which my partner finds weird. Like, I’ll make a pesto alfredo pasta and barbecue ranch chicken or pork chops in duck sauce on the side and to her that’s just too much of too much.

Closest thing I can think of that people find odd is that I love to eat lemons straight-up. My grandmother used to live in Spanish Harlem, and growing up whenever we’d visit her she’d have lemon for me. It’s still my favorite fruit, pro’ly.

That’s all for your November-into-December mailbag. No one knows the future, but whenever it gets here I hope to see you in it. Much love.