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Development or Nah? Checking in on the young Knicks: Part 2

How do some preseason predictions look halfway through the year?

First: some things about Kobe, scroll down a tad if you wanna skip and get to Knox and Frank.

I didn’t know how much Kobe meant to me or what he meant to me as a symbol. I didn’t care for the Lakers and I enjoyed needling Kobe stans and Laker fanatics alike for all 25 years of my fandom.

What I didn’t realize was, oddly, how integral the NBA has been to my life and, by extension, how integral the NBA’s most omnipresent pillar during my adolescent and adult life — Kobe Bryant — was to that part of my identity. Probably a lil bit of a case of not seeing what is right under your nose.

As many fans my age have said, we saw Michael as kids and appreciated the second Finals run. However, there was a gap between his last title and LeBron’s emergence as a real GOAT contender. During that span, I I left my family in the Bronx to go to high school. I found my closest (also basketball-crazy) friends. I had a swirl of adolescent depression and good fortune, which made it hard for me to know if I was on my way in life or if I didn’t know anything about anything. All the while, my Knicks fandom flowered into a fun, thorny, masochistic obsession. Along the way, I played ball with my dad until he gave up the game due to knee surgeries at the ripe old age of 48. I’d play ball with my younger brother and older brothers, all of whom became coaches. I’d play ball with my friends from the hood, with my friends from boarding school. I’d play in new neighborhoods, and in new schools. I began a fantasy basketball league that is now around 15 years old now, give or take. I found P&T in 2007, right around when nephews and nieces began being born, and all of them also decided to play ball (and most of them became bandwagon Warriors fans) around the time I began writing more on P&T in comments.

Basketball, and really the NBA, threaded itself into my DNA, and Kobe was part and parcel of that part of my life unbeknownst to me. The NBA was [is] the color of the pages of my story, just kind of existing in the background unremarkably yet importantly, and now for the first time the color is different and I’ve never dealt with that or thought it would matter. And yet apparently it does, so here we are.

...OK! Now let’s get into what you all want to know: HAVE FRANK NTILIKINA AND KEVIN KNOX BECOME LESS BAD NBA PLAYERS SINCE LAST YEAR, OR AT LEAST THIS PRESEASON? For those that missed it, Part 1 covered Dennis Smith Jr., Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett. Way back when, when we hoped David Fizdale would lead us to a regular bad rebuilding year in preseason, I shared some observations and predictions for the year, and these 2 pieces are checking on how those turned out.

Kevin Knox

I’ve been pretty vocal when it comes to doubting Knox. The issue was never really work ethic or doubt that he would become better, but concern that there were too many things he was very bad at for his age to the point that even improving two or three things would still leave him a very below-average player.

So what were we saying at the beginning of the season? Instead, let’s look at what he said:

Preseason: “I’ve gotten a lot stronger. I’ve been in the weight room. Just my ball-handling. Just being more efficient around the floor.”

In the preseason piece we focused on whether it looked like his ball-handling, strength, and efficiency improved. I suggested that downgrading his role and improving his shot selection (less floaters, namely) would lead to a slightly more efficient year (only could go up from last year, right?). It is also worth noting something we didn’t know at the time — that injuries actually prevented him from working out much during the offseason.

Did his efficiency increase? It did... just not much as I had hoped. His efficiency gains have almost all come from two sources: 1) shooting much better at the rim, and 2) shot distribution changes. Last year he shot 50% from 0-3 feet (per Basketball-Reference) and this year that’s bumped up to 60%. At the rim, specifically, he went from 50% to 62%. He went from 40% to 44% on what B-Ref categorizes as layups, and went from 36% (12-33) to 5-7 (71%) on “hook shots.” The layup numbers are still bad — just not as bad as last year — if you’re wondering. Overall at the rim though, the numbers he has are solid for a young wing. Just goes to show you how much you can gain from small tweaks in shot selection. As I’ll show with some videos, he also has some low-hanging fruits in the finishing department he can pick off to continue to improve there.

As for shot distribution: his percentage of shots from 0-3 feet actually are down a smidge, from 22 to 19; his shots from 3 to 16 feet (AKA midrange and dumb floater range) are down from 25% of his shots to 19%; his 16 feet to 3-point range shots (AKA long twos) are down from 13% to 10%, and his 3-point frequency leapt up from 40% to 52% (unfortunately, he’s only at 33% on the season from distance). For what it’s worth, his free throw rate inched up from 25% to 28%, though his actual conversion percentage is down from 72 to 65, which is flat-out embarrassing, given that shooting is supposed to be his bedrock skill when everything else fails. Moral of the story: even if you suck at shooting, picking better shots to shoot can help a little... but when you have this many issues, you’re gonna need more than marginal gains to become a real rotation player.

Anyway, some quick hitter compilations of fun things I noticed. Here is Kevin bricking a ton of layups. See if you can notice commonalities:

Now, here are some rather stable looking makes!

I didn’t tally ’em up, but the difference between Knox’s percentages near the rim off of two feet versus off of one foot are positively astounding, especially when you take transition one-foot makes that are easier out of the calculus. If he gets a bit stronger (let’s say up to 220-225 pounds midseason), and if he can be a bit better off one foot and take more two-foot finishes, dare I say Knox might finally be a plus at **something** on offense! He needs to move like a power wing, not like a guard — that means gallops and two-foot take-offs. Even taking the pure explosiveness out of the picture, Zion is the best at this: he knows how to eat up space with pace, changing gallops leading to two-foot jumps.

