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P&T March mailbag part one: RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and deserted islands

Gather ‘round, fam. It’s a new mailbag.

New York Knicks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

This morning I played Castlevania, a video game that came out in 1986. I had a bit of a hard time with Frankenstein. Pretty much cruised after that till the end, when I reached Dracula. He only needs to hit you four times to kill you. To beat Dracula, you have to hit him 32 times. So close, and yet...

Tonight I have to write two letters of recommendation and then find a job. So this mailbag time is a much-needed oasis of joy. Hope you get something good from it, too.

1) Which current or former Knick would you assign to mentor each of the young Knicks — RJ Barrett; Kevin Knox; Mitchell Robinson; Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson; Ignas Brezdeikis? [You] can’t assign the same mentor to more than [one] mentee.

— HaveATaco

RJ= Chauncey Billups. There are coincidental connections — both were the third pick in their drafts. Of greater interest to me are statistical and performance parallels. Their rookie per game numbers:

BILLUPS 28 minutes, 11.2 points, 3.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.2 turnovers, 37% FG, 33% 3P, .355 free throw rate, .445 eFG%

BARRETT 30 minutes, 14.3 points, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.2 turnovers, 40% FG, 32% 3P, .349 free throw rate, .445 eFG%

Billups shot just 41% over two years at the University of Colorado before turning pro, the same number he shot over his 17-year career. His mental and physical strength plus the versatility of his game are why he was named to three All-NBA teams, five All-Star games and the Hall of Fame. He’s also the oft-forgotten short answer to “When’s the last time the Knicks had a good point guard?”, averaging 17.5 points and a nearly 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ration over two months as a Knick in 2011 before they tragically picked up his option and then amnestied him months later.

Barrett’s field goal percentage at Duke was higher, though not because he’s a better shooter; RJ was much more efficient from two-point range, while Billups was always a plus from deep and at the free throw line. I see mental strength in Barrett. I could be projecting because I deeply want to believe in the messiah myth that the child of professional athletes, the godson of my favorite non-Knick ever, and someone who publicly expressed his desire to be a Knick before he was drafted here is The One destined to break the bad fortune of this cursed century.

Billups was powerfully built, strong and stockier than most point guards, a two-way player who could score, dish and rebound. Barrett is powerfully built, stronger than most players his age and even some older ones, a two-way talent who has already put up 27 points in one game, 15 rebounds in another and nine assists. I’d want Billups to mentor Barrett in tricks of the trade and the less-sexy but no-less-meaningful lessons relating to sustaining one’s drive and one’s self over the long haul.

I want Kevin Knox to work with a tag team of Steve Novak and Al Harrington. Novak because get Knox up to like 39% from deep and the court is gonna open up for him in ways he never imagined, like when Julia Roberts went shopping the second time in Pretty Woman.

I want Harrington to instill some of his delusionally delightful self-confidence into the Kentucky kid. Al was never afraid to shoot. Al was never afraid to hang on the rim and get technical fouls, even if it cost his team the game. Twice. Al was never afraid of anything. I think Knox’s natural not-being-Al-Harringtonness would help him draw the line somewhere just short of that. That’d be perfect.

Frank Ntilikina pairs well with David Lee. Lee entered the NBA as an athletic dude with surprising hops and skilled with both hands around the rim, and...that was pretty much it. Every year, he added something to his game: a better handle, a midrange jumper, better touch on his passes. He rose to average 20 points a game twice, without ever sacrificing his efficiency. The only time Lee ever shot below 50% from the field was his 30-game stint with the Celtics in his penultimate season, which really just makes him even more of a hero.

I don’t know where Frank will end up as a shooter. I think he took a step forward this year in his recognition of his need to take shots and sustaining his aggression in doing so, even when they weren’t falling. I think he could end up a good shooter, but he could also never really improve that much on where he is now. But with all the other ways one can impact a game, I’d love to see Ntilikina add some new element year after year. Keep tightening that dribble. Add some moves in the post — maybe a baseline turnaround over smaller guards. How about a wrong-foot floater? Little touches like that coupled with superior defense would give the Knicks something special, regardless of where he ends up as a shooter.

I’d assign Mitchell Robinson to work with Shmavid Shmlee. HaveATaco said I couldn’t pick the same mentor for two players, so I’m picking David Lee’s long-lost brother, a hooper and shepherd from the island of Mypos. I want Mitch adding something every year, too. It is terrible in the most beautiful way possible imagining a Swiss Army Mitch terrorizing the league in 2023, when games finally resume.

Damyean Dotson, go apprentice with Courtney Lee. I know it’s not exciting. But Dot has only averaged 650 minutes per season the last two years. Lee played three to four times as many minutes his whole first decade in the league. So I want Dotson paired with someone who can teach him what he needs to get on the floor, period. Maybe there’s a form he needs to fill out? Let Dot play 25 minutes a night for a decade and he’ll be fine.

