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September mailbag, part two: rookie flaws, Knicks free agents, drafting late jewels & the meaning of life

Merry autumn!

Miami Heat v Denver Nuggets Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Hey. Part one featured some Chris Paul talk and a lot of film clips. Welcome to part deux.

1) For a prospect/rookie, what would you say is the most fixable area in their game where they might be lacking? I thought of this following a LaMelo Ball vs. Killian Hayes discussion, specifically the argument over Hayes’ left-hand dominance being a massive no-no. I was wondering how much of a hindrance that might be for a rookie, as opposed to other stuff like low FT% or turnovers to assists, etc.

— home made pizza?

Shoutout to my friend Jeremy from back in college. Anytime we played ball Jeremy would guard me, and whenever I had the ball he’d call out to the defense that I couldn’t go left. That always cracked me up, seeing as how he couldn’t stop me no matter where I drove. I’d go right to rub that in or left to do the same. Now I’m almost 42 and move around the court like a tectonic plate. Maybe Jeremy was just predicting the future. R.I.P., friend.

On some level everything that’s a weakness is going to get the same treatment. In baseball whatever pitch a hitter can’t hit is what he’s going to see when he’s behind in the count. The league will leverage that weakness anytime they can. The weaknesses home made pizza? lists strike me as different pitches, all of which are problematic if they’re problematic.

If a player can’t go left or right, defenses are going to force them that way, robbing them of their favorite moves and forcing them into maneuvers they’re not familiar or fluid with. That in turn could lead to more turnovers, or fewer assists; it could lead to a drop in confidence, which could negatively impact the player’s shooting from the field or the foul line. A devastating finisher at the rim who can’t hit from outside is going to have less room to drive; that could cut down on free throws and and-one opportunities, leading their total field goal percentage to plummet. Let’s apply these weaknesses to whoever the Knicks take in this year’s lottery. If my Ironic Fairy Godmother made me choose one flaw for that player, what would I pick?

Being one-hand dominant by the time you reach the NBA reminds me of my former piano students who, when they reached a difficult section in the music, would practice each hand separately. The temptation is understandable — if you’re struggling to put parts together, splitting them up cuts your workload in half while offering the quicker, if not instant, gratification of hearing each part sound correct. The problem with this is all your brain and hands learn is how to do half the job twice; to learn how to play them together, you have to master them together, as one. One-hand dominant players strike me as having built up so many bad habits and compensations that there are, like, deep-rooted problems there. Certainly players can improve their handle with years of practice, but I think it goes beyond the physical skill. I don’t know how much of your hard wiring changes after settling into that.

Certainly free throw percentage can improve significantly over a career — Karl Malone made just 48% from the line his rookie year; in his late 30s he was hitting nearly 80%. My concern with free throw percentage is that we overstate the correlation between accuracy from there with someone’s overall upside as a shooter, because we fail too often to take frequency into account. Frank Ntilikina shot 72% from the line his rookie year and last year was up to 86%. But he only gets there once a game, on average, so while that specific skill has improved, there isn’t a large enough sample size to draw any larger meaning from it. Ntilikina was a 32% shooter from deep his rookie year and he was 32% last year, too.

I think as players gain reps, the game slows down and their awareness of their place within sharpens. So RJ Barrett posting a 1.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover rate doesn’t faze me. Nor will it if whoever the Knicks draft this year does the same.

2) From players [signed] last year during free agency, which do you expect the Knicks to exercise the team option [on] and keep?

— marcus7

Bobby Portis figures to be gone; there’s too many areas of need to address versus giving him $15M to throw up nightmare fuel hook shots that make the heart lust for the artistry and accuracy of Wilton Norman Chamberlain.

THAT’S the shot Mitchell Robinson should be practicing.

Wayne Ellington costs $8M to bring back, is 32 and is coming off his worst-ever year shooting. Don’t see that happening. Taj Gibson played for Tom Thibodeau all five years Thibs coached the Bulls. I’d expect to see him back, perhaps on a new deal for two years at less annual pay but more total money. If you expand the question to include players with partial guarantees, then Mitch is a lock and so is Reggie Bullock. Elfrid Payton? That answer depends on whether the top keeps spinning or stops.

3) What are the odds that the 27th or 38th pick becomes the best player for the Knicks from this draft?

— PG Kawhi

I looked over the past 20 drafts, and since “best player” is always a matter of opinion, I looked at career win shares for every draftee from all 20 drafts. “Most productive” lends itself to just as many caveats as “best player,” but until someone in this lousy world pays me a living wage for this work, I gotta draw the line somewhere. Regarding PG Kawhi’s question, in the past 20 years there have been two instances where a draft’s career leader in win shares was drafted 27th or lower.