Speaking of drives, his ball-handling is still a work in progress — not unlike Frank at the same age. He is beginning to fuck around with actual moves even if he looks slightly gone off the Henny sometimes while trying them:

Watch the nice low dribble here (followed by a terrible shot, lol):

Sadly, 90% of his drives look EXACTLY LIKE THIS:

You hate to see it, when he can be jumping off of two feet in traffic like this:

His path is usually a long, swooping arc to his right, with no change in dribble speed, trying to blindly power through for an unstable one-foot layup, with no interest in passing, stopping, hesitating, resetting, etc. (go back up to the bummy layup compilation and you’ll see a bunch of ’em). It’s not that his handle and finishing are so bad that he’s easy to guard, it’s that he is as predictable as you can fucking be if it isn’t a set play.

He has marginally improved his passing, going from an AST%/TO% of 6%/10% to 8%/8%. I’d wager the lower TO% is from a lower role, and that the higher AST% is almost entirely due to some proficiency in PnR from the top of the arc:

You love to see it. More, please! His gains are also from oops to Mitch, none of which happened under Fizdale. Miller has made this a go-to, and now they have a nice connection during their five minutes per game together:

How about his defense? Kevin has doubled his block percentage, which is notable. To all of 2%. His on-ball defense and attempts to get over screens continue to resemble honey pouring out of a jar. He has had more moments where he recognizes where to rotate than last year, but that isn’t saying much. I’m not gonna lie, I thought I had some clips of his defense from Knicks Twitter, but I couldn’t find them. I really don’t have much else to say here.

In my opinion, Kev has made strides this year. Period. But... he was starting from such a bad foundation of skills that it hasn’t really mattered in terms of output, especially when coupled with regression in his ability to hit jumpers and free throws. The icing on the awful cake is that between an offseason injury and dickish minutes allotments, he has barely played in the last seven months compared to any normal lottery pick coming off of his rookie year. I don’t doubt his work ethic, but he just doesn’t have things to fall back on like some of his peers. Let’s hope for a healthier 2020 and that the new front office can allow him to make some nice strides!

Frank Ntilikina

FRAAAANK! What did we say this preseason? We (and he) focused on his jumper and his handle: “Everything,” Ntilikina said when asked what he’s been working on. “My body, the way I handle the ball, the way I shoot the ball, the way I’m comfortable moving around with the ball and without. So I can improve and bring a lot to my team.”

Let’s start here:

Still bad, but that whole chart last year was COMPLETELY red. EVERYWHERE. Last year he wasn’t efficient anywhere, this year he has been reliable from the corners and from the right free throw line area, AKA his go-to pull-up out of the pick-and-roll. He’s also hit 88% from the line in limited attempts. He is at 54% at the rim, which you might not guess from the red near the hoop in the chart. That’s explained by him being 2-15 on the year from 3-10 feet. Touch on floaters and push shots, he has not.

But on the whole, he’s gone from 39% to 48% on layups. Put another way, he has gone from unconscionably bad to respectable. For comparison, Damyean Dotson (easily best at the rim among our guards) shoots 56% on layups, RJ Barrett and Knox shoot 43%, Randle shoots 53%, and Payton shoots 50%. He’s hitting basic layups with more regularity. He took the HOV bar to heart — “My homie Strick told dude finish your breakfast.” If you know, you know. If you don’t, ask me on Twitter or in the comments.

He still has inconsistent footwork and upper body mechanics on his threes, which is why he struggles with the further jumpers compared to the PnR pull-ups and free throws. Only inconsistent shooters do this:

What happens on this PUJIT is the opposite of mechanically stable:

Sacre bleu. They could pay me to do that, shiiit. Even in practice shooting he’s inconsistent: look at these two clips back-to-back, and see how in the second one the release is more compact, more upward, and less aimed than the shots he is taking pregame vs the Wizards:

Very rare are the instances where he has good rhythm and footwork, and a nice quick release like this:

As for his finishing, part of the better numbers at the rim are probably the result of being more aggressive and actually getting regular easy layups by exploiting mistakes made by the defenses when they are tested (i.e. by a pick-and-roll). That’s basically what happened on the read-react dunk he had vs. Portland, resulting in the kind of easy dunk he never got last year:

These kind of shots — along with his sort-of-trademark elbow pull-up — are also more readily available because of a handle that I would now grade out as passable for an NBA guard (though still below-average, but not fatally so for an NBA point guard).

He knows how to use the threat of a screen to make crosses more lethal, and has some tricky-feet offbeat crosses that most good guards and wings use often. The following clip begins with one of the former and is followed with one of the latter:

Here he uses a nice step-through in traffic, unbothered, to set up a nice pass — something we didn’t see back when he couldn’t drink legally:

In the following, he has two spicy moves: he goes around the back in traffic with confidence and strength, and he uses the threat of the screen for a cross — and he doesn’t telegraph it like he does many of his crossovers. This is NBA Guard 101 shit that is unremarkable for most guards in the league who handle the ball, but very novel for our son:

He’s still prone to bad handling moments sometimes, but this year they don’t as often result in cringe-y turnovers or passive, wasted possessions. Take the following break, where he has a few Cavs trailing, but only the tiny Darius Garland ahead of him. He pre-decides his move rather than reading Garland or trying to bait him one way or the other, or rather than just try to go OVER him:

He has probably improved more than Knox on the whole, but like his taller, slower, Majin-Buu-faced brother, he needs consistency to go with his improved finishing and offensive decision-making. For all these little improvements, he is still shooting 38/32/88, a horrible line for any age. Unlike Knox, he is good enough at other things that he is a useful bench player already thanks to his elite defense and his proficiency in the PnR (<3 you, Mike Miller):

THAT’S ALL, FOLKS! Here’s hoping the second half of the season is kinder to the kids’ jump-shots and their minutes played.

Adiós, kids!