Lastly, I’m assigning Iggy Brazdeikis to Rasheed Wallace. ‘Sheed was a two-way triple threat, same as Billups, and a dude who wasn’t afraid to go at or defend anybody: not Dirk, not KG, not Chris Webber, not Shaq (I mean, he still needed help against Shaq, but LITERALLY EVERYBODY did. If we go back in time and you wanna jump Bruce Lee, and I offer to help, and then he’s kicking our ass, you can’t blame me for Bruce Lee kicking our ass. That I even offered to stand beside you against Bruce Lee means in your metaphorical town I need never again pay for a drink). I think Brazdeikis has the potential to help a team in multiple ways, and I think the son of a professional MMA fighter won’t be afraid to mix it up with anybody he’s matched against any night. Listen to what Papa Sigitas says about his kid:

“Do you need to [fight]? No. If it comes to that? Yes...He knows how to fight, let’s say this. He knows how to fight...He knows how to fight...We moved from place to place, and we had to support each other...[The family had to] be like a fist. You can’t survive otherwise.”

Add a dash of ‘Sheed to Sigitas and you’ve got the recipe for a legit NBA bad-ass.

2) If James Wiseman is 75% of what Mitch is defensively, but a much superior offensive player, would you draft him number one overall?

— marcus7

No. To be even more Knick-centric and more emphatic: if I’m the Knicks I don’t draft Wiseman, period.

I ran a poll in a January recap after the Knicks played the Suns, asking if readers would rather have Deandre Ayton or Robinson. About two-thirds chose Ayton. It’s not a hot take. 21-year-old centers who put up 19 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks per game don’t come along all that often, especially in today’s “OMG no your tiny phone is so cute!” NBA.

The comp here seems best-case scenario for Wiseman versus Mitch: if he evolved into a 20/10 guy and could block a few shots a night, does that eclipse the more narrow brilliance of Robinson? I’d argue Mitch’s contributions are bigger. I’d also argue the most obvious stat in Mitch’s favor shouldn’t be overlooked.

Per 100 possession, the Knicks are six points better with Robinson on the floor than when he’s off. Given that New York had the fifth-worst net rating in the league, scoring 6.5 points per game fewer than their opponents, every time Mitch plays he’s basically raising Lazarus from the dead with one hand while using the other to feed 5,000 people with two fishes and five loaves of bread. He committed about one fewer foul per 36 minutes this season versus his rookie campaign, a significant improvement that was growing more pronounced as the season got deeper. He became a bigger factor on the offensive glass; there were a number of games with stretches where Robinson’s board work single-handedly kept the offense from total collapse, and every guard on this team owes him for the 5% shooting bump his rim runs bring them. The defense is still elite, and perhaps a bit less spectacular in exchange for greater comprehensiveness.

“But he’ll never draw a double-team and kick it cross-court for a wide-open three-pointer,” you may say. Odds are you’re right. Odds are far greater that Wiseman, like Ayton, will, someday. However, per 36 minutes, Ayton scores 20.6 a game. Robinson 15. I find that less meaningful than this: Ayton, no slouch as far as efficiency, (57% over his career from the field), needs nearly twice as many shots to score 20 (16.7) as Mitch does to reach 15 (8.7). If I can have superior defense and a guy who impacts the offense in a slew of different ways who also doesn’t need to take shots from other guys to do damage on both ends of the floor? I’m good.

3) Who on the current Knicks roster will win the most rings? Who on the current team will have the highest game high for points when it’s all said and done?

— WhyAlwaysMe?

Rings = Barrett. That dude has winner written all over him. He’s gonna win a couple. It just seems that way. If this were 10 years ago and the Spurs were still a thing, I’d say Dotson gets picked up in a quiet free-agent signing no one notices and ends up a fifth starter on a couple championship teams.

Most points in a single game? I think Knox has one bizarre explosion in him. You know how some dudes score 50 and you’re always shocked to hear it? Willie Burton. Tony Delk. Corey Brewer. Knox is gonna have one night like that in his career. For some reason I think it comes against the Nets.

4) Would you trade RJ + a future 1st for Donovan Mitchell? Is that enough compensation to Utah?

— knicksfan84

I wouldn’t. For Utah, it’s not nearly enough.

If I’m them, they’re not wrong. Mitchell is a 23-year-old legit combo guard who’s improved his scoring, shooting and most parts of his game over his first three seasons. There isn’t really any part of the floor where he struggles. Acquiring him would also single-handedly put an end to every jerk out there who wants to remind you that the Knicks drafted Ntilikina ahead of him.

But I’m not the Utah Jazz. My memories of Jeff Hornacek are hardly halcyon. I got too much style to ever cook without listening to music. The only Joseph Smith I care about was a sidewinding Mets reliever. I’d rather have Barrett and a first-round pick. Because I’m that high on Barrett, and because I choose to believe one of the future Knick firsts is going to pay off big-time. No logic here. Strictly a gut feeling. Or Charlie Brown thinking Lucy’s gotta keep the ball down someday soon.

5) Which Knick would you choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?

— fomalhaut

Sexually? Ntilikina. Otherwise, Walt Frazier. I think Clyde knows how to make island living a paradise after all those years in St. Croix. Plus he said in one of the last games of the year that when he’s in his hotel room he likes to watch the TV on mute. One of my lifelong joys is watching TV muted after 2:00 a.m. Clyde is my people. Being stranded on an island is like marriage: don’t just think about how they’ll look on the honeymoon. You could be in for the long haul. Choose someone you’re still gonna wanna hear talking years from now, when you’re both different people.

That’s all for part one, but there are two more mailbags coming. Y’all sent in a ton of good questions and we’ll get to them in the next few days. Miss you, everybody.