In 2014, the vaunted Andrew Wiggins/Jabari Parker draft (remember that when everyone’s telling you a particular draft is awesome...or sucks), Nikola Jokić was selected 41st by Denver, but is pretty comfortably tops in his class. Interestingly, the second- and third-leading win sharers that year? Clint Capela, taken 25th by Houston, and Dwight Powell, who went 45th to Charlotte before being traded three times over the next six months, finally finding a home in Dallas.

In 2011, Jimmy Butler was the 30th and final pick of the first round, by Chicago. Most would argue that despite Butler barely having more win shares than Kawhi Leonard, Board Man is the superior talent. Argue all you want. Parameters help keep the crazy at bay. And while Butler only has more win shares because he’s played about 3000 more minutes, it’s also to his credit that he’s played about 3000 more minutes. Also, Butler has his less-regarded Miami team two wins from the Finals, whereas Kawhi’s presumptive favorites from Los Angeles were knocked out in round two and left wondering just what the hell happened.

Perhaps more interesting were two unexpected findings: in every single one of the past 20 drafts, someone selected 27th or later ranks top-9 in their class in career win shares, including 12 who were top-3. There’s beauty in the breakdown:

2019 Eric Paschall (6th in win shares; drafted 41st)
2018 Mitchell Robinson (2nd, 36th)
2017 Monte Morris (7th, 51st)
2016 Pascal Siakam (2nd, 27th)
2015 Montrezl Harrell (3rd, 32nd)
2014 Jokić
2013 Rudy Gobert (2nd, 27th)
2012 Draymond Green (4th, 35th)
2011 Butler
2010 Hassan Whiteside (5th, 33rd)
2009 Danny Green (9th, 46th)
2008 DeAndre Jordan (2nd, 35th)
2007 Marc Gasol (3rd, 48th)
2006 Paul Millsap (3rd, 47th)
2005 David Lee (3rd, 30th)
2004 Trevor Ariza (5th, 43rd)
2003 Kyle Korver (6th, 51st)
2002 Carlos Boozer (2nd, 35th)
2001 Tony Parker (2nd, 28th)
2000 Michael Redd (4th, 43rd)

Right?! But it gets even more whoa: from 2001-2018, the player taken eighth, where the Knicks pick this November, finished with fewer career win shares than someone taken 27th or later. The only two times it didn’t happen: in 2000 Jamal Crawford went eighth to Chicago and ranks third in win shares among his peers, and last year’s eighth pick, Jaxson Hayes of New Orleans, is currently second in his class, trailing only Brandon Clarke. Here’s your 2001-2018 eighth picks and where they rank as far as win shares versus their contemporaries. Only once — Rudy Gay in 2006 — has an eighth pick ranked higher than eighth in their draft class for win shares:

2001 DeSagana Diop (24th)
2002 Chris Wilcox (12th)
2003 T.J. Ford (23rd)
2004 Rafael Araújo (45th)
2005 Channing Frye (14th)
2006 Rudy Gay (6th)
2007 Brandan Wright (15th)
2008 Joe Alexander (42nd)
2009 Jordan Hill (27th)
2010 Al-Farouq Aminu (11th)
2011 Brandon Knight (28th)
2012 Terrence Ross (11th)
2013 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (9th)
2014 Nik Stauskas (27th)
2015 Stanley Johnson (29th)
2016 Marquese Chriss (17th)
2017 Ntilikina (54th)
2018 Collin Sexton (27th)

You’ll note Ntilikina has the worst ranking relative to his class of any other eighth pick since 2000. Humility loves company just as much as misery, so this is where I point out that as I covered draft night 2017, I was utterly torn whether the Knicks should take Frank, Dennis Smith Jr. or Malik Monk. Three years hence, DSJ ranks right behind Ntilikina in career win shares, while Monk is a nothing-to-write-home-about 36th. Only one player taken that night is below Ntilikina and DSJ: Josh Jackson, who went fourth to Phoenix.

Maybe all the talk about New York’s lottery pick and packaging picks to move up is misguided. Maybe come draft night you’re better off tuning in to Mark Tatum’s portion of the program than Adam Silver’s.

4) What is the meaning of life?

— Heart Like John Starks

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, our hero seeks both the Holy Grail and his missing father, played by Sean Connery. Early in the film Indy is nearly killed by an unknown but noble character named Kazim. Jones learns Kazim knows where his father is; Kazim agrees to share this information in exchange for his freedom. As he prepares to depart, he asks Indiana, “Ask yourself. Why do you seek the cup of Christ? Is it for his glory? Or for yours?” Replace “cup of Christ” with “meaning of life.” Your answer will give you your answer.

I’m six and a half years into my time here at P&T, and still enjoying it as much as I did when I first joined and my heart danced anytime a single solitary soul commented on one of my fanposts. Y’all have been one of the only constants in life since then. Much